Looking Beyond Business as Usual

Vast numbers of people around the world have decamped from the workplace to try to slow the spread of coronavirus. According to SHRM, the number of organizations offering remote work options tripled between 1996 and 2016, yet the radical acceleration of this trend that we are facing right now is unprecedented. The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the ‘reset’ button in terms of how we work today and in the future.

The question is this: what do workplaces need to do to keep their business running today, while building nimbleness and resilience for the future?

A grand experiment in agile working

Those who find remote working productive may be unwilling to return to the office full time when restrictions are lifted. In that sense, the current situation can be viewed as a grand experiment in agile working.

Agile working – working anywhere, any time – is the future. This does not mean that offices will be defunct, it simply means that the innately human need for autonomy will prevail. People ultimately work at their full potential when they are granted the freedom to be masters of their own destiny, choosing how, when, where and with whom they get things done. Enabling this level of flexibility gives organizations the opportunity to boost productivity, collaboration and employee experience, while reducing real estate costs and environmental impact. Right now, during these exceptional times, people sadly have no choice. Yet, the lessons we learn now, in terms of making remote working a success, will serve us far beyond the current crisis.

A new era of collaboration

At the same time, there is also a need for face-to-face socialization and the office is not going away. A 2017 Gallup survey found that employee engagement is optimized when people spend three to four days working remotely and a day or two in the office each week. Five years earlier, these figures were reversed.

Many employees choose to spend a day or two in the office to meet and collaborate with colleagues face-to-face and in groups. While remote working, they can focus on tasks that require uninterrupted concentration and collaborate online when needed to get things done.

This means that not only do remote workers need to be equipped with new technology, tools, habits and routines in order to be productive and work collaboratively from anywhere, but offices also need to become hot-beds of innovation, creating opportunities for chance encounters and maximizing the output from these precious face-to-face interactions.

Photo by Djurdjica Boskovic on Unsplash

Making remote working work

There is no one-size-fits all approach to managing a remote team, and instead, leaders need to consider the personality, job role and preferences of each of their team members. For example, some people are comfortable managing their own activities and will feel like they are being micromanaged if there is too much oversight. Others might need and appreciate guidance in prioritizing their workload. Also, consider the different personalities of team members – an extravert might feel energized by more frequent communication than an introvert, and depending on a person’s role, continual interruptions might be seen as a distraction, while others might appreciate it as a way to collaborate in real time.

By the same token, individuals at all levels need to clearly report their results and priorities; this is particularly important for self-starters who are more comfortable working independently. When employees provide clear dashboards that communicate key results, managers don’t need to check up on their work or waste time asking for the basic information they need to make decisions. Establishing clear reports and dashboards that summarize key results on a weekly and monthly basis is a critical first step for companies that are turning to remote working for the first time.

A key benefit of remote working is that there is no room for busywork. Without people dropping by each other’s desks or peering over at their screens, there is no need to look busy. Instead, everyone can focus on results. With clear reporting and close collaboration to manage output and priorities, exceptional levels of productivity and speed can be achieved.

The most significant factor that determines whether remote working will succeed is trust. The ability to trust that people will care about what they do, how they do it and whom they do it for is vital in a distributed workforce. This demands smart hiring that not only takes skills and experience into account, but also culture and values. When people can work anytime and anywhere, trust ensures that everyone will make themselves available to team members, work hard, go the extra mile and take responsibility. Trust also ensures that people do not need to be closely monitored in a way that could be demotivating and encourage presenteeism. As Hemmingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

The combination of clear reporting dashboards and trust can also enable organizations to move toward a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). This management approach pioneered by ex-Best Buy employees Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson focuses on the team’s output rather than the hours worked.

In an agile organization without a fixed work location or hours and with teams spanning different time zones, trust ensures that people will choose to work hours that make them accessible in order to collaborate with colleagues.

How can Facilities and Corporate Real Estate prepare for the new reality?

The economic impact of the pandemic is forcing organizations to reassess their costs, including real estate. To cut costs, companies may need to consider downsizing their offices, or subletting space. In these instances, optimizing space utilization will become more important, and facilities professionals responsible for hitting corporate goals, while providing an employee experience that attracts and retains talent, will need to right-size office space and implement agile workplace strategies to avoid waste.

In order to achieve this, Facilities Managers will need to arm themselves with reliable, real-time data on actual and target ratios of people-to-workstations and people-to-meeting rooms as well as space utilization. Understanding peak usage of rooms, desks and other resources will inform whether space should be reconfigured to address a more pressing need – for example, under-utilized open plan areas may be turned into collaborative rooms with electronic whiteboards.

Overall, the current crisis will inevitably foster a data-driven culture, as organizations strive to become more sustainable, not just from an environmental perspective but economically, too.

John T. Anderson is CEO of Smartway2, which provides next-generation workplace scheduling solutions for all types of organizations and enterprises.

He can be reached via email or LinkedIn.


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