Return to the Office? Companies Consider the "Next Normal" and the Future of Work

Betsy Atkins
8 min read

Directors Consider the Future of Work

As the dialogue around “return to work” heats up and the likes of Twitter and JPMorgan make headlines for their respective approaches, companies must not lose sight of the task at hand: critical decisions must be made about the long-term health, competitiveness, and vitality of the enterprise — truly, the future of work.

Mainstream media has done much to cover employee preference in the debate regarding the return to in-person work. However, it is important to bring in other perspectives when making such an important discussion. The decisions will also need to factor in how to maintain a culture that’s cohesive, collaborative and nimble; one that produces the best ideas and creates the best products and services. The more important question is really in pyramid order, the purpose for the enterprise to exist, and the vision and mission of the enterprise. The human talent pool is a very important portion, but is only one of several layers in a pyramid.

Enterprise Teams Employees PyramidAll stakeholders involved need both clarity and accountability. Employees need to understand expectations and how their success will be measured. Leaders need to focus on goal-setting and measuring productivity at the team level, not just on an individual level. Investors will need to know why you make the choices you do, and what you’re measuring on their behalf.

Given these complexities and potentially competing interests, boards will need to request clear go-forward recommendations and plans from their management teams, rather than let this foundational topic be addressed quarter-to-quarter. To help sort out the signal from the noise, here is a list of the foundational questions about what makes corporations successful, and what boards should consider heading into discussions and debates about the future of work.

How Should We Think About Productivity?

One big challenge for companies is around defining and measuring productivity, particularly for knowledge workers. Does a baseline for understanding productivity even exist?

In a distributed environment, you’re trying to assess the individual’s maximum effectiveness in creating value for the enterprise. Sure, there are surveillance tools with screen monitoring capabilities, but those are really meant to ensure that employees are not shopping or surfing the internet. Measuring the productivity of knowledge workers is not precise, often incorporating factors like revenue, profit, and customer satisfaction, and is ultimately meant to be the summation of accomplishments that move a company forward.

Companies’ focus seems to have under-weighted teams and over-weighted on the individual. Leadership needs to put in place measurement systems for team productivity to assess the units of work coming out of the team so that they may do the following:

  • See what is working well or not.
  • Identify why it’s not working well, i.e. is the talent mix on the team correct?
  • Understand connections. Are the connections correct on the team? How do you add the “serendipity” of the water cooler conversation when you run into somebody not on your team who adds a different perspective?

If you are a manufacturing company, productivity is measured by the number of units made at a certain cost. If you’re a software company, productivity is the output of your knowledge workers (e.g., new products or lines of code) and is ultimately measured by market share. These are not at the individual unit of work level, and that makes measuring hard. For key line functions, how you define productivity in your knowledge workers is in their results to create a differentiated and more inspired, advanced, and valuable product or service.

Additionally, you must consider the differences between individual and team productivity. The entire chain must be solid, connecting multiple tasks, responsibilities, projects, and processes to deliver solutions and innovations to the marketplace. Being in-person helps ensure continuity and quality across a full creation chain. Individual productivity can only go so far — overall organizational productivity will be the deciding factor when it comes to the companies that succeed or fail.

As companies seek continuous innovation of products and services, delivered in new and better ways to the customer, it’s important to not confuse tools with the solution. Slack, Zoom, and other tools are work group enhancers. Having better project management software can help measure timeliness of deliverables, but they don’t in any way replace the magic of live, in-person collaboration.

What Might Be the Impact on Creativity?

Employee engagement is an important measure of productivity. We already know from our own experience and from data that ideation and innovation is better when people can be together. As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

No research or product development or marketing campaign team is going to say ideation thrives in a virtual environment. Group dynamics and the accompanying micro-efficiencies are better with direct human interaction. We all know connectivity and loneliness are important factors to address when people are remote.

How Will the Company Approach Problem Solving?

Being able to problem solve efficiently and come up with fast resolutions to issues impacting teams and customers is one area that benefits greatly from in-person work. In my experience, the fastest problem solving happens when people are in a room together — scribbling on a white board, playing off each other, sparring mentally to keep teasing out the resolution to a question.

There may be different demands for speed in decision-making in smaller or mid-size companies where being in-person is even more critical than in larger, legacy companies. In a virtual environment, larger corporations may identify a bureaucratic or less effective layer of employees (those checking the checkers) and can seize an opportunity to streamline structures to achieve the specific goals of delivering a better product or service.

How Should the Company Navigate Onboarding?

A big component of a company’s value is how it can maximize the potential of its human capital. This directly correlates to how companies onboard new employees and get people culturally engaged so they understand a company’s ethos and what makes it unique.

Banking executives such as JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon have called for a complete return to work, as their business culture is one of apprenticeship. They believe having their workforce in person is key to really training new talent.

If you think about the essence of work — true thought work, as opposed to tactical functions — your ability to easily ask questions, get coaching, and understand insights of your management and leadership team happens in person because it’s informal and personally connected. Onboarding new employees is challenging in a remote environment because the ability to transfer the company’s vision, values, and culture is taught by observation, collaboration, and mentorship that ultimately allows for better and faster knowledge transfer.

What Are the Industry Norms?

All decisions should consider the norms of your industry. What applies for Twitter and Facebook, which are digital giants, does not apply to a production company, such as an automotive company with ten competitors. Just like corporate pay is based on a set of competitive peers, you must be consistent with your industry and relative peer set. It makes sense for Snap to decide on a back-to-work policy and compare it to Facebook’s, but it’s hard to say that Facebook’s policy applies to General Motors and Ford. Are you a manufacturing or services company? Are you a born digital company or traditional manufacturer? These are totally different industries and will require a different policy approach.

CEOs also should avoid being influenced by high-profile companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, who all rapidly announced plans to permanently shift to remote work. It is important to note that these companies in the social and software sector have much to gain financially from a remote workforce that will use their products more. These companies should not be the model for setting policy.

Additionally, policies about the mix of remote and in-office work have ramifications beyond short-term cost and efficiency. Decisions made over the next few months will set the tone for how work will be done in the future, impacting the relationships employees have formed and their emotional connection with the company. They should be made carefully.

Looking Ahead

As board members, important questions need to be asked of management.

  • Do we have enough data from the past year to make informed decisions about the future of work and assess if we have been equally effective and productive?  What parts of the organization have been productive and what functions have suffered?
  • What have we learned from the experiment of distributed work at scale? Have we gained efficiency in automating functions and can we do more?
  • Do we have a competitive edge if our employees are together? Is our culture more cohesive? Is our engagement level higher?
  • Are we better at onboarding new employees and setting them up for maximum performance in an in-person, apprenticeship culture?

For boards and CEOs, there will be uncertainty in any decision coming out of a crisis and hard calls may need to be made. Whether virtual, in-person or somewhere in between, it is your responsibility to ensure maximum value out of human capital and support management to make these long-term decisions for the health of the enterprise. No matter the decision, it will be difficult if not impossible to make everyone happy. Make exceptions where needed for exceptional talents.

Management will need a complete, persuasive communications plan to share their vision on why back-to-work is the best path forward. Boards must ask their CEOs and leadership team to articulate a clear and transparent plan to their organization sooner rather than later. Uncertainty adds to employee anxiety; the time to act is now. It is important to anchor a common outcome for the enterprise to galvanize everybody. Encourage communication that reinforces the company’s vision and values in a compelling way, highlighting how employees are essential to achieving your mission and that together, great things are possible. Strong, inspirational leadership can galvanize your workforce to embrace any version of a future state.