If 2020 was the year that challenged how and where we worked, then 2021 is the year to harness the power of reinvention.
Remote work is nothing new. In fact, decision-makers have debated the pros and cons of flexible working for decades. Then, in March 2020, the world was thrust into a simultaneous global experiment which challenged the traditional workplace’s core.
Preconceptions were quickly proven to be false. Digital transformation and technology implementations which were expected to take years suddenly happened within weeks. Many employees discovered a newfound work-life balance and reported being happier. Productivity increased for many organisations and businesses with a global footprint found that remote collaboration across different geographic locations became easier. Our global world became localised overnight.
However, this change was not without obstacles: innovation, strategic thinking and collaboration was a challenge for many teams with employees missing ‘water cooler conversations’, the buzz of the office and clear-cut working hours. Maintaining a culture remotely and mental health were also cited as key concerns for many organisations as they tried to navigate the pandemic.
Even with the successes and challenges to date, there is a key difference to quickly pivoting and ‘making do’ to strategically and sustainably reinventing your future work model. Many firms had to implement rapid change to cope with the pandemic, only to revise their operations later.
We have now past the year milestone of pandemic driven remote working and as we progress into Q2 of 2021, and with the widespread vaccination programme making quick progress and the end of lockdown now in sight, some level of return to previous working practices looks possible, but has the world moved on?
Opinion still appears divided in many areas, but the key message is that employees still want options when it comes to flexible work, so organisations cannot look at this as a one size fits all approach. There is also not one answer for all companies, as the specific culture, vision, strategy, footprint, and organisational design will influence the right model.
We are seeing a divided response within Financial Services: with a rough split between investment banks and retail banks. Goldman’s leadership, for example, has been very vocal in their desire to get their teams back in the office. Meanwhile, many of the retail banks are seizing the opportunity to significantly reduce their cost base and cater to the employee sentiment. HSBC, Lloyds, Metro, Nationwide, and Standard Chartered have cut as much as 40% of their office space.
Critically though, this is not just about enabling remote work. The topic has far-reaching impacts on everything: Culture, talent acquisition and retention, diversity and inclusion, HR policy, employee wellbeing and mental health, technology strategy, cyber risk, reputational risk, innovation, tax, cost rationalisation, organisational design, automation and digital transformation. It’s a long list! So decision-makers can’t look at this as a quick fix conversation. Instead, they should review remote work through detailed analysis and strategic planning.
The discussions to date are still very polarised, and very focussed on isolated areas or with a specific lens applied. This can be seen in daily polls on LinkedIn, where there is fervent discussion either for or against a ‘new way’ of working. Many organisations are waiting to show their hand for fear of hitting the wrong note and ending up as another news headline. We have all been living in such an uncertain world that there is a desire to make firm decisions and communicate them. However, in the world of innovation and technology we’ve applied the concepts of agile, design thinking, and experimenting for several years. What’s stopping us from doing this regarding how we work?
There are some obvious limitations. For example, it’s hard to chop and change on a multiyear commercial lease. However, there are many other areas where experimentation is possible. Our recommendations are:
- Start now: There’s no need to wait to introduce new initiatives during the current extended home working, such as Jane Frasers #zoomfreefridays at Citi.
- Experiment with tooling or ways of working: For example, pilot different collaboration tooling such as MURAL or take this as an opportunity to implement agile
- Trust the team: There is a lot of ‘averaging’ going on. You may read that “on average surveys have told us employees want to come into the office 2/3 days a week”. However, averages mean that we are catering to no one perfectly. What you really need to focus on is understanding your employees. Providing increased autonomy to employees to decide where they work based on the outputs they need to achieve that week will result in people self-organising to do the ‘right work’ in the ‘right place’.
- Explore flexible working patterns: This can range from compressed hours to alternative working days, as explored by many parents during the pandemic. Work anywhere options such as Nationwide’s recently launched scheme are also worth considering. More extreme options such as four-day work week trials are also currently being by significant organisations such as Unilever. Spain will also likely pilot the scheme in autumn of 2021.
Realistically, no one holds all the answers to what the future of work looks like. There are still too many moving variables that any ‘reinvention’ needs to be very cognizant of. However, there are some guiding principles that will help organisations through their journey:
- It’s critical that the topic is considered holistically to fully understand the connected topics and interdependent decisions. Employee working policies will impact the physical office footprint, cyber risk, and technology investment requirements. This will in turn, impact cost reduction opportunities and culture. In other words, the butterfly effect must be explored.
- It’s important that we enter this next chapter with an open mindset as we continue to learn what this pandemic means for us all. A lot of preconceptions have been disproved during the pandemic. Data and in-depth analysis have become even more critical than before. Any plans will need to have the ability to flex (where feasible). Furthermore, experimentation will enable organisations to be truly responsive to their ecosystem, whether they are solving problems for their employees, customers, or suppliers.
By doing this, a robust and tailored, strategic plan can be created which achieves an organisation’s business goals whilst catering to the evolving expectations of employees. If we get this right on a global scale, we have an opportunity to emerge from this pandemic an evolved society with all the best bits of the pre-pandemic workplace coupled with all of the breakthroughs we’ve made thus far.
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