This is the start of an ongoing conversation about how work is changing, why it’s changing, and what the people who lead companies and teams can do about it. We hope it spurs some new ideas for your organization, and we invite you to share those ideas with us on the Slack Twitter feed (@SlackHQ).
For generations of knowledge workers, the office was where work happened because it made sense: When you had things to do and you needed other people (and things) to do those things, it was a good idea to get those people (and those things) together in a central place. So towns swelled into cities, and open-plan offices filled up with cubicles.
With the introduction of the internet and email, work started to evolve. Then came the cloud and SaaS. But we still crammed ourselves into trains and endured traffic jams to commute to our offices.
When new collaboration tools emerged, they were marketed to help remote workers “be as productive as if they were in the office”—as if the office were the ideal context for teamwork, when, in fact, the office was a legacy idea struggling to keep up with the modern worker.
The office isn’t the gold standard of productivity anymore. Quite the opposite, in fact: There’s much less efficiency, cost-effectiveness and work-life balance.
“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.”
Read the full guide on Navigating the Disruption of Work here.
The pandemic accelerated the need for a modern workplace
In the past 10 years, three huge forces started to shake the assumption that the office had the ideal conditions for effective work:
- Mobile networks, smartphones and laptops meant we were no longer tethered to towers
- Cloud computing and VPNs meant all of our essential applications and data were available from anywhere, securely and with authentication
- Collaboration platforms meant all of our colleagues and conversations were also accessible from anywhere
These forces were already loosening the grip of the office on our work lives. We just didn’t notice it for a while.
Then the pandemic happened. In less than 72 hours, even the world’s most traditional companies transitioned from office-based to working from home. Everyone could see that the word “work” was about to be redefined.
The transition was head-spinning, and in those first hours, days and weeks, companies across every industry had to react to endless new challenges.
In a high-speed scramble, we moved from “keeping the lights on” to imagining whole new business models. Businesses re-evaluated their hierarchy of needs, establishing the basics first. And as they did, the changes were so fundamental to how their teams operated, any notion of reverting back to normal quickly dissipated.
The pandemic brought that transition forward by five or 10 years—and did so in a few months. Now it’s having an impact on every aspect of work.
Running up Maslow’s pyramid
When companies are hit by any kind of macro-crisis, they go through a series of stages that seem to mirror 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
We saw the pattern progress rapidly during the first few weeks of the global pandemic. For Maslow, human needs build from the bottom up, from physiological needs (like food and shelter), to safety, belongingness, esteem and self-actualization.
For companies in crisis, it looks more like this:
For many companies, progressing through these stages underlines the importance of resilience, agility and preparedness. This way, during the next crisis, you’re not starting at the base of the pyramid and can work back to the peak faster and in better shape.
The next normal: Hybrid work
The pandemic highlighted some compelling truths that many companies were already beginning to discover.
To start, a vast majority of employees prefer the flexibility and autonomy of working from home. In fact, the 2019 State of Remote Work report from video conferencing company Owl Labs found that 80% of employees want to work from home at least some of the time. And that makes sense: Parents see more of their kids, caregivers find the flexibility they need, and commuters get their lives back.
Productivity also often increases in WFH mode, and fears about lost productivity have proved unfounded for many companies. Remote work often turns out to be significantly more productive—Prodoscore research showed a 47% productivity increase in 2020, despite the coronavirus lockdown.
It’s not just about home, either. It’s about working from anywhere. Airports. Cafés. On-site with customers. Grandparents’ back gardens. Hotel lobbies.
Remote work can also save a lot of money. The Telework Savings Calculator from Global Workplace Analytics shows that a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. Office expenses, transit fares, parking, food and travel time are real costs, but they don’t drive direct value for customers.
And when it comes to carbon footprint, there is huge potential for savings. Beyond their construction, the heating and cooling of many offices, plus the commuting, are a collective climate furnace. “If those who have a work-from-home-compatible job and a desire to work remotely did so just half the time,” suggests Global Workplace Analytics, “the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent to taking the entire New York State workforce off the road.”
All together this is a strong business case, and businesses have taken notice.
The next imperative: Learn to facilitate remote work
Now is the time to at least explore a hybrid work model that includes work-from-anywhere options. That means getting better at facilitating this more distributed work style.
- Survey your employees. See how many would welcome a work-from-home or mixed model, and how many days they’d like to work away from the office.
- Research other employers. A more flexible working model might be a major advantage in the competition for talent. Or it might just be a way to catch up!
- Think of the sudden move to remote as a pilot program. Find out what worked well, and what didn’t, in the months when everyone was working from home. Capture and share that learning to shape your new guidelines.
- Create new rituals. Overcome the downside of a distributed workforce with new ways to connect people, from executive AMAs (“Ask Me Anything” sessions) to virtual coffee hours.
When technology security company McAfee transitioned its entire organization to work from home in response to Covid-19, executives kept communication between employees and leadership open and active with an AMA in Slack hosted by McAfee’s vice president of consumer strategy.
Participation was strong and enthusiastic: Employees submitted 42 questions overall—far more than the executive had time to answer in the hour-long sessions. Since the AMA was a resounding success, McAfee is organizing future AMAs with multiple executives across various departments.
Few companies may be ready for 100% remote work. But more and more are seriously considering a mix of office work and remote work to attract and keep talent, increase productivity, cut costs and reduce environmental impact.
Please continue with our next acceleration: Agility is the new scale.
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