By Donncha Carroll

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Most of us are still amazed at how quickly companies have been able to pivot their operations to a work from home (WFH) model.  The speed and effectiveness at which we’ve made this change is a testament to leadership, teamwork, agility and ingenuity proving out the old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention”.  Now that most of us have experienced this new model for a couple of months or more, many are questioning the need to go back to the old ways of doing things. Do we need a daily trip to the office? Is that flight to another office or client location necessary or can we handle it by phone or video conference?

What Have We Learned?

As it happens, we’ve learned quite a bit. When the need is urgent, we can change how we do things much more quickly than we anticipated. Our people are more flexible, more resilient and can more easily adjust when we get aligned around what is necessary for the business to survive and thrive. Some of our long-held beliefs about ourselves and our people have changed forever as a result of this crisis. The WFH experiment is proving successful for many companies and they are starting to realize the benefits of maintaining this model over time, especially when we consider a possible extension of the period when social distancing is needed.

First, it keeps everyone safer during the current crisis while building the capability and flexibility to respond to the next one, and there will be others. Second, it helps employees to manage the challenges associated with achieving a good balance between work and home life. Finally, we’re starting to see the economic benefits associated with reduced travel and fewer physical locations, as we realize efficiency gains through new processes and the leveraging of technology for communications, team collaboration and automation.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Operating with parts or all of your workforce in a WFH model is very different and in some ways much more complex than our traditional office-based model. We have admirably muddled through the quick shift to working from home, but the change has real implications for culture and operating model over the longer term, and those changes are not yet fully apparent. We are doing our best to transition to this new way of working in a crisis but we would do well to think through the pluses and minuses associated with sustaining the change over time.

Three Questions to Ask & Answer

Having helped companies over the past decade design and implement WFH models, we believe there are three foundational questions you should answer as your company evaluates whether this temporary pivot, born out of necessity, is one that should be sustained in part or in full.

1.      What essential work can we accomplish efficiently and effectively in a remote model?

All work is on a spectrum of collaboration from self-contained and independently managed to highly interactive and team based.  As we think about transitioning to more remote work, the type, frequency and nature of interaction between roles must be a key consideration. That’s not to say you can’t collaborate remotely – far from it, but certain interactions require an in-person experience.  Think through the kinds of discussion that add value to the business, will the team be ideating or just sharing information as part of a well-defined process?  Is the work conceptual and visual with a more complex mode of communication that should engage multiple senses? Where is it important to bring different technical domains together to have both formal and informal interactions that lead to the innovations that create new products and services, or produce new operational efficiencies?
This is not a binary decision and remote work can be a primary mode of operation for certain roles, while simultaneously being part of a flexible working arrangement for teams that intermittently need in-person collaboration.  Work completed by teams that come together to solve a business problem and are successful because they have many different voices weighing in with a perspective will be challenging to accomplish remotely.

2.      How will working from home influence and impact our culture and our employee value proposition?

A WFH model can have significant implications for culture and your ability to acquire, engage, and retain the talent needed to succeed.  We have numerous clients, many of which are at their core, innovation-based companies, whose “secret sauce” is a work culture based on relationships born from proximity, rolling up your sleeves together, sharing ideas over coffee, traveling together, and sorting through ideas face-to-face over an evening drink or meal. Community, proximity and hand in hand collaboration form the foundation of how they operate and the employee value proposition that is fundamental to their success as serial innovators. If physical connectivity and collaboration are your secret sauce, we caution any wholesale move to a WFH model. Instead, consider how you’ve answered the question above and determine which roles should come back on campus given their importance to your particular model for success.  Target these roles for an accelerated return, while taking the appropriate steps to ensure the health and safety of your employees.

Conversely, we have clients whose culture is relationship-based but not core to their success. “Campus life” plays into their employee value proposition but the decision to keep some or all roles working from home is more of a change management challenge vs. a fundamental shift in business model.  While challenging, a permanent transition to a WFH model can be more attractive and easier to navigate for these businesses. So, take the time to understand what a permanent pivot to a remote model means for you. Engage your employees in the dialogue so that you identify and weigh up the consequences of either path.

3.      How can we realistically monitor and manage remote worker performance and engagement in this new model?

We cannot discuss the topic of working from home without running into questions about workforce productivity.  The experience we’ve gained working with clients that have made this transition point to three very important realities:

  • Most companies did not have a valid means to measure individual productivity when people were in the office, other than seeing who was present and how many hours they put in
  • Many organizations discovered that business output metrics, efficiency and quality were not significantly impacted in the transition to working from home bringing into question the need for direct oversight of the workforce
  • What is of great concern and what can and does seriously impact results are collaboration and employee engagement; both of which can readily be observed on campus but not easily in a WFH model

Luckily, we have technology platforms that are broadly adopted by businesses everywhere including Outlook, Teams, Box, Zoom, etc. Each one can provide a rich source of data to create insights around workforce collaboration, engagement and productivity. Together these systems can be used to paint an intricate picture of interaction, helping to identify and address challenges and in some cases revealing the patterns of success that you might want to promote. The generations that increasingly make up the workforce are comfortable and even expect enterprise data to be used in this way.  Additionally, our experience suggests that these kinds of analytics can be accomplished without being intrusive or risking a situation where employees believe they are being “spied upon”. In fact, the data can become a useful tool for employees themselves in helping them think through which relationships to invest in over time, to achieve their own personal goals. Companies contemplating a WFH model as the norm will need to build or contract for these capabilities to surface and address issues or opportunities arising from a remote model.

Parting Thoughts

The temporary pivot to a remote working model at scale is still an ongoing experiment, but the unexpected and significant gains achieved almost guarantees the model will be carried forward in some capacity. As with any experiment, the more experience and insight we can gain, the more effectively we can identity the challenges and unintended consequences of its adoption so that it enables development of a practical approach tailored to your business. The companies that use this period of experimentation well, will emerge with a competitive advantage in both operations and talent management that could secure their future success as we get back to some kind of normal.

To discuss a remote working model tailored to your business, contact us today.

For further insights on how organizations are managing the challenges of this moment, see How Safe, Smart, and Strong Leaders Can (Re)Build Agile Organizations and Resilient Organizations in Uncertain Times.

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