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What's Next on the Agenda for Remote Working?

Long aperture photo of a busy crossroads taken at night

Jeff Bezos said, "In today's era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility, that's it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate."

The whole business world is in a state of flux. Some want to return to how the office was pre-pandemic, others want to maximize the opportunity of removing deadwood and utilize the massive savings of having a (semi) remote (and flexible) workforce.

But it’s not the same for employees who having tasted remote working want a better work/life balance and to mix it up a bit.

So how does a business approach the whole 'return to work' subject and maximize the opportunities in front of them?

For some employees, it's been nearly 15 months since they went back into an office. For many, the initial few months were a period of mayhem; learning new technology, juggling family (never work with children and animals) and work, joining video meetings - most of which were no more than 'check-in' sessions, psychologically trying to 'feel the room' in Zoom sessions (almost impossible), and trying to understand how they were going to cope.

15 months is a long time; habits and familiarity around the new way of working set in and much like how the smartphone passed control to the consumer, the pandemic has passed control to the employee, with some quitting their current employer and finding organizations that allow more flexibility and remote working.

There are pros and cons for both employees and organizations, but the clear thing is there’s no going back to the old ways of the office. The world of work itself is changing and the black swan pandemic event just accelerated the new world we'll all soon be living in: automated, robotized, remote, diverse, agile and FAST.

In terms of pros and cons, consider the following:

Organizations

Employees

Maybe it's time to really think about organizational structures and productivity. 

Since 2012 we’ve been talking about developing organizations as dual operating systems, one part looking at business as usual and one part looking at new opportunities (innovation hubs, corporate start-ups).

From a team perspective, developers need quiet spaces to code efficiently and work really well remotely (Griffis, 2018; BaseCamp et al, n.d.; Hakobyan, 2018).

Creative teams need a mix of thinking time and highly engaging time to fertilize lateral thinking. Marketing and brand teams are much like creative.

Just look at the more recent changes in the finance sector: JPMorgan already has a plan for its 60,950 employees to work from home one or two weeks a month or two days a week, depending on the line of business.

Hub and spoke models work really well as a framework for remote working. A business has a centralized small main office (hub) with more localized satellite offices (spokes) adding further mini spokes with home working. The key is to ensure there’s good comms at the spoke and not all at the hub. It's a bit like when you open in a new office in a new country, the person driving the new office can feel isolated. This then becomes more about leadership, communicating and facilitating.

The skills and traits of successful leaders in an office-based environment differ from those needed to lead distributed remote teams.

Instead of valuing bravado, remote teams value leaders who are highly organized, delegate and facilitate connections between colleagues.

In Chapter 13 of Building the Agile Business, we said...

When an organization needs to move quickly, it is tempting for leaders to jump in and attempt to give teams what they believe to be the answers to particular challenges in front of them. An outdated style of leadership believes that all the answers exist at the top of the organization and flow down. Yet in fast-changing, complex, adaptive environments, the focus needs to fundamentally shift to seeing challenges as learning opportunities. So humility, and admitting when you don't know something, as a leader is actually a strength, not a weakness.

And then there’s the whole subject of Individual vs Team and Being present (in the office command and control) vs Being productive.

KPIs alone no longer cut it in the world of fast-changing, complex, adaptive environments. OKRs and MIT’s FAST methodology provide a better way of assessing how an organization’s people are making progress (Panchadsaram and Prince, n.d.; Sull and Sull, n.d.).

Chart showing business agility

In Chapter 14 of Building the Agile Business we stated as a blueprint for flexibility: 

Overly restrictive procedures and micromanagement kills a chance of creating a culture of ownership and responsibility.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Dr. Richard Claydon, Chief Cognitive Officer at EQ Lab, said: "The future of work is not about place. Where you work is going to matter less and less... it is about how to work, not where you work."

Three of Dr. Claydon's points in that post align to the work of others;

  1. How do we ensure that all teams reach their full potential in the quickest possible time?

  2. How do we identify which team practices are effective, and scale them across other contextually similar teams in the organization?

  3. How do we close down failing projects before they cost us significant money, and throw more resources at projects that show all the signs of being successful?

I think there is another, which is 'Flex and Stretch' - how teams expand and contract depending on the nature of the projects they're working on. Complexity and the required skills will mean you don't have all the skills in-house (too costly), so hiring in and out will become a core skill (HR)... then you hit the war for talent (not enough to go around) and the importance of your organizational culture comes back into play.

Some of this has been suggested previously by John Hagel - Learning and Strategy and Narratives to Drive Exponential Learning - along with the work of Josh Bersin, My Ten Principles Of Leadership and The Calm Before The Storm: How The Pandemic Recovery Will Change Business.

Additionally, maybe there is a 4Ps methodology for remote working:

  • Place - where and when you work.
  • People - the skills diversity and adaptability of the people you hire.
  • Productivity - output over being present and how that gets measured.
  • Performance - leadership to team. Ability to connect, share and grow.

Ultimately, nobody likes change. But we’re at a crossroads and it’s time to really think about what’s coming our way.

If you think the pandemic was tough, automation, robotics, machine learning, IoT and super network marketplaces will drastically change the way we work, including how we’re structured, who we employ, from where, and how we get work done.

For more observations and thought-leadership like this, check out the book I co-wrote, Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation