In April 2020, I started a podcast to think through the different workforce, HR and organisational impacts of the global shift to remote work. I called it the Abrupt Future—the words came to me as I was thinking about that abrupt change, as if the future was happening right now.
The idea of remote working wasn’t new to me, as for many years, I lived by the motto: “Work is where the laptop is”, working in different offices, at home, while traveling, at a client’s location, etc. This was different though—a new global experiment. Now everyone was working remotely, regardless of role or work preference, and that brings a lot of questions, especially if we are to have more of these alternative work arrangements in the future. I decided to have conversations with a variety of experts—HR, management consultants, academics, leaders, CEOs, start-up founders, remote work experts and an ex-military. Of all these conversations, a few key points stand out:
Your organization was already virtual. Yes, many people were commuting to an office every day, and you could think that work was a place and a physical location. Work, pre-pandemic, was already a network of digital, location-less interactions. You may be in an office, but you were likely already spending a lot of time on conference calls, shared documents, emails, IMs, Intranet, your mobile, etc. with people in other locations—or even in the same location. You could in theory, work in a local office and interact only with local colleagues who are in the same physical location without ever leaving your workspace and only relying on digital channels. If we stop romanticizing the so-called “water-cooler conversations”, we can see that working from home only added physical distance within a network of individuals who interact largely through communication and collaboration technologies. WhatsApp is the new water cooler.
Managerial trust has been the blocking factor. We have had the technology to enable remote work for more than 20 years now. How come it took a pandemic for everyone to realise that it is doable? Everyone I asked gave me the same answers: leaders and managers did not trust their employees. In most cases, most people proved that they can be trusted to work remotely. The best argument I heard is this: one of my guests, Dr. Laura Hambley Lovett, who previously wrote: “‘How can I manage someone that I can’t see?’ My answer to that is how do you know someone is working when you can see them? Are you looking over their shoulder? No. You’re emailing them from down the hall.”’ If you don’t have a result-oriented culture, remote work is not the problem. The next generation of managers will have to be comfortable not only with remote work, but remote leadership as well.
From traditional to distributed, it’s a continuum. Besides “office work”, “remote work” and “work from home”, we should be thinking a bit more broadly to really understand the space of possibilities and choose what makes more sense for each situation. At one end of the spectrum, you have the traditional office—everybody works in the same physical location during the same hours. At the other end of the spectrum lies the distributed organisation—the idea that a workplace can be anywhere (including offices if they are available to employees) and that work hours can be anytime—and you can even further stretch the continuum by adding the gig/contractor/freelancer—you could be working from anywhere, at any time, for any company. These 2 extreme archetypes (traditional and distributed) define the spectrum that needs to be considered. Leaders will have to think about remote work that is not necessarily from home (Do you support that? How? Co-working spaces, open offices, or just allocation for working expenses? Can your employees be hired in one remote location and move later? Should compensation be based on local market rate?); and they will need to think about remote work that is not necessarily in the same time zone—will you allow it? Enable it?
Nobody misses the commute. Maybe some people do, but in large part, commute was already a burden to many employees: the stress of driving or public transportation, the cost of commute, and/or the additional cost of real estate required to live in an area closer to work. Commuting also has an environmental impact and can be psychologically and physically painful. When surveys ask remote workers what they enjoy the most, the lack of commute is on the top of their minds. And vice-versa, commute is a big issue for office-based employees. Beyond the commute, the inflexibility of “business hours” create additional stress when employees have other non-work responsibilities (caring for kids or parents, for example). Workers around the world proved that they could maintain productivity remotely, so maybe they can drop the commute.
We need more asynchronous work. Speaking of time zones, organisations need to think about synchronous vs asynchronous work, i.e., work that is accomplished or coordinated with someone in real-time vs not. Every conference call and video meeting is synchronous—both parties need to be engaged in the interaction at the same time. Working by yourself on a presentation, then sending the first draft to your colleagues who sends their feedback the next day is asynchronous (or “async”, in short): you don’t expect a response right away. Everyone has examples of meetings that could have been an email or a threaded conversation on a collaboration platform (I will take anecdotes and numerous memes as evidence here!). Everyone knows what it feels like when you are in meetings back-to-back with no time for deep work, or when you have too many pings, slacks, texts or calls to focus on. Some tasks, and even some roles, require deep work or at least solitary work; some people perform better in a quiet environment—and the modern office with its open plan can be a giant distraction. Real-time conversations have a purpose—it can lead to faster decision-making, better team coordination, more personal connections and engagement, but making it the most common activity of a knowledge worker is a recipe for burnout. Fully remote companies like Doist aim for a 70% async communication, 25% sync, and 5% in-person (another form of sync communication).
Hybrid is not the solution. Hybrid has been presented as the new model for the post-pandemic workplace, where employees work sometimes from home and sometimes from in an office, either at will or on dedicated days. This is analogue thinking in a digital era, and organisations that cling to this model will lose talent. First, if the best a company has to offer is that you have the “right” to work from home, from time to time (or worse, on specific days that you either book or are told to choose), to many this will sound just as backward as being told that the only time you can watch a movie is when it’s on TV at 9pm this Friday. And it’s not just the Gen Z–we all have platforms like Netflix or Disney+ where we watch TV when and where we want to. This is the point of digitizing processes and experiences–you can carry them in your pocket and engage when you feel like it. Hybrid work and its binary thinking will also reinforce the dichotomy between “us” in the office and “them” working from home, even if belonging to either category can change. What about employees who live far from an office and those who live in different time zones? If organisations are willing to reduce sync work and let employees choose where they want to work (with physical offices if they chose to) from, this will widen the talent pool and create engagement and loyalty despite the distance. Moreover, this widening of the talent pool is not only geographical—distributed work will help open the aperture on talent from different horizons (socio-economic, gender, ethnic, etc.). Recruiting outside of big, expensive cities, will allow some groups to participate in the economic life and organisations to select talent without the filter of one’s current ability to afford an expensive rent or mortgage.
Think about the next generation of employees. Some leaders have a hard time imagining that their entire workforce can work from home, and that you can have meaningful relationships with people you barely meet “in real life”. Instead of looking at the attitudes of past generations, we should be thinking about the expectations of the next generations: the digital natives are happy to figure things out by themselves, looking up online the information they need, using async communication to discuss, relying on remote connectivity for live communication and meeting in person when needed. They shop online, meet and interact with people online and consume online content; they don’t necessarily want long meetings or conference calls. Plus, they want a life too: they don’t see the point in working 9 to 5 in an office when they could space their work hours throughout the days and blend their lives and their work as they see fit. Why 9 to 5? Some people enjoy early morning work, others enjoy late night work—if you can squeeze a workout, a nap, and family time during your “business hours”, and if the job gets done, who cares? They are used to consumer platforms with personalisation, access, and convenience—and they expect enterprise systems and corporate cultures to deliver that kind of experience, at minimum. Not understanding that is a sure way to turn off a large swath of that demographic.
People need resources and flexibility. Employees need resources, trust, and flexibility—if we are clear about outcomes and expectations and provide them with the tools to achieve them, they will deliver. These resources can be offices—a service provided to workers who want some socialization, who do not have the ability to work from home, who want some variety in their work location from time to time or who want to conduct some meetings face-to-face. If it’s a service (just like software for employees), a form of corporate co-working space, then people will use it if it brings some value to them. Make it an obligation, and you will fill the office with disengaged workers. GM dress code has been boiled down to “dress appropriately” —the new working code should be “work appropriately”.
With great autonomy comes great responsibility. For many years, some people were already living the anytime/anywhere/any organisation work-life: the so-called “digital nomads”—typically younger workers traveling while working remotely, often in South East Asia. They are the extreme end of the spectrum, although most of them leave the lifestyle after a few years. Still, in those years, they tend to develop certain skills that the worker of the future will need: (1) boundary-making—managing the boundaries (time and space) where work vs non-work happens. Whether it is selecting the device (work on laptop; life on mobile, for instance), the location (many of them use co-working space, not to work with others, but to avoid working and living in the same space) or the time of day, they have to learn how to create the moments that feel like work vs those who don’t; (2) time & distraction management—a related skill that has to do with boundaries within the activity of work—using tools and techniques to ensure focus, deep work and prioritisation of tasks. (3) branding & career management—as a “lone agent”, you must be the CEO of You Inc. and ensure that you are a trusted brand with a solid value proposition and that you strategically develop your skills by selecting the right kind of projects, advertising your capabilities, etc. These skills help remote workers maintain both their autonomy and productivity—we can learn from the fully “nomadic” tribes as we prepare for a world of “digital settlers”.
HR’s next job is change management for employers, not employees. For years, HR acted as a change management enabler: company buys a new enterprise software (or changes something important about their way of operating), the project team conducts the impact analysis and HR implements the mitigation strategies, be they training, communication or organisation structure redesign—except when the change is itself an HR software or process. While leaders and managers are key stakeholders involved in that process, the change management effort mostly concerned employees: it was about helping them adopt the tools, adapt to new ways of working and adjust to the new processes. To make their organisation successful, HR’s new mandate is to ensure that change management targets leaders, managers and all the top decision-makers in an organisation: this time, it’s them who need to adopt, adapt, and adjust to this new world. They need to be engaged, influenced and reassured; they need to be ready, willing and able. There is still a lot of resistance from analogue leaders to embrace digital work, but the cost of that resistance can be high: the global remote work experiment proved that it’s largely doable, and employees expect at least some flexibility.
We don’t know exactly how all this will unfold. But one thing is certain: the next phase of economic transformation will require iterative, agile and data-driven thinking. Organisations will have to experiment with frameworks and guidelines (rather than a rigid policy), find what work best for different roles and industries and evolve the framework based on objective results as well as employee feedback.