In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal and Chief Executive Officer Bryan Strawser discusses returning to the office in 2021 in a Post-COVID world, what role will remote work play?
As vaccines roll out around the world, we may finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic. But when we are able to return to the office, will workers want to return? Bryan discusses the role of remote work, distributed teams, and working from home in the new normal.
Topics discussed include remote & distributed work, rethinking return to the office strategies, the pros and cons of distributed teams, data from a recent survey from McKinsey on the subject, and more.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Blog Post: COVID-19 Safety through the Holidays and Beyond
- Blog Post: Engaging your remote workforce
- Episode #94: Personal and family preparedness for Coronavirus
- Episode #95: Lessons learned to date from the Coronavirus fight
- Episode #96: Crisis leadership in the time of Coronavirus
- Episode #97: Returning to the office in the age of COVID-19
- Episode #106: Rethinking Business Continuity in the age of COVID-19
Hello, and welcome to the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, principal and chief executive here at Bryghtpath. And hey, it’s February 2021 when I’m recording this episode. We’ve taken a little bit of a pause from the podcast. I think our last episode was in August 2020, and things just got really busy for us here at Bryghtpath. We’ve had to staff up, hire some new folks. I’m also a graduate student and came back to class and got really just embroiled in that second year of a master’s program, and yeah. But in any event, it’s February 2021 as we’re recording this. We’re going to be back to weekly episodes of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast moving forward. Glad all of you have stuck with us, and look forward to your feedback and thoughts, and comments along the way.
In this edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, I want to talk a little bit about returning to work in this new post-COVID era that we are hopefully embarking on, now that we have approved vaccines around the world. We’re starting to see mass vaccinations happen, even here in the United States. We’re starting to move forward on those vaccinations and hoping that this is us coming out of the tunnel into the light as we move forward.
And so one of the things I want to talk about is this idea of virtual work and how this is going to play a significant part in our future in the knowledge economy, for knowledge workers, for folks whose work really involves using the information and knowledge that’s at their fingertips and applying that knowledge through things like IT, through call center leadership, and all of these other roles that are out there where you are able to work from home, where you don’t have to do manual labor, where your role doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit at an office in a room on a factory floor, but for everyone else who was able to kind of do that type of work.
Most companies that have workers who are able to work from home have been able to do virtual work for almost the entire last 12 months since the pandemic came here to the United States and has remained here with a lot of challenges over the last several months. Virtual work may be a way of achieving some long sought after positive outcomes at work. And I think of those of us that are able to do this, I think have grown used to this virtual work environment that many of us have found ourselves in. The question is what happens when we come out the other side of the pandemic later this year, or early 2022? What does that work start to look like? Are we still working from home? Are we all going back to the office and everything will look the way that it used to work, or will it be something different?
McKinsey tells us in a survey that they did that 20-30% of surveyed workers across organizations are asking if they can work from home permanently, that they don’t want to go back to the office. And when you ask them more like, tell us why you want to do this, there’s really six answers that companies keep coming back to, and employees too.
The first is that virtual work is faster by design, that virtual work frees commute and travel time. You don’t have to sit in a car trying to get into New York City and to downtown Minneapolis, into downtown Seattle. It encourages more output-driven workflows and faster decisions.
The second is that virtual work offers greater flexibility, that the workforce now understands what real flexibility looks like. And they like it, and they want more of it. And going back to the office to them is not as flexible. It gives them a shot at inclusion, that diverse workforces are more valuable, and a hybrid work environment done right can drive and improve inclusion and equity results within organizations.
It levels the playing field. Companies become more distributed. Virtual first levels the playing field for employees beyond just the corporate headquarters environments. But I think about my time, I was at Target for 21 years; 12 in the field, and then the next 9 at headquarters. And there was a real divide between working at headquarters, working in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Working in the field meant being in the retail field somewhere else, other than the Twin Cities. And there was a significant divide, but today it doesn’t matter where you’re located, because the workforce is virtual, or it’s hybrid. You’re in a distributed work environment.
Another great positive for companies is site-agnostic talent, the ability to source talent across multiple locations and regions of the country. And in fact, not having to relocate them. That they’re able to do this work from the place that they’re at, the place they’ve chosen to live rather than moving to where your corporate headquarters is. And of course, the advantage for the company amongst all of those other pieces is the purely financial issue of now you could have a structurally lower permanent real estate cost because you do not need the burden of unproductive office space anymore.
There’s some really interesting data that supports some of these factors that have come up as McKinsey did the survey. I found the data around speed to be quite interesting, that 60% or more of milestones in IT engineering teams, 60% or more milestones were met faster than expected in a work-from-home environment and faster than they would be in an in-person environment.
At the same time, we see the difficulty for employees in disconnecting from work. More than 80% of those surveyed report the difficulty in disconnecting from work when they are at home. And data from Microsoft shows that many employees are actively working outside of the typical work hours for their organization. So there’s an imbalance that’s created to some extent about working from home may mean working more than what you may have done if you were in person and in the office.
From real estate costs, companies are reporting they may be able to shed 35-50% of their real estate over the next one to two years by adopting a hybrid or a permanent work-from-home environment for many of their employees.
And from an inclusion standpoint, although no hard data yet available that’s out there, anecdotal evidence shows that workers who want a more flexible work style, such as working parents or individuals who are caregivers to others can be more productive in a virtual-first environment because it offers them the flexibility that an in-person environment does not provide for them. It provides much more flexibility.
And I can see that in my own life, that as we’ve adapted to the pandemic, and we’re all to some extent working from home, or perhaps coming to an office only on certain days in order to have good social distancing and a good distance between each other. It’s easier for me to take care of my children, to get them to and from school, to run errands, to get them to the doctor or the dentist because the work environment is like that now. And, I don’t have to travel in the ways that I’ve had to travel in the past.
All of that has contributed to, I think, a more inclusive environment, but it’s also made just my life more flexible and productive. And workers are going to want to keep that. Many workers are just simply not going to want to go back to that in-person work environment.
There is a cost of virtual work, and this stood out in the McKinsey study. And also there’s this recent study on virtual teams that have come out from Ruiz Smith in the Society for Applied Sciences Journal.
And he really highlights that there are five costs to virtual work that we have to keep in mind as we think about what does this look like in the long-term. The first is that there is less work separation, as we said before. That surveys are, across the board, universally highlighting a difficulty in disconnecting from work, and that’s certainly a challenge.
The second is that there’s a lack of belonging. In different ways, we miss the social interaction, the connectivity that working in person together on projects and tasks and encountering each other for those casual conversations around the in-person water cooler, so to speak. Now, this is happening virtually, and for newer workers just entering the workforce, they’re missing an important part of how culture gets passed on and how information is passed on in that way because it’s not happening for them. So that socialization is very different.
This is happening in our college environments as well. This morning I met with one of my professors, who is supervising my master’s dissertation at my grad school. And we talked about his undergraduate classes that he’s teaching and the fact that some of them have never been in a college classroom, they’re doing it all virtually. Because that’s the university that they entered in the middle of the pandemic. And they’re missing that in-person socialization and education that’s part of the experience. And we don’t really know what this is going to mean in three, four, five, ten years, as they work through the pandemic and complete their college education.
The third cost of virtual work is reduced trust. That trust is more difficult to establish and maintain virtually, in this virtual collaboration. And there are things you can do around this. You can push one-on-ones, you can have some kind of virtual trust-building exercises and events that you can do, but it’s not the same. And we’ll have to find new ways to build and generate trust.
The fourth cost of virtual work is the challenge to collaboration that workers report that it takes more time to achieve the same collaboration outcome, particularly when dealing across silos because the relationships and the trust are not there yet.
And then lastly, a concern we’ve had through the whole pandemic, and that is mental health. That the isolation created by the pandemic has given us very proven challenges with long-term health and mental health concerns that as employers and as educators, that we’ve had to work through.
So when you’re thinking about what this long-term work from home program may look like for you at your company, an effective future program needs to find ways to balance the positives we spoke out of the beginning of this episode with the negatives, the costs that we’ll have to pay in a broader, longer-term work from home approach.
McKinsey’s study goes on to say that there are some clear lessons learned from the past year of the pandemic when it comes to virtual work, hybrid workplaces, and working from home. The first is that virtual work is a muscle, not a plan, that we need to make sure the speed of our transition does not exceed the speed of our ability to build capacity, to maintain that long-term work from home or hybrid strategy. We need to understand that going to virtual work, we did in an emergency. We did it quickly. We did it because we had to. But building an actual distributed work strategy is much more difficult, it is a much bigger lift than just saying we have to go work from home right away, as we did in March and April of last year as the pandemic struck. We have to find ways to make special accommodations for parts of your organization that are just not used to virtual work. So how do we transition them? How do we help them over that hurdle?
The third big lessons learned is that the trade-offs that we just talked about, the downsides of virtual work, have to be balanced with the positive sides. And that as you’re thinking about these trade-offs, you need to define them early and you need to decide how you’re going to address them before you shift to that long-term distributed work model. Be clear within your organization about who decides what. As McKinsey says here, it’s flexibility within bounds. How do you define and separate decision-making between teams, management, team leaders, and individual contributors? And what does that mean?
Fifth, that collaboration tools can unlock a whole new set of competencies. You might be using Zoom or Skype for business, or Microsoft Teams, or WebEx, or something else entirely. These collaboration tools really can create a new set of skills that are new to your workforce. You have this explosion of ideas and data as you’re shifting to virtual work or to distributed work. You’ll get new insights into activities that drive value that you hadn’t considered before. And you’ll find things that used to drive value and simply don’t anymore. So what’s the vision you have for that distributed workforce? How will you incorporate these learnings as you’re learning them?
Lastly, your communication around this shift to distributed work needs to provide clarity, but leave room for learning. Communicate early on what activities are going to happen, what your expectations are for in-person work versus virtual or remote work, and what principles went into your policies. What really was the underpinning of the decisions that you made? And that underpinning is your organization’s culture and values and principles.
There are tasks that will need to continue to happen in person that just are not… They’re areas wherein a lot of ways, they’re reliant upon things we haven’t figured out how to do virtually yet. Negotiations, for example. Negotiations really rely on deep mutual trust and relationship building. They require the interpretation of nonverbal communication, very difficult to do in a virtual environment. Relationship building, serving on a board, working with potential customers, interviews, team kickoffs… Where you can do these in person, you establish a trust-based connection that enables long-term relationship, that enables success in that board role, in that job interview. We may have done some of these things virtually, but as we come out of the pandemic, these are ones that should be done in person.
Onboarding and job training, taking a new hire who has no previous experience in that role or a similar role presents a significant challenge in a remote setting. Meetings about critical decisions. Decision meetings in boards are often based on a deep mutual knowledge of board members and their ability to communicate and challenge each other and work together and make a decision.
And lastly, critical conversations. These are conversations that require sensitive reactions. Might be about emotional topics, may require understanding unconscious, nonverbal communication of the person you’re interacting with. It could be body language or facial expressions. These critical conversations will also have to happen in-person to have the most chance of success.
So there are a few thoughts about what returning to the office will look like, what virtual and distributed work will still continue to be part of your organization’s strategy in the long term. And it’s up to us… I think we have a role to play, I should say, as business continuity and crisis management and resilience leaders, as we think about how to shift to the next normal, that our businesses are facing challenges that will define and make this shift to the next normal, the new normal. And we have to make sure that our ambitions around what that next normal look like keep pace with our capacity and our capabilities to be able to be successful. And those are going to be some critical success factors for us.
And in our field of continuity, resiliency, crisis management, we have a big role to play to help our organizations navigate what that next normal will look like and what that returned to the office, return to the workspace will look like. And we do everyone a disservice if we think we’re going to go back to the way that it was. It will be something different. And we have to lead our teams and our businesses to what that will be.
That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. We’ll be back next week with another new episode. Be well.