Four walls and a desk don't necessarily make an office; value creations often happen beyond the office walls. Work is something you do, an outcome, not a place or a time. Over the past 12 months or so, several top CEOs have declared remote work as the future of work. COVID-19 pandemic has taught us several lessons and opened our minds to new ways of working in the future.
Yet, despite the opportunities that the new ways of working bring forth, there remains a dilemma and debate around the sustainability of doing things this way, to be more specific - the sustainability of remote work or even hybrid work. Is hybrid’s shelf life tied to the existence of COVID-19? Are leaders truly thinking about newer ways of working or is the shift to remote a temporary fix?
Nearly a year after the outbreak of coronavirus that forced an overnight shift to remote working - which gradually was replaced by hybrid for many -- Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said, “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.”
On the contrary, Dell’s COO and Vice-Chairman Jeff Clarke believes that Dell has “moved beyond work as a location.” COVID-19 has made one thing clear to us: [Work] is something you do, an outcome, not a place or a time. And it takes teamwork and a culture that prioritizes outcomes and results over effort,” said Clarke. He added that while COVID-19 and remote work have presented new challenges, “we are seeing a human transformation right before our eyes, emphasizing trust, empathy, patience, and flexibility that will serve society and business long after these tough times are over.”
Clearly, one shoe does not fit all. However, even those leaders who are onboard with remote work now weren’t on the same page a year ago, not until they saw the results for themselves. So is it that mindset shift --that makes remote work acceptable now, among the key elements slowing down the pace of recovery for employers across the globe? Or is this agile mindset actually fast-tracking recovery? Let’s find out!
What’s keeping leaders from embracing remote or hybrid?
With the vaccinations heralding an end to the pandemic, business leaders can no longer sit on the fence when it comes to hybrid work, which is fast becoming part of the very fabric of how businesses are run, says Abe Smith, Head of International for Zoom Video Communications. ‘
’Consequently, many now have to grapple with what the new normal of work will look like as they prepare their offices for a safe return to work, experiment with a permanent shift to hybrid work, and its implications on office culture,” Abe adds.
It is a known truth that hybrid or more so remote working has enabled several employers to stay in business. Yet, the debate around productivity, engagement, and well-being concerns get split votes from leaders and employees across the globe. There are reports that suggest employees are better able to manage work-life as they work remotely, and there are parallel reports that suggest the mounting mental well-being concerns on account of blurring work-life boundaries.
How does such conflict playout for leaders? While the concept of remote working remained new to most, what was more critical in ensuring seamless implementation and experience was the mindset constraint. Doubts around employee productivity and commitment remained paramount, triggering a need to monitor work hours. And while one segment of the leaders remained paranoid around the efficiency in remote work, another segment recognized the need to be more trusting, more humane and felt the need to extend support be it infrastructure or wellness or collaboration, to ensure employees are doing well personally and are able to navigate the challenges.
COVID-19 in itself brought out the focus - tasks or people? What is the focus for leaders and managers? Sure it is crucial to ensure employees are performing and delivering on assigned tasks to ensure seamless workflows, but is monitoring them the only way to ensure that work is being done?
For those who have doubts about employee commitment, it might help to shift the focus to this question – are you confident that the people you hired and onboarded are capable and committed to their work, or do you feel otherwise?
According to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, the secret to successful hiring is to look for the people who want to change the world.” If they have hired this pool of talent, then leaders might be able to focus on other challenges, but if as a leader you are constantly concerned about employee commitment and performance on account of a change in where their desktops are placed, you need to pause and reflect - did you hire right?
Shifting the gears from reluctance to acceptance
If there is a need to learn from another to adapt and evolve it is now. COVID-19 challenged the beliefs of global leaders like never before, shifting perspectives not just to enable work a year ago, but pushing boundaries to contemplate making the temporary fix an altogether new approach to working and living. Here’s a look at how some of the leading Fortune 500 companies and their CEOs shifted gears and remained open to experimentation and acceptance.
In a May 2020 interview with New York Times, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressed caution against permanent remote work, suggesting that an all-remote setup would be “replacing one dogma with another dogma.”
Nudging leaders to think about the impact of long-term remote working, Nadella said, “What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like? What do that connectivity and the community building look like? One of the things I feel is maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remotely. What’s the measure for that?”
By October 2020, Microsoft’s EVP and Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan wrote in a blog post, “For now, returning to many of our offices around the world is still optional for employees, except for essential [on-site] roles. While we’ve shared that we will challenge long-held assumptions and seek to be at the forefront of what is possible leveraging technology, we have also communicated that we are not committing to having every employee work from anywhere, as we believe there is value in employees being together in the workplace...We will continue to evolve our approach to flexibility over time as we learn more.”
Google’s Sunder Pichai said back in May 2020 that the sudden shift to remote work was functioning primarily because team members hadn’t always been remote, and he was “curious to see what happens as we get into that three-to-six-month window and we get into things where we are doing something [remote] for the first time. How productive will we be when different teams who don’t normally work together have to come together for brainstorming, the creative process? We are going to have research, surveys, learn from data, learn what works.”
Cut to December 2020, Google was experimenting with permanent, flexible work options, including a schedule where teams work remotely several days each week and come to the office for “collaboration days.” Pichai said, “Ultimately, we are testing a hypothesis that a flexible work model will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, and [well-being]...No company at our scale has ever created a fully hybrid workforce model—though a few are starting to test it—so it will be interesting to try. We’ll approach these pilots with a spirit of innovation and an open mind, and do rigorous measurement along the way to help us learn and adapt.”
“There’s no replacement for face-to-face collaboration, but we have also learned a great deal about how we can get our work done outside of the office without sacrificing productivity or results,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“All of these learnings are important. When we’re on the other side of this pandemic, we will preserve everything that is great about Apple while incorporating the best of our transformations this year,” added Cook.
Morgan Stanley was among the first few financial services firms that adapted to the work-from-home arrangement, with leadership support right from the beginning. “Clearly, we’ve figured out how to operate with much less real estate,” said CEO James Gorman. “But could I see a future where, part of every week, certainly part of every month for a lot of our employees to be at home? Absolutely.” A few months into the pandemic Gorman stated, “I firmly believe that the office is important for mentoring, development, socialization, creativity, brainstorming—all the things you do together with others—but we can certainly be more flexible.”
One shoe does not fit all
The post-COVID-19 scenario maybe a whole new ballgame in many ways and there’s no tried and tested playbook for continuing to lead a resilient organization. As organizations are shifting from the traditional work-from-office, and the newer work modes, into the hybrid work model, leaders have the huge task of defining what work/tasks can be performed remotely and what would need to be done on-site.
“CFOs, already under pressure to tightly manage costs, clearly sense an opportunity to realize the cost benefits of a remote workforce. In fact, nearly a quarter of respondents said they will move at least 20 percent of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions.” In Gartner’s most recent survey, 20 percent of respondents indicated they have deferred on-premise technology spend, with an additional 12 percent planning to do so.
COVID-19 has been a never-before scenario for global leaders. While the right mindset and strategy are vital for leaders to come out stronger on the other side, how this mindset shapes the ability of individual organizations to scale their capabilities and performance is to look forward to.