April 22, 2020
Setting aside the drastic personal tragedies, the financial devastation and the strain the virus has placed on government infrastructure, business, finance, and healthcare systems worldwide, the coronavirus has been able to achieve what legions of workplace strategists and change managers have been unable to do: encourage middle managers to give remote working a try.
Remote working, which I prefer to call “local working”, doesn’t just happen at home. It can include anything from working in the garden shed to a local coworking centre. In fact, there are on-demand workspaces in all shapes and sizes for us to choose when the lockdown ends. Unpicking remote working will help us to recognise that, although there are instances where working in the home isn’t possible or practical, there are other viable local options away from the mothership which don’t involve long, stressful, time-consuming commutes.
Swathes of managers have been reluctant to cede their command and control positions
An article featured in the Harvard Business Review some time ago argued that people working remotely were better managed than those ostensibly sitting under the boss’s nose. The article went on to explain that the reality of a dispersed workforce caused managers to be more deliberate and disciplined about communicating with, caring for, empathising with and managing their people. In contradiction to these findings, swathes of managers have been reluctant to cede their command and control positions and still see visibility as the prerequisite for successful leadership.
Few would deny the value of some face-to-face contact, however, the notion that they are in constant contact with employees is flawed. Countless utilisation studies demonstrate that in the average workplace between 50 and 75% of desks remain unused at any moment in time, indicating that managers charges are, by and large, somewhere else most of the time; as is, by the way, the manager.
So, accepting for a moment that people already work remotely from one another (even within the company office), consider the advantage of acknowledging this reality and taking steps to turn the phenomenon into a strategic business advantage.
By assuming that employees are working remotely, good managers execute disciplined contact, communication and access, that allows the entire team to stay in constant touch to share formal and informal business knowledge and social connections. This is in contrast with the often informal and unstructured process within a presenteeism culture.
If an employee is not “there”, he or she could be “anywhere”, which means that finding and attracting the best talent is no longer constrained by geographical proximity. The more distributed nature of team composition brings with it a diversity of thought and experience that is often a competitive advantage.
Communication and collaboration
Contemporary high-quality video collaboration technology is a level of engagement that is superior to the face-to-face experience. How often have we sat in a meeting room where we couldn’t see the screen properly or we couldn’t hear the speaker? Some participants are sending e-mails, others are in a separate chat with the person next to them, and the poor dial-in participants are significantly disadvantaged in what is an undemocratic situation. The best virtual meetings have the capacity to avoid most, if not all, of these shortcomings.
Even the very best of today’s corporate working environments pit the interests of those trying to do focused work with those anxious to collaborate: one person’s collaboration is another’s interruption. Noise, distractions, non-optimal lighting and temperature always appear on employee surveys as negatives from a personal productivity perspective, despite the fact that the very best activity-based workplaces are designed to provide employees with choices to self-select the most appropriate locations for each task. By making their own local workplace choice, people assume ownership and control over these factors.
Corporate real estate portfolio
As employees spend anywhere between 30-80% of their time on focused work, an enlightened real estate strategy might offer a new workplace proposition: focused work is achieved locally and the organisation’s core space is used solely to engage with customers and host collaboration and face-to-face connections between employees, partners and clients. By eliminating the focused work component, expectations are adjusted and new things become possible. The footprint will drop dramatically in size, and the space can be reconfigured to include state-of-the-art project space, creative social space and a branded engagement experience.
Additionally, the impact on occupancy costs would be transformational for many organisations.
Less space means major reductions in the organisation’s carbon footprint. It also means fewer visits to the workplace, which may dramatically reshape travel distribution more broadly across the whole day. Transportation systems would be less stressed and more efficient. The net effect would be a massive step in our efforts to combat global warming.
Now we have been forced to give remote working a try, perhaps we will witness a shift in outlook and approach so that this becomes a choice as opposed to a rule. Should the business world thoughtfully apply the lessons it is learning throughout this pandemic, the resulting system could be significantly more efficient and certainly more productive.
For one thing, there would be a decreased level of wear and tear on people and on the planet and few would argue against that as an attractive proposition in our fast-paced lives. The realisation that local working is not only doable but better may be the one element of the coronavirus crisis for which the world will be thankful.
Chris is one of the pioneers of new ways of working, having led Hewlett Packard’s early initiatives in the field of activity based working (ABW) and agile working. Today he works as the director of consulting for Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) and helps manage workplace management projects and agile workplace transformations