The context for this article
2020 has been a dramatic year. We, who survived the year, have experienced a worldwide crisis bigger than anything for at least three generations. Certainly since the second world war.
Whilst that crisis will end, its impact will not. As a result, lives and businesses will be changed dramatically. When we return to normal, which we certainly will, it will be to a ‘new normal’ of some sort. There will be differences in the world at all levels. And some of those differences will be important for businesses. Both in managing their existing operation and also because the competitive dynamics will change. New opportunities will emerge and previous ones will fade. The process of creative destruction will improve the economy as a whole, and will draw a clearer, possibly even dramatic distinction between winners and losers.
This article addresses one, narrow aspect of that change. It shares some thoughts and ideas from MD2MD members and elsewhere on how office work will be altered. On how remote, home and flexible working will become a permanent part of the employment model for most businesses. On how the role of the office will change. It also speculates upon and shares some ideas about how business leaders may need to manage differently. Note the language.
Whilst I have the good fortune to meet and engage with the thoughts of over 100 business leaders each month, I do not know the answer. What I can do is share what I’ve heard and what I think in order to provoke thoughts and encourage you, the business leader, to develop your own thinking. I hope the angles that I share will help you to reach a better answer for yourself, the business leader, and your business.
Why consider remote, home and flexible working?
Some business leaders hold a view that things will, sometime in 2021, return to normal. People will return to the offices and resume working as they did before. I think that they are wrong. I think that the crisis has shown businesses how economic, efficient and effective remote, home and flexible working can be (for certain people, managed well, in some roles.) I also contend that by being one of the best at managing flexible, remote and home working you will attract better staff, with greater life balance more easily and at a lower cost.
A balanced model
There will be service companies (like Facebook and Twitter) that decide to make home working their permanent new normal, like others who have always worked that way. However, I suspect that most businesses will retain an office base or bases as a hub, or because some part of their activity (like manufacturing) requires physical presence.
I also believe that there will be some businesses that, for one of a variety of reasons do choose to return to 100% office based, generally full time work.
That said, I do think that the majority will never return to their 2019 model. Having tasted the forbidden fruit of remote and online during the crisis of 2020, they have realised there are benefits to remote, flexible and home working that are worth keeping, even as the crisis subsides.
Offering immediate economic benefits
I won’t cover in depth the economic benefits as they are pretty obvious: savings in rent, heat light and power. In addition, possible savings in sundry office costs such as coffee and consumable, although they might need to be replaced for home workers. Probably the largest direct saving is the reduced space needed when at least some staff work from home some of the time. This is a saving which is clearly simplest and easiest to achieve when all staff work from home and the office becomes a meeting hub, alongside coffee shops and the many flexible ‘workspace’ offers now available.
More importantly, the potential to improve performance and attract great employees
For a few years Daniel Pink and others have championed the idea that people are less motivated by money than “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.” The crisis has shown employees that they do not have to spend up to four hours a day commuting. Some may even have gone further and changed their priorities to decide that even if that did remain the best way to progress their careers, they are now more interested in a more ‘sane’ lifestyle.
My view, based on my own experiences in many contexts and after listening to many discussions around remote, flexible and home working is that the crisis has accelerated an adjustment that had been happening slowly for many years. More importantly, it has created yet another opportunity for the smart SME to distinguish itself from it’s less smart, similarly sized competitors and more sluggish larger competitors. An opportunity they can grab by acting quickly and effectively in their approach to flexible, remote and home working. An opportunity to create a competitive advantage.
Despite impressions, a culture that may be easier to manage
Although it feels more difficult to develop and manage a culture when remote working. I suspect the reality is that it is no different to managing culture in an office. It may even be easier. Disruptive conversations and upset people can quickly and easily negatively affect the climate in a physical office. Being remote doesn’t necessarily stop that, but it does make it more easily controlled.
With a good, well implemented policy, you can reduce the traditional silo attitude that sometimes develops between departments or sites. No longer does the natural relationship between people sitting physically alongside each other in the same department need to dominate over the relationship between two people working in different roles on the same client. Nor a project or two people working in different offices.
Technology and remote working levels the playing field. With carefully planned communication processes, lateral, cross functional, cross site and cross hierarchical conversations, both formal and informal, can happen as easily as conversations between two people doing the same role in the same department.
The new normal is a challenge – and an opportunity
In my view the key shifts accelerated by the crisis include:
- Everyone understands that technology now exists (and is developing rapidly) that enables and support remote, home and flexible working
- Businesses now better understand the potential cost reductions, productivity improvements and performance benefits that can result from well managed remote, home and flexible working
- People’s attitudes have shifted. They now place a higher value on lifestyle and dislike unnecessary travel.
Most importantly many businesses have already recognised that the limit to their growth is the ability to recruit and retain top quality staff. Some are now recognising that being good at managing remote, home and flexible working is a key way of attracting and retaining the best staff (potentially from across the globe.)
Why does it matter?
Maintaining engagement and managing performance when teams comprise remote staff is now an important management challenge requiring new structures, approaches and .behaviours. That said, it is not easy, especially if you and your business was, until the crisis entirely ran in-person. Typical questions posed at recent MD2MD meetings include:
- How do I keep staff engaged when they aren’t in the office
- How do we cross fertilise ideas when everyone is working in isolation?
- How do I develop and manage culture when staff are remote?
These longstanding questions have been compounded in importance by the crisis. People feel insecure and the employment impact of the crisis creates fear. So our people need more support than ever. Meanwhile, our ability to tune in to those feelings and to provide this support is reduced or at least challenged. In-person meetings are more difficult and staff are simply out of sight. As a result, addressing the challenges of change has become much more difficult.
Some of the other topics explored in the full downloadable article are:
- The underlying principles of remote working – showing you care and how.
- Practical business actions – how to adapt to both home and office working.
- Personal business actions – planning communication effectively and the importance of measuring performance by outcomes.
- Remote working behaviours – You, the leader, and your line managers.