Many executives cling to the hope that COVID-19 vaccines will abate the pandemic and allow a return to normal, with remote workers back in the office. They remind me of a VP of Clinical Research who initially resisted our remote work program in 2012 at Medtronic. Initially fearing she would lose control of her office staff, she had an epiphany — based on her employees.
“Why have I been resisting this?” she asked me in my office. “My field-based clinical research employees work from their homes now, visiting hospitals across the country and the world. They are extremely productive. If it can work for them, why not for my office staff in Santa Rosa?” Eureka.
Exactly, I told her. She had a successful remote work program with her clinical field organization under her nose for years. Still, it never occurred to her that it could be replicated at our corporate office.
Today, many executives have this same resistance to remote work and redesigning the office, despite the success of remote work the past nine months. These executives worry that remote work stymies innovation, erodes employee loyalty, and burdens employees. Their worry is legitimate, but these concerns can be easily overcome by how they design their remote work and new office environments. Many I speak with cling to the idea that everything works better co-located in the office.
The good old days always sound nostalgic. Change is difficult. But why return to a normal that generated high real estate costs, was an unproductive office environment, and wasted time and money for employees with long commutes? Besides, research shows that half of your office workers do not want a return to normal. They are as productive or more productive now than when they worked full time in the office.
Now is the time to optimize remote work and redefine the role of the office.
In 2012, I led an executive team that implemented a remote work transition for Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA. Our purpose was not to avoid a pandemic. We needed to avoid the high cost of transitioning manufacturing space to office space and save $2 million a year to fund essential research and development for the business’s growth.
We allowed 45 percent of the workforce to work remotely. We enjoyed a 22 percent increase in productivity with remote workers, a $2 million annual reduction in real estate costs, better morale and work-life balance, and improved ability to recruit top and more diverse talent.
The lessons from this successful transition are informative for today’s pandemic driven evolution to the future office. Here are six 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 need to perform their jobs. If their PC, cell phone, and robust broadband are 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 or working manufacturing, they need to be in the office or plant. If their job 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 workforce working remotely. About 15 percent of these workers were “work from anywhere” employees, not working at the corporate office but from their homes 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 from home if it means I have to wait ten minutes for the file to open,” she said. Based on this feedback, we made investments to improve broadband, cyber security, video conferring equipment. and digital chat rooms. We paid for our remote workers’ broadband 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 enable employees to answer questions they need without calling anyone. Stacey Harris, chief research officer at Sapient Insights Group, notes that remote work was the top tech investment area for talent management. Companies that invest early in technology to improve worker productivity, 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 make sure everyone participated in the ongoing discussions of work, analysis, and decision making. We required every team to set their operating norms, which included the time expectations to respond to each other. The norms also delineated where to find critical policies, procedures, updates and files, 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 downtime each day to ensure 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 meetings 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, using the latest video-conferencing equipment. We also added 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.
Hybrid work improves innovation. The pandemic exposed a false narrative that being innovative means everyone must be in the office. It simply isn’t true. After one year of our remote program, our R&D teams switched from an all-in-the-office model to a hybrid model because they realized that innovation workers benefited from “head-clearing” time to think, review data and analysis, and to write reports. However, innovation does require two to three days a week of face-to-face time for analysis, debate, and decision making. Research now backs up our experience. In one study of new product development teams at five European firms, researchers noted that remote working increased product development performance and the speed with which innovations occurred for the reasons stated above.[i] However, this discovery 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 redesign their office spaces as a place to safely reinforce the company’s purpose, culture, and strategies, and as a place for innovation. Those who cling to nostalgia will be left behind. Don’t wait until May to redefine your office. Get started now.
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.