As companies and individuals navigate a return to the office, here are some considerations one should keep in mind.
The Future of Work will be increasingly distributed and unbundled.
There is no going back to December 2019 -- only a move ahead into 2022 and beyond. The COVID-19 lockdowns underlined that the way many of us were working two years ago was not significantly different than the way we operated in 1980, despite a plethora of changes from advanced computing to new communication technologies to a huge increase of women in the workplace.
After two years of working differently with little if any decline in productivity the scales have fallen off our eyes and every individual is re-thinking work in several ways:
Our thoughts about work today are like champagne corks. They have swelled with the new possibilities and will no longer fit into 2019 vintage.
There are many benefits to in-person interaction, but most of them do not require sitting in an office all day or for five days a week.
The three key benefits that in-person interaction bring are learning, relationship building and problem solving/creative idea generation.
Learning. There is a belief that some flavors of learning uniquely come from watching others in action or being mentored by bosses in an apprentice/guild like model. This is probably true for many industries and particularly for people early in their career or new to a company.
Relationship/Network Building. While relationships can be built online (for example dating apps), the reality is that some in-person meetings can help deepen and strengthen relationships. The best relationships combine the physical and the virtual, so some in-person interaction makes sense for many.
Problem Solving/Creative Idea Generation. If innovation is about fresh insightful connections, then the give and take between people can be a real asset. Whether it be the unexpected interaction between two colleagues or the in person back and forth of a brainstorming, these are benefits that result from being together.
But we should recognize that for creative brainstorming many people would leave the office to go off-site, building relationships and networks often took place at restaurants, bars, coffee shops and events and learning occurred at conferences and specialized training programs. The key is that many of these occur out of the office, take up less than a third to half of a working week and need to be scheduled and programmed versus just happening by chance.
Unbundled and Distributed work enable significant competitive advantages to companies that embrace them.
Imagine if you were a company starting today and were asked to choose between Door A and Door B.
Door A. You are limited to accessing talent who can afford to live near your headquarters or must work full time. This talent only works for you and is reliant on their entire income on you which could make them loyal but also potentially less likely to challenge the status quo since they may have limited optionality.
This door gives you great control over your people and a return to a simpler way to manage and organize.
Door B. You can access talent from anywhere in the world and they can work for you half, three quarters or full time giving them and you the ability for variability in employee cost and giving them the flexibility to fit their work into their life versus fitting their life into their work.
This door gives you the ability to hire diverse talent and attract people from everywhere in the world while giving you flexibility on cost management but increases complexity and requires enhanced management styles.
For businesses needing to attract white-collar and knowledge workers, asking people to return to the office for three or four or five days a week (versus coming together for specific training, creative or relationship building events) is in effect choosing Door A and will likely leave these firms at significant competitive disadvantage to companies that choose Door B and find a way through its initial messiness and complexity.
In-person interaction should be the focus versus returning to the office.
Six simple steps for every company to consider:
These steps communicate that you are looking forward, trying to balance the best of both worlds, and reflecting that talent looks for freedom, to fit their work into their life story and want growth (skills, personal development, career opportunities, income).
This approach is likely to attract and retain talent while ensuring a company's culture and competitiveness.
It will not, however, work for everyone … and a company at some stage may have to part with talented individuals who refuse to be flexible in their ways by rejecting all in-person work or working to undermine the new model. While losing talent especially stars is not ideal, a company is more than any one or two or three individuals and a certain framework is essential for fairness and cultural cohesiveness.
The real challenge will be on leaders and managers who will now need to truly up their skills in enabling, inspiring and motivating talent.
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