“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what’s the nature of work and what’s the nature of the office, and why you go to the office…..I think it’s an exciting time to think about how work gets done.”
These words of Ron O’Hanley, CEO, State Street Corporation perfectly capture one of the true silver linings of an otherwise dark time for much of the planet. Covid forced an unprecedented experiment in remote working that proved it can be done at scale while maintaining or even increasing the productivity of most workers. Now that a return to the office is nearing, and in some places already underway, will corporate leaders heed the lessons learned from the past year to create a new, better work experience?
Create The Future Or Revert To The Past?
My fear is that many leaders will be keen to settle back into the way things were. Office configurations won’t change much except for hoteling, hot desking, and social distancing measures. Long hours in the office will rule once more. Face time will be again be favored. No serious examination of the inadequacies and counterproductive practices of the old way of in-person working will occur. If so, a huge opportunity to improve both the workplace experience and workforce outcomes will have been wasted.
Before Covid struck, few people worked remotely on a full-time or frequent basis. Estimates range from 4-7% of workers, which is strikingly small considering that according to one study, 37% of all jobs in the US can be done remotely. The pandemic forced company leaders to allow all workers who could perform their jobs from home on a full-time basis to do so – something most would never have agreed to if given the choice. Despite the challenges and downsides of remote working, this forced mass experiment has proven to be a resounding success. Most workers were as, or more, productive – enabling businesses to maintain their operations with nary a blip.
Now many corporate chieftains are anxious to bring back remote workers to the office on a regular basis. While there are a variety of reasons for this, a central driver is discomfort with subordinates having large degrees of freedom and autonomy. This resistance is rooted in a lack of trust in employees as well as poor management skills. It also reflects corporate cultures in which office politics and leadership favoritism hold sway over the career fates of workers.
On a strategic level, the events of the past year and a half have highlighted the power asymmetry of corporations over individual workers. In the case of white-collar workers, companies were forced to give them greater degrees of freedom. Remote working put them at a distance from some of the normal levers of corporate control. It shone a light on healthy corporate cultures and exposed unhealthy ones.
Today, a large segment of workers want to keep working from home at least part of the time while some leaders remain apprehensive. Tightening labor markets and growing turnover prospects provide further cause for concern. Indeed, 4 million workers in the U.S. voluntarily quit their jobs this past April and some studies have even reported that from one-third to two-thirds of remote workers would quit their jobs if required to return to the office full time.
When The Employee Child Becomes An Adult
Every June, a rite of passage occurs between parents and their progeny finishing their freshman year of college. (As the father of three college graduates, I’ve had a fair amount of experience dealing with this situation). Having tasted the freedoms and responsibilities of living on their own for the first time, these youngsters expect to be treated as the adults upon their return home for the summer break. Parents that insist on strictly maintaining past rules are sure to face a rebellion. Savvy parents recognize that it is time for the “parent-child” relationship to evolve to the next level. How that plays out will differ by family, but the net effect is a rebalancing of parent and child expectations of each other.
Employers and employees preparing to return to the office are facing a similar situation to the one described above. Those companies that already have mature, adult relationships with their workforce or that recognize the need for a recalibration should have little difficulty making the transition. Those wishing to reassert a heavy controlling hand over their staff should expect serious pushback and negative fallout, including turnover.
There is even more reason now for companies to treat their employees as mature adults. Covid accelerated a shift that was already underway toward more agile and distributed organizations and away from centralized command and control power structures. In order to sustain success in this new way of operating, leaders must be adept at communicating a compelling vision and guiding principles and comfortable with role modeling behaviors and allowing the broader organization to act in accordance with goals and values rather than compliance to strict procedures. They must also become comfortable delegating decision-making authority more widely throughout the organization. This includes granting workers some discretion to decide what working arrangements allow them to best reconcile their respective job-related and personal interests and commitments.
Progressive leaders are formulating new philosophies and models of work that enable worker autonomy. Says Siemens CEO Roland Busch, “The basis for this forward-looking working model is further development [of] our corporate culture. These changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office. We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results. With the new way of working, we’re motivating our employees while improving the company’s performance capabilities and sharpening Siemens’ profile as a flexible and attractive employer.”
Repurposing The Office
With so many workers proving they can do their jobs remotely, a key task for leaders is deciding what purpose the office should serve and what types of work should be done there (Pro tip: Ask your workforce). Offices have traditionally functioned as all-purpose workspaces (often suboptimized for most individual and group tasks). In the post-Covid era, they need to become primarily places to build culture, community and connections among the workforce.
This effort should take into account the types of one-on-one and group interactions that are well-suited to in-person encounters. Unstructured one-to-one activities where the full range of communication can be employed include networking, coaching, mentoring, relationship and trust building, learning by observation and unplanned interactions leading to new ideas.
Among the unstructured group activities that are easier to accomplish when everyone is physically in the same place are community building, team and trust building and maintenance, dynamic work requiring high levels of coordination, and group collaboration and complex problem solving.
An intentional redesign of the office environment is needed to better enable these types of work activities. Emphasis should be placed not only on performing work but also on creating meaningful social interactions among workers. Prior to Covid, when everyone had to show up to the office daily, a laissez faire approach to fostering team and cross-organizational interactions was common. In the new environment, these interactions need to be nudged along more purposefully.
This can be accomplished by regularly bringing people together to work on joint projects or participate in workshops in which teams of people from different departments work on problem solving or future oriented tasks. The value of scheduling regular time for informal interactions should also not be discounted. Among other benefits, these can help break down impermeable functional silos. Getting to know individuals over meals or fun activities can help to build bonds and trust among staff from different areas of the company who may not normally interact.
Greater awareness of the roles and contributions of everyone in the organization and better understanding of how different parts of the organization work will be among the among the results of these actions. Moreover, they will help to increase the sense of common purpose and inclusiveness among the workforce, especially if people from different organizational strata are put in situations that enable meaningful one-on-one and group interactions.
When You Come To A Fork In The Road Don’t Make A U-Turn
Before shifting out of the present remote working mode, organizations should be taking full advantage of the opportunity to redesign their workplace strategies to improve and sustain workforce wellbeing, engagement, and productivity. Returning to old way of working in the office would be squandering the chance to fix its inherent weaknesses. Companies should be taking a hard look at their cultures and office environments. This is a unique moment in which to identify and acknowledge outdated beliefs and norms and to create in-person working environments that enable rather than inhibit connection, teamworking, relationship building, innovation and productivity.