A client of ours was promoting the ethos of ‘work being what you do, not where you are’ long before the drama of COVID had driven us to our spare rooms, kitchen tables and makeshift ironing board desks etc. Before March of this year very few of us had entertained the possibility or potential of working from home and even fewer organisations openly encouraged it. It has taken a worldwide pandemic to force a new paradigm in how we work and now with a vaccine a week away from going live in the UK – and with others countries likely to follow suit over the coming months – leaders are having to now contemplate the next shift in this story.

When you start to miss Tony from Accounting

The Hidden Brain podcast recently aired an episode called ‘When you start to miss Tony from Accounting’, in which Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford Professor, explores the benefits and challenges of WFH, and how our experiences of working remotely in the past few months relate to what we’ve learned about WFH over the past few years. It’s genuinely fascinating stuff and well worth a listen. So in this blog we thought we’d share what resonated for us given the conversations we’ve been having lately with leaders from across the globe.

Working or shirking?

In the podcast Bloom shares a story of a WFH experiment he ran with a Chinese travel company in 2010. Worried about the rising cost of commercial rent in Shanghai, the company worked with Bloom to explore how they might grow the business without increasing office space. Approximately half of employees (mainly volunteers) were instructed to work from home for 4 days a week for a period of 9 months (interestingly all managers remained office based). When the figures were analysed they showed an unexpected increase of 13% in productivity levels in the WFH group, which mirrors what we’re hearing from managers in 2020. Productivity, customer engagement figures and certain projects have all benefited from WFH according to the clients we’re working with. It seems that a shared work space actually offers more distractions than any procrastination activities we can dream up from home.

The best of both worlds

But it turned out the increased productivity recorded in the travel company experiment came at a cost. Given the option to continue working from home, over half of those that volunteered chose to return to the office. In spite of the additional cost and hassle of commuting, the mental strain of working remotely had taken its toll – sound familiar? Focus groups conducted as part of the exercise noted that the ideal would be to work from home 1 or 2 days per week and from the office for the remaining 3. The learning we should take from this as leaders is the importance of choice. Even for those who have enjoyed working from home and/or are suited to working remotely, the experience is nuanced and complex. Individual preferences, home circumstances, available space etc. all factor. There is no ‘one size fits all’ rule here so we have to be prepared to begin having those conversations with team members and to find a balance that works for both employee and employer.

Gains and losses

One of the advantages of going virtual has been increased parity. Regardless of where in the world you are, everyone has needed to connect via video conferencing. What was once only a challenge for those in different time zones, is now a test for us all. There is a more even contribution – somehow Zoom/Teams has given a voice to people who may not have been as willing to speak up before – we’ve seen this first hand in the team events we’ve facilitated. But it hasn’t just been about who speaks and how often – we’ve seen a positive change in what we call HOT too; honesty, openness and trust. There’s an added depth that wasn’t always there before. Cultural and gender differences are less pronounced in some cases and in another example on the podcast, a disabled employee found the virtual world much easier to navigate and more liberating. So, how do we keep all of these gains in 2021 – especially where there is a split between those WFH and those in the office? One quick win for leaders might be to continue honing the skills they’ve developed over lockdown in managing meetings differently, inviting people to speak, constantly monitoring the flow.

In terms of losses, one of the reasons employees in the travel company case study gave for choosing to return to the office was a lack of visibility. They felt they were losing out to colleagues who had face-to-face access to decisions makers in the business – promotion rates in the WFH group were half of those who had continued to work in the office. Less of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and more ‘out of sight, out of mind’. We mustn’t fall into the trap of promotions or favouritism being shown to those present versus WFH. It’s a retrograde step around false assumption based on visibility and working late in the office equating to greater commitment and talent. However our working lives play out in 2021 we have to operate at a higher level as leaders when it comes to presentism and how we nurture and develop talent, manage performance and recognise the value people add.

Encounters of the third kind

As leaders we need to begin thinking about how we use our time on and off site differently. Steve Jobs purposefully designed Apple HQ to engineer ‘chance encounters’. His belief was that these serendipitous meetings resulted in the best innovations and the most creative thinking; the ‘secret sauce’ of Apple’s success if you will. So, given where we are now, how do we begin ringfencing time to ensure we get the most from being together – planning with intent rather than hoping it will all fall into place once we get there. How do we introduce ‘chance encounters’ back into how we’re working – recognising that we actually can leave it all to chance and that we have a role as leaders in making it happen.