Things really aren't going back to the way they used to be, are they?
Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ transformative and outspoken founder and CEO, recently resorted to publicly pleading with his corporate employees to return to the office, and he’s hardly alone. More than two years since a global pandemic poured gasoline onto a workplace trend that had only just flickered to life, only about a third of full-time employees are back in the office full time. Ask nearly any CEO about encouraging workers to return and they’ll likely shake their heads. Actually, you don’t have to ask. When a survey invited executives to speculate on what percentage of their workforce would be back in the office five days a week in the future, the response was 50 percent. That was in 2021. Posing the same question in 2022, the response was 20 percent.
For the nearly two-thirds of the working population with hybrid work options, the flexible future has arrived. The trouble is, no one knows quite what that means or how to manage it. Creating and fostering a good remote culture, supporting more flexible ways of working, going from reimagining how, when and where an organization operates, to actually operating that way, requires more than a few amends to the company handbook. It’s not an arrangement, it’s a mind-set shift brought on by a sea change in our approach to work.
It’s also not too late to get started or to press reboot on an initial response gone awry. False starts have an important role to play. Learning from the mistakes others have made can help to ensure the transition to your company’s remote friendly workplace culture achieves success.
Fumbles, stumbles and hard-earned lessons
Plenty of organizations have made the decision to adopt a hybrid workplace strategy, and nearly as many have flailed in their initial attempt, unable to make much progress, apart from tinkering with their HR policies. It would be tempting to suggest the aforementioned sea change in our approach to work struck with the force of a sneaker wave, but that’s simply not the case. Pre-pandemic, many organizations already had flexible work arrangements on the books, policies that allowed employees to work remotely, reduce their hours, and allocate their time in their own interest. (Harvard published a comprehensive survey on this.) But when the pandemic did finally arrive, many of these same companies failed to react, much less to adapt. They continued working the same way, trying to shoehorn those perfunctorily written pre-pandemic policies into a traditional work model that no longer applied, because it no longer existed.
And therein lay the problem. As pandemic life stubbornly persisted, responses to the sudden disappearance of place-based work ranged from denial that a permanent change had indeed occurred to acknowledgement of the need to implement a new model (absent the new model itself). Then there were the in-betweeners, aware of the need to support flexible work options, alert to the benefits of doing so, but uncertain how to go about it.
One thing each of these responses had in common, however — they were crisis-driven when what was needed was a thoughtfully executed approach.
Thinking outside the “where”
Every reimagining begins with a frank admission: there’s no going back to the way things used to be. As relates to the newly emerging workplace era, this needs to be followed by a pledge to fundamentally rethink the “how”, “when” and, finally, “where” of how an organization operates.
To be sure, there’s more to fostering a successful workplace culture than issuing a well publicized plea or putting a policy in place that says everyone will come back for “X” number of days a week, or that plaintively throws up its hands and says, hey, just tell us what you want and we’ll give it to you.
Schultz is correct in the sense that action needs to be driven from the top down, with buy-in from every worker at every level. Where to start? Here’s a suggestion: Start with the what not the where.
What do you want to accomplish?
What is the culture you hope to create?
What are the guardrails?
How and where can you do all of that best?
One size won’t fit all, so playing follow the leader isn’t going to work. Aligning leadership with a clear objective is important and can be nearly as intimidating as solving the challenge of remote work in the first place. But absent an example at the top, there’s bound to be no follow through.
Then there’s the execution piece. Flexible work is intended to be people-centric – it doesn’t take a workplace flexibility consultant to recognize that high-performance flexibility can and does improve your employee’s well-being. A functional set of eyes and a little bit of empathy will do just fine. But it’s more than a people thing. Productivity matters, as well. Some would say it matters more than ever, which means any new workplace model needs to produce results. Working in a high-performing flexible way requires a specific skillset. Managers need to know how to manage remote employees; teams need to know how to coordinate – i.e. what is the task, how can it best be done, where should that happen? – individual employees need to know how to optimize their flexibility in a way that works for them and their employer. The office has a role to play in all of this, but it’s as an enabler of the work, one that supports what it is that is trying to be achieved. It’s not the setting against which any and all work must occur. Not anymore.
If you’ve read our recently published Happy People Hybrid Workplace Index, you’ll have seen our data demonstrating that the primary motivator for booking coworking spaces is for collaboration. So in-person culture building is still the priority of most. It’s just not going to look how it did before. It’s time to move on.
Operating across place, space and time sounds vaguely futuristic, a little trippy even, but it’s really a reflection of the here and now. The good news is that when you execute a flexible work strategy with thoughtful intention, people will be happier and productivity will likely increase. Teams will be more engaged, innovation will flow more freely. In fact, remote work productivity appears to be improving over time. An ongoing research group from Stanford and several other top universities found that remote work efficiency increased from 5% better than in-person in May 2020 to 9% in May 2022. It’s about the what, the how, and the when – not simply the where. Fixating on the where is a partial shift in mindset that keeps many would-be hybrid work adopters stuck in neutral, unable to gain significant traction. At the end of the day, “where” may not be a single place, it may be a series of places, or no “place” at all.
As with any sea change, fighting the current is a waste of valuable time and energy. Adapting is really the only option. Propose an initial model that you think will work. Underscore the fact that it’s an initial model, subject to change. Then test it, run a pilot, and see what needs to be improved. You’ll want to involve your team in the process because that’s where the answers lie. That’s where the magic is, too.
And you’ll want to do it now. Because while it’s a good idea to never waste a crisis, no one is saying you should wait for one. The sooner you embrace flexibility not simply as a necessity, but as a core strategy for your organization, the better off you and your people will be.