Long before the world knew there was a coronavirus, I, and a team of executives, implemented a flexible work environment enabling 45% of a medical device company workforce to work from home three to four days a week.
The result was a 22 percent productivity increase for each home-based worker, 20 minutes of improved productivity for each office-based worker per day, and higher morale, easier recruiting, and significantly lower turnover and real estate costs.
Our paradigm shift required an investment for a redesigned office environment, faster broadband, more digital file storage, and improved video-conferencing and cyber security. This investment was recouped in only one and a half months and led to annual savings of $2 million a year.
Executives in today’s COVID19 environment can achieve these same results and more with their own paradigm shift about remote work.
The organization with the successful transition to remote work–a business unit of Medtronic–began questioning its own paradigm about office work environments when it realized it had too many facilities that did not meet its changing business strategies. It needed less manufacturing space and more engineers, clinical researchers, and sales employees. But the cost of transforming the hard capital from manufacturing to offices was too expensive. Was it possible to hire the needed talent without having to make the overwhelming investment in facilities to provide each worker with a desk? Did we need all this space?
Looking at the numbers, it did not take us long to realize, we could enable a work-from-home workforce for nearly half of our office jobs without the traditional design for office space. But it would require a significant shift in our paradigm about work.
Research from May 2020 shows that 80 percent of office workers are now working from home due to COVID19. For both managers and employees, about 70 percent report that they are as productive or more productive than when they were in the office. Today, 50 percent of employees would like to continue working from home a few days a week. This represents a significant growth in at-home work for office workers. In this new environment, it is essential for executives to realize the world has changed for the long term and they must shift their paradigms and make the investments necessary to compete in this new environment.
Here are three imperatives we learned in making our paradigm shift to successfully implement remote work and a new office design.
The first imperative was a massive leap of faith: change our paradigm of where, when, and how work is successfully completed.
We asked some important questions. What technology was required for our workers and teams to do their work? What space was essential for them to be productive? What tools were necessary? We quickly realized that employees could work from home if they performed most of their work on their computers, could access the data they needed from shared servers, and would be happy with their communications using the phone, text, email, and video conferencing.
These employees were in occupations such as accounting, recruiting, IT, software, systems, supply chain, sales, and legal, to name a few. We had these workers come into the office one or two days a week to meet with their managers, attend staff meetings, receive recognitions, get in-person training, and attend long meetings where in-depth analysis was required or when they needed to help make significant decisions.
We already provided the technology, but we needed more of it for our home-based workers and to improve the employee experience. We invested in upgrades to the company’s broadband, file server space, video-conferencing, and cyber-security.
Regarding their space at home, we told our home-based workers they had to have a dedicated office environment at home, free from distractions, and a desk and chair that was ergonomically safe. We allowed them to take their ergonomic chair with them, and we provided them with home printers, a shredder, if they worked with sensitive materials, and we supplemented their WiFi bill.
No one was forced to work from home. About 90% of those given the opportunity to-work-from home chose to do so because they wanted to avoid the average hour-long commute every day, save approximately $4000 in gas every year, and enjoy more work-life balance. For the ones who choose not to work from home, it was mostly because the home office environment was not suitable due to the distractions of children or roommates, or they preferred the socialization at the office.
With the 55 percent of workers who needed to come into the office every day, we changed their office environment to provide them with the space, tools, and time they needed to complete their work. These employees were often engineers, scientists, or technicians whose work was integrated with technology available only in our labs. Or they were members of new product development teams that needed to be in the office about three to four days a week, or who needed access to data that was too sensitive to be on a digital file server.
The office environment for these workers changed in many ways. While they kept their dedicated cubes, we provided them the tools and space they told us in a survey they would need to be productive. This included a redesign of the office environment to significantly reduce interruptions. We changed our office space to include “huddle rooms” where employees could go without a conference room reservation to hold impromptu discussions, private discussions, or to make phone calls. We doubled our video conferencing rooms and upgraded the equipment for improved video and audio clarity. This cleared up a backlog for conference rooms, which was a surprising inhibitor to worker productivity. (Workers no longer had to roam the hallways looking for scarce unused video-conferencing rooms.) These changes allowed us to significantly downsize our real estate foot print, moving out of three locations.
After one year into the transition, we learned that many of the one-on-one meetings between managers and employees could also be done remotely. However, an overriding benefit for bringing employees into the office every week was maintaining the camaraderie of the workforce and keeping employees emotionally aligned with the company’s purpose and culture.
In the COIVD19 world, the requirements for social distancing will require changes to the physical dimensions of work spaces (allowing six feet of separation), huddle rooms, and conference rooms. While many companies have not re-opened their offices for fear of lawsuits and for the safety of their employees, companies will eventually need to open their offices, which means providing employees protective equipment, allowing for social distancing, staggering start times and days in the office, and meeting other CDC guidelines to create safe work spaces.
The second imperative was operating norms.
We had to create a new structure without the benefit of being in the office every day with its ritual of hallway and coffee-stand greetings, regular meetings, and hallway chats. We provided general advice for each team, but we also had each team come up with its own guidelines for these issues to improve acceptance of the new norms:
- Which meetings to keep or eliminate, and which ones had to be face-to-face, versus videoconference.
- Hierarchy for timely responses. Leaders or team members need to quickly get a hold of employees to provide information or expertise in any business environment. How would remote team members determine instantly which requests were urgent ones? We instituted a hierarchy that a phone call meant the need was urgent and required an immediate response, a text meant employees should respond within the hour, and an email meant by the end of the delay.
- Where would policies, files, and data be stored and how did employees gain access to them?
- How would decisions be made? While many teams had good decision-making norms, this transition was an excellent time to provide additional clarity.
The third imperative was to remind leaders of the most effective team leadership practices and the importance of patience and relationship building with each employee during this transition.
If change is to succeed, leaders must create shared vision, increase alignment, and build consensus. We needed leaders who first had confidence in this new virtual way of working and who could patiently lead their teams through the change. We emphasized to the leaders that they continual communicate priorities and changing circumstances. We said to check in with employees on how the new operating norms were working, their level of comfort, and their feeling of being included and supported while working from home. The leaders who did the best with this transition were the ones who exceeded at communications and building trust.
We also encouraged leaders to double down on effective delegation of work practices and being clear about goals and changing milestones. We emphasized providing continual development and performance feedback and frequent reinforcement.
Now is the time for companies to transition to permanent remote work for approximately half of its workforce, not as a temporary stopgap measure to continue operations during the COVID19 pandemic, but as part of making a make long term investment into the new office paradigm.
Are you ready to get started?
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting , managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform their HR operations, remote work, and recruiting, and to develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and cultures of innovation. His highly acclaimed book is Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com.