As you sit reading this in your kitchen or den, I invite you to cast your mind back to the last time business experimented with working from home. As far back as the 1980s, IBM allowed some of its employees to work remotely. The company actively encouraged remote work as it looked for expense savings to help meet its now-infamous 2015 Earnings Per Share Roadmap. But then, in 2017, Big Blue abruptly shut down the experiment, and everyone there was ordered back to their traditional in-person workspace. IBM marketing staff were told to make a choice of showing up in person at one of just six global work locations or to leave the company. Software teams were ordered ‘back to the lab’.
What went wrong? A 2017 survey by the Harvard Business Review points to the toxic politics that emerged between the in-person and at-home workforces. The remote workers reported feeling sabotaged and bad-mouthed by the in-person staff, who apparently disparaged remote work as an undeserved perk for people who weren’t pulling their weight.
Then came 2020. Suddenly, that prejudice disappeared. According to a survey by IDC, the pandemic drove an increase in remote work of nearly 1,200%. No surprise there. But what will happen next year, and the year after that? That same survey suggests that working from home will be reduced by only 35%. That gap points to a huge population of workers who plan to stay remote, and it tells us there will be no going back to the old way of working.
So, how do we avoid a repeat of the IBM debacle? The answers lie in workplace culture. In short, we have to move beyond the “new normal” of 2020. To create the successful workplace of the future, we must invent the new new normal, one that supports our people fully in both their work and their personal lives. Yes, some people will return to the office. But the leading enterprises of the future will actually be digital by default. And their success or failure will be up to us.
To help make the future workplace work, I’m proposing 10 specific ideas for leaders. Call them Paul’s Prescriptions. Together, they offer a framework that elevates hybrid employment from a frivolous perk to the standard means by which enterprises will achieve great outcomes:
1. Manage Objectives, Not Attendance
As people gradually make their way back to offices, there’s a risk we’ll see the return of old-school practices like “Managing By Walking Around”. Don’t let it happen. Rather than worrying about whether people are at their desks, look to what they’re creating. Focus on OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). You can learn more about this approach in John Doerr’s instant classic, Measure What Matters.
2. Learn to Trust
In the past year, leaders have had no choice but to trust completely in their people. Once your workforce is split between in-person and WFH, that blanket trust is in danger of disappearing. If you harbor suspicions about the dedication of your remote workers, they’ll soon pick up on their second-class status, and your hybrid culture will be doomed to fail. Instead, consider the success stories of the past year. To take just one example, think about how working from home has unleashed the potential of the introverts on your team. For the first time ever, they’ve been free to work in the way they find most natural and comfortable. The hybrid work model can offer more happy surprises like that — if you let it.
3. Overcommunicate Everywhere
In-person work comes with countless non-verbal cues that support whatever message you’re delivering to your people. Those cues are missing in the hybrid workspace, and there will be gaps in communication as a result. It’s important to fill those gaps with communication on every channel, be it email, video calls, Slack or anything else. In hybrid work, there’s no such thing as redundant messaging. And in hybrid work, clear and precise writing is more important than ever.
4. Be Transparent and Open
Jealously guarding your ideas doesn’t work in the hybrid world. Trust depends on complete transparency, but it’s about more than trust alone: If someone in another time zone is picking up your project after you’ve gone to bed, that person needs to understand exactly what you had in mind. Never force a colleague to guess.
5. Maximize Psychological Safety
Every workplace talks a good game about wanting people to speak up and take chances, but the unspoken reality is usually quite different. People need to know there is no risk of humiliation if they present their best and genuine selves. In a psychologically safe environment, you will hear the feedback that would otherwise get left unsaid. In a safe environment, judicious risks get taken by people who would otherwise just play it safe. So, encourage judicious risk-taking and graceful feedback, both in the giving and the receiving. Solicit it from literally everyone. And be just as ready to accept feedback graciously yourself, because if this works, you’re going to be hearing a lot.
6. Make Omnidirectional Feedback the Norm
We’re all familiar with feedback that comes from the top down. But, logically, you’ll have a lot more ideas to consider if you encourage them from the bottom up or among peers. For the same reason, feedback should be invited constantly, and not just once a year during someone’s performance review. Think about it: If a gymnastics coach commented on your child’s performance just once a year, I’m pretty sure you’d be looking for a new coach. Why settle for less in business? You don’t have to accept every piece of feedback you hear. But doing business without it is like running with scissors — while blindfolded.
7. Normalize the Most Direct P2P Communication
The standard org chart puts an end to meaningful communication. If I have a concern, I have to hope that my boss will successfully plead my case to the relevant person at the same level. That pre-digital etiquette adds unnecessary time and frustration to the effort. Ignore the org chart. Give people the freedom to communicate via the shortest route possible. Once again, you don’t have to agree with the concern. But you do have to allow for its expression.
8. Make More Work Asynchronous
We’re still in a world that favors synchronous work. It’s time to flip the script, and to make asynchronous work the desirable default. This gives people the time and space to do their best work while still being able to go to the gym or pick up their kids from school. But don’t worry — synchronous work still has its place, as you’ll see in the next point.
9. Reserve Synchronous Work for When it Really Matters
Choose synchronous work when you need to maximize the social impact of your leadership. When your organization is at a pivotal moment, or when decisions are difficult and painful, that’s the time to bring people together synchronously. Working synchronously at those moments enables you to offer personal support when it’s needed most.
10. Compensate for the Shortcomings of Remote Work
In the old world of remote work, WFH was regarded as a luxury. If a remote worker missed some important communication, well, catching up with the tour was their problem. That unspoken us-versus-them culture has to end. Communication must ramp up across the board to close the gaps that are inevitable in remote work. Remember that in the world of Digital by Default, most work will be done remotely. Going forward, it’s working at the office that will be the perk, with remote work becoming the standard.
The competition for top talent is nothing new, but the lessons of the pandemic have made that competition even more cutthroat. The best people know their worth, and they will expect more from their employers in the future. They’ll opt for affordable homes farther from urban centers, for example, and they might want substantially longer vacations with just a bit of work mixed in. Whatever you’re prepared to offer, remember that the attractiveness of the position will be directly proportional to your embrace of the Digital by Default philosophy. A year of remote work has opened everyone’s eyes to a better way of living, and there will be no stuffing that genie back in the bottle.
I invite you to check out the 2021 Digital by Default Summit, where we’ve invited 50+ leaders to share real stories, practical advice and lessons learned for enabling a hybrid workforce. Until May 28th, you’ll get access to more than 40 on-demand sessions on topics related to IT and security, talent management, leadership and more.
You’re also invited to watch my opening keynote address for the conference. In it, I explore these topics in more depth, and I share my 10 predictions for the future of work in 2021-2022.