Pfizer and BioNTech’s Nov. 9, 2020 announcement that their vaccine is successful in preventing more than 90% of infections, is welcome news. However, it’s also important to stress that the better-than-expected results are preliminary and a successful vaccine by the end of 2020 isn’t a given yet. How does this news change the dynamic for work environments and remote work, especially with the second wave of the pandemic surging in the US, South America, Europe, Russia, and India?
It doesn’t. The transition to the hew hybrid model of work shows clear benefits for companies and employees and will continue. The Pfizer vaccine and others are still at least six months to a year away from being widely available.
Consider this: If approved, most people will be waiting a while to get the vaccine: The vaccine could receive FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) before the end of the year. It all depends on how the ongoing Phase 3 study progresses. The third week of November is the next milestone, which is when Pfizer will have two months of data on volunteers who have had their second dose of the vaccine. If there are no worrying side-effects, the vaccine could get EUA approval by the end of the year. If that’s the case, Pfizer says 50 million doses worldwide would be available by the end of 2020, with another 1.3 billion doses available by the end of 2021. While this will be record-setting distribution, most of the US and world will not be vaccinated in 2021.
The trends for the future world of work in 2021 will not change much due to this news. Why? The dye has already been cast. The pandemic shock has transitioned most office workers to remote workers. Many are moving to less expensive parts of the country, often closer to family. We will continue to leap forward to a more distributed, hybrid in-office and remote work environment due to its productivity and morale improvements and lower costs and reduced carbon emissions.
Research shows that at least half of remote workers want to remain working remotely two to three days a week, and about 18 percent five days a week, even after a successful vaccine is distributed. These workers will look for remote working benefits even after the pandemic abates.
In 2012, I led a team that implemented a remote work transition for Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA. We allowed 45 percent of the workforce to work remotely. We enjoyed a 22 percent increase in productivity, a $2 million annual reduction in real estate costs, better morale and improved ability to recruit top and more diverse talent.
The lessons from this successful transition are informative for today’s pandemic driven transition to the future office. Here are five key lessons you need to apply for 2021.
Defining remote workers. The formula for determining who can work from home is dependent on the technology, space and time these workers needs to perform their role. If their PC, cell phone, and strong broadband is all they need for technology and if ZOOM, teleconferences, and chat rooms are all they need for communications and collaboration with co-workers and customers, they can work from home. If they need to interact daily with technology or data available only in the office, manufacturing site, or R&D lab, they need to be there. If their work involves serving customers, working manufacturing they need to be the office or plant. If their work involves being on innovation teams, they need to be together face-to-face probably half the week, with the other half of the week left for remote work. This will give these employees the “head space” for fresh perspectives, as well as the time they need to write up analysis or reports.
In my experience, we ended up with about 45 percent of the work force working remotely, and about 15 percent of these workers being “work from anywhere” employees, not having to work at the home location or being in their sales territory around the country. Their pay was adjusted to the market pay of their residence. Our experience matches the findings of contemporary research.
Providing the necessary technology. In a sensing session I held with our prospective remote workers to learn their concerns, I will never forget the feedback from one marketing employee: “I don’t’ want to work remotely if it means I have to wait ten minutes for the file to open,” she said. We made the investments to improve broadband, cyper security, video conferring equipment, and chat rooms. We paid for the broadband of our remote workers and provided them with computers, cell phones and printers. It was key to our success. Today, there are even better options available to promote collaboration and to enable employees to get answers to questions they need without calling anyone. Stacey Harris, chief research officer at Sapient Insights Group notes that remote work was the top area of tech investment when it comes to talent management. The companies that make this investment, research shows, will be in the top quartile of their industries’ financial performance.
Defining new operating norms for the hybrid-workforce of remote and in-office workers. Operating norms were the number one determinant for the success of remote work. Critical for success were the communication norms to keep remote workers and in-office workers in touch with each other and to make sure everyone participated in the ongoing discussions of work, analysis and decision making. We required every team to set their own operating norms, which included the time expectations to respond to each other, where critical policies, procedures, updates and files would be stored, which meetings would be in-person vs. virtual, and transparent rules for decision making. We set a norm that any hallway discussion had to be shared with remote workers. We also had each employee work out with their managers, their down time each day to make sure they did not burn out. Our guidance for leaders was to build trust and continually ask ‘how are things going and what can I do to help?’ Unfortunately, many companies today have overlooked setting up new operating norms for hybrid workforces.
Assuring that learning, career and promotional opportunities for home-based workers match those of in-office employees. In another sensing session with prospective remote workers, one told me that she did “not want the workers in the office to believe that she was not passionate about her work and career and that she spent her day in her pajamas.” She and other remote workers were on our high potential list. We did not want to lose them due to concerns that their careers would stall because they chose to work remotely. The executive team made this our pledge: In all of our performance, pay and promotional review meetings, we ran the numbers to check for a bias against the remote workers. We also transitioned our learning to be a mix of online and in-office offerings across our learning curriculum. Today, hybrid learning models are still taking shape, but progress is being made, as explained in this article on rework.com.
Redefining the office. The research at the time we launched remote work showed that if workers did not come into the office one or two days a week, they lost their affinity for the company’s purpose, culture, and strategies. Contemporary research shows the same dynamic. Without pandemic fears at that time, we learned to hold staff meetings, goal setting meetings, performance management reviews, recognitions, and celebrations face-to-face. Key meets to review data, discuss new trends and to make decisions were held face-to-face. We structured the week to encourage remote workers to come into the office on the same days to promote informal discussions and socialization. Our office was reconfigured to allow more team and project rooms for such meetings, more places for socializing, and touchdown spaces, like at airports, for remote workers who had to get online. The office workers who came into work every day had cubes that afforded them privacy and would meet today’s standards for distancing.
The pandemic exposed a false narrative, often perpetuated by Silicon Valley high-tech firms, that being innovative means everyone has to be in the office. It simply isn’t true. However, innovation does require face-to-face time for common analysis, debate, and decision making, as well as “head clearing” time to think, review data and analysis, and to write reports. In one study of new product development teams at five European firms, researchers noted that remote working actually increased product development performance and the speed with which new innovations occurred.[i] However, this came with an important caveat: all organizations still had face-to-face contact, even with flexible work schedules.
As the pandemic abates, companies will be wise to design their office spaces as a place to safely reinforce the company’s purpose, culture, and strategies, and as a place to for innovation.
This week’s fantastic news from Pfizer provides the world hope that our battle with the deadly pandemic will give humanity the upper hand. The trajectory of the future office and remote work, however, is clear. We are headed to a new and better work environment that is more productive, innovative, safe, and will provide employees better experiences.
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 HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com.
[i] Coenen, M. and Kok, R.A.W. (2014). Workplace flexibility and new product development performance: The role of telework and flexible work schedules. European Management Journal 32(4), 567-76.