Don’t Return to Work; Reimagine it - IMD

Right now, people around the world are preparing to return to work in offices. Many companies are focused on the return to the office when they first should be reimagining work.

Telling employees, “You will spend x days in the office and x days at home each week” is causing substantial unhappiness. Why? In part because employees have transformed their lives, schedules, childcare arrangements, and other essential domestic support processes to fit working fully virtually. A transition back to spending time in the office will involve painful adjustments.

However, many employees also question the rationale for returning to the office on a rigidly prescribed schedule. They envision spending time sitting in their offices or cubicles doing work that they could be doing at home and being at home for meetings that would be better done in person. So, the worst of all worlds.

What many companies are missing is that we have learned a lot about what types of work can and cannot be done effectively virtually. Leaders need to start by figuring out the optimal way to work given the new virtual possibilities. Then they reason back from there to define the right balance of virtual and in-person interaction and supporting rhythms, processes, and tools. Only by doing this will they be able to make the right decisions about schedules and the use of space. They also need to empower their people to do this reimagination because the right answer will vary greatly depending on the nature of the work to be done, for example, in how much interdependence there is among team members.

Reimagining Work

The starting point for this reimagination is asking: What has operating 100% virtually taught us about what works and what doesn’t?

For 1:1 virtual work, interviews, reporting, and coaching all work well remotely. Most of what needs to be done 1:1 by team leaders with their reports can be done virtually.

But for teamwork, just coordination, information-sharing, and making simple decisions work well in the virtual mode. What doesn’t work well are team activities that require deep integration of knowledge and intensive dialogue and debate. These essential team activities are built on a foundation of personal connection and trust that is difficult to foster virtually.

We found four dimensions of impact in team and leadership development that are difficult to achieve and sustain without being physically together:

  1. Collaboration

  2. Innovation

  3. Acculturation (building a robust culture)

  4. Dedication (developing a sense of belonging )

We also have learned that Zoom is a great leveler. In a world where everyone is a tile, geographic proximity and physical size and presence become less critical. This makes it more likely that good ideas and solid thinking will win the day.

Implications for the future of work

As we move into the post-COVID world of work free of constraints on meeting in person, we expect to see a battle between social forces and economic forces; we believe economics will win in the end. Many people want to go back to working in person for at least some of the time because they miss the sense of connection and social interaction.

But the reality is that productivity is higher, and costs are lower when most employees spend most of their time working remotely. The potential reductions in real-estate and related costs for employees working virtually rapidly are becoming apparent.

We expect a new equilibrium eventually to be reached in which people come together physically in teams only when doing so creates value – for collaboration, innovation, acculturation, and dedication. Everything else will be done virtually.

As large companies figure out when working in-person does and does not create value, they will move inexorably toward this new equilibrium. Because if they don’t, their competitors will gain an advantage. It will be a sort of race to the bottom, where “the bottom” is a workforce that primarily works remotely. 

Implications for managing talent

There will be companies that continue to overly favor in-person work. They will do this because they haven’t confronted the reality that virtual is more productive than in-person for most work. Or they haven’t yet done the necessary analysis and optimization of work given what we have learned. So, there will be an adaptation curve.

Some companies may strategically seek to recruit valuable talent with the promise of more in-person time in teams. Smaller firms, especially creative ones, may decide to operate on a co-located basis and in a way that doesn’t create an undue cost disadvantage. But the economic forces will be hard for large companies to resist for long.

Implications for leadership

The implications for the future of leadership are profound and organizations will need leaders who can operate well in two very distinct modes.

For much of the time, they will operate in virtual coordination mode. This means establishing goals, monitoring progress, driving information sharing, and sustaining connections among colleagues working remotely. This will include almost all 1:1 oversight and coaching by leaders.

When their teams periodically come together in person to engage in deeper work, leaders will need to operate in face-to-face collaboration mode, fostering deep learning, innovation, acculturation, and dedication.

This multimodal work is changing the types of skills required leaders need to be successful. We also identified four roles that leaders will need to play as they adapt to managing a hybrid workforce. We called them Conductor, Catalyst, Coach, and Champion. Their relative importance will depend on the extent of team coordination and integration.

Implications for the future of the office

In the foreseeable future, the office, as we knew it pre-COVID-19, will cease to exist. Most 1:1 work and a lot of coordination work in teams will be done virtually, except in situations where physical work is required, for example, in labs and production facilities.

We will still need collaboration spaces, where teams come together periodically for work focusing on shared learning, innovation, acculturation, and connection, punctuating their routine of distributed virtual work.

Companies will need to have access to high-quality collaboration spaces, which many teams will share, and in which face-to-face meetings will be scheduled and supported.

Ultimately, companies’ essential physical infrastructure will consist of reliable access to collaboration spaces (potentially owned and operated by others). All other work will be done on a distributed, remote basis, either at home or in shared workspaces that people go to near their homes.

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