February 28, 2022
The covid-19 pandemic has drastically affected every aspect of our lives, whether it be in a personal, societal, or professional sense. One of the biggest changes to come from the pandemic is the impact it has had on workplaces, and what we now know our working world to be, including the advent for the first time of widespread hybrid working. Long gone are the days of long commutes, long days in the office and set working hours.
The impact on work flexibility has been enormous, and now, most office-based roles are hybrid across the board, with many office workers only spending less than half of their time in the office, and the rest of their time at home. This, of course, has had huge positives for both employers and employee. In terms of employees, they’ve experienced greater flexibility, more independence, or losing the stress of the daily commute. Plus, a majority prefer it: about two-thirds of workers want flexible working arrangements to stay now that coronavirus restrictions have ended.
And in terms of benefits to businesses, organisations that transition to flexible working operations can save money on office space, as well as expand their hiring pool beyond their geographic area. Research from Nick Bloom at Stanford has also found working from home has resulted in as much as a 13 per cent increase in productivity, allaying fears employees would get less done when hybrid working. There are obviously circumstances where all this is not the case, but many of the negative effects people anticipated haven’t materialised.
However, the shift to hybrid working is not a positive in every instance. There are also some clear negatives: the collapse of boundaries between work and home, many people lacking the space for a comfortable home office setup, and managers finding it harder to support their employees are just a few of the challenges people and organisations are still struggling with.
But what should be arguably of greatest concern is the lack of opportunities for non-structured interactions that can lead to information sharing and creative ideas. If flexible working arrangements become the norm going forward, the limited time in the office could become more valuable than ever before. This is particularly true if we look at it through the lens of customer value creation.
Most managers will agree that being customer-centric (i.e., putting customers’ needs at the centre of decision-making) is important in creating customer and financial value. Two core ideas have emerged in marketing about the ways in which companies can be customer-centric: a market-driven and a market-driving approach. Both will benefit significantly from making the most of our time in the office.
Being market-driven involves responding to customers’ expressed needs efficiently and effectively. It’s about being market oriented, by systematically generating market intelligence, disseminating it throughout the organisation, and responding to that intelligence effectively. Intelligence generation consists of collecting information about your market from sources such as customers, competitors, and collaborators. Intelligence dissemination is all about making sure that information reaches the right people at the right time within the organisation. The final stage, responsiveness to intelligence, is acting on that information to meet customers’ needs.
In small organisations, this can happen quite easily; if customers at a café think the coffee is too bitter, the barista can share that feedback with the owner, who might switch to a smoother blend. But in more complex organisations, this communication needs to be deliberately cultivated and managed from the top down.
Building a business culture of market orientation is easiest when people can meet, talk, interact, and otherwise communicate more freely with one another across all levels of an organisation. In a situation where everyone is working remotely, those open channels of communication can be difficult to encourage, especially across different teams who might not normally interact with one another. Someone in sales might not have much reason to talk to someone in IT, but if they did, they may stumble on a way to improve the customer checkout process.
Easily ignored emails, formal Zoom and Teams meetings and isolated Slack conversations might contain the information necessary to discover this opportunity, but, without a culture of customer-centricity and the encouragement of open communication, it is far less likely to happen.
A market-driving approach
Market driving is a proactive approach to customer-centricity, one that tries to anticipate customers’ emergent or latent needs through innovation. At its heart lies creativity, much of which can be driven by fostering social capital within the business. Social capital is a way to think about the relationships and shared values that make up an organisation; it highlights the value that can be generated from the networks and interactions between individuals in the organisation. This is extremely important, and, in a research study, I and my fellow researchers demonstrated companies with a high level of social capital can use it to boost their creativity, and through that, their business performance.
Working in isolation and only interacting in structured formats as part of a hybrid working culture makes social capital difficult to build and, creative collaboration harder to achieve. The water cooler effect, the idea that casual conversation can make people more productive and inspire creative ideas, is no longer there. Sometimes the most creative and powerful ideas originate from serendipitous moments and unplanned interactions. These things are difficult to replicate when people are working remotely.
How can a business make the most of the limited time together in the office? Managers need to look for any and every opportunity to bring people together when they can, particularly in casual situations. It means running more training days when people can be together or encouraging informal social events where they are possible. As the number of days that people are in the office dwindles, the value of that time spent together becomes so much more valuable.
Dr Omar Merlo is Associate Dean (External Relations) and Academic Director of the MSc Strategic Marketing programmes at Imperial College Business School. His main teaching, research and consulting interests are in the areas of strategic marketing, services and relationship management, customer engagement and customer management.