As the business world inches toward reopening after the upheaval of 2020, it’s nice to imagine what life will look like when we can all get back to normal. But “normal” might be a misguided objective. The real question becomes: What have we learned from all this? Is there a different—better—way to work?
Atif Rafiq thinks so. As the former president of commercial and growth at MGM Resorts International, he’s managed a massive distributed workforce, from corporate managers who have been able to accomplish their goals from home to concierges and hospitality staff who have continued working in-person at MGM’s brick-and-mortar locations.
Drawing on that experience, Rafiq believes there’s a massive opportunity to rethink how we get things done. Thanks to the digital tools at our fingertips, there are now alternatives that have already proven they can drive quicker, more efficient and more adaptable results. We caught up with Rafiq to get his thoughts on the past year—and how it has led him to become a champion of flexibility, deep focus and fewer meetings.
What’s the biggest change that has come out of what we’ve all been through this past year?
Atif Rafiq: Remote work has opened up to question every aspect of the work experience; it all needs to be unpacked. The corporate office was the yardstick. It was face time, it was your calendar. But even before Covid-19, that wasn’t sustainable.
We need to think about the employee experience. This is an opportunity to get the most out of your people as a company. Human psychology will come into play; your ability to take flex time shouldn’t impact your career. The person who can afford face time shouldn’t be the one who can get ahead because they can curry favor with the boss.
Businesses have been forced to make incredibly agile moves. How much of that flexibility should we keep in the future?
AR: You know, I’m actually a huge fan of this flexibility. It’s long overdue. My view is that the corporate work environment is not sustainable for human beings. It doesn’t comport with life. And quite frankly, digital tools have been way ahead of companies’ abilities to adapt or take on a different mindset. This is the moment where corporate leaders have to step up to the plate and adopt these agile work habits.
With so much changing so rapidly, how are you creating space to properly strategize for the future?
AR: Providing “think time” for people is essential. The amount of planning our people are doing is insane. The velocity and volume of change is persistent and non-stop; every day is like three normal days prior to Covid-19. If you don’t let people out of the fixed routines like meetings, it’s not going to work. You’ll face burnout, and worse plans and reactions.
Work isn’t just attending meetings, but somehow, we’ve gotten in a situation where meeting culture dominates organizations. You could have a day full of meetings that could be on the appropriate topics, but it’s not necessarily the best indicator of whether we’re actually getting somewhere with our strategies as a company.
Instead, we now have an opportunity to really focus on freeing up people’s time so that they can create new knowledge, new insights and new intellectual capital for the company. That could take place through collaboration tools, where people are coming together asynchronously, on their own time. We know that meetings are a part of that, but they’re not the whole recipe. And so we have to really underweight them going forward and overweight some of the other forms of collaboration that will help us push our companies forward.
Prior to MGM, you spearheaded transformation at McDonald’s and Volvo, two companies that have been around for over 60 and 90 years, respectively. How do you go about shaping a new culture at legacy institutions like that?
AR: We spend just as much time on the “how” as the “what.” We ask clarifying questions of team members, instead of telling them what to do. We calibrate together instead of expecting perfect plans, and then measure people by the rate at which things are being understood and fed into our strategic direction. When we have the space to run teams in this way, the result is extraordinary and a better employee experience by far. It’s great for the business too—there’s been incremental revenue from digital at McDonald’s for over 5 years, and Volvo has used [this approach] to craft a subscription business model accounting for 25% of cars sold.
What advice do you have for leaders who want to shift toward measuring outcomes rather than measuring activity in their day-to-day?
AR: There’s an idea that “the inputs matter just as much as the outputs.” It means you really need to shift the focus upstream to the key questions and answers, the unknowns—the things that would make or break a result from happening or not. And so the best way to ensure that a result has the likelihood of materializing is actually to ask the hard questions upfront, and to create a safe space with both the time and the tools for the team to tackle them. When that happens, generally speaking, you get a result that is likely to hit the mark.
How can leaders help prevent burnout among their employees?
AR: Burnout is one of the most pressing issues facing employers in the next few years, for reasons that are pretty obvious. How do we manage it? How do we do a better job of getting ahead of it? First, we have to realize that people balance their work and their personal lives in different ways, so we have to give people the flexibility to pull that recipe together however they see fit, as long as they’re contributing.
The second factor to consider is prioritization. It’s really hard to think of a period in business history when there have been so many new things to figure out, and that burden is falling on our people. So we have to be rigorous with our prioritization. We have to create more of a focal point for teams, so that they can actually take on reasonable objectives.
How can leaders provide meaning for their employees and unlock, as you put it, their “intellectual capital”?
AR: I encourage leaders to adopt the mantra of calibration over control. What does that mean? Well, we’re all familiar with hierarchy and the ability of senior leaders to make decisions that drive the direction of their initiatives. Calibration is a bit different: It’s an invitation for teams to have a voice, to provide inputs and have dialogue around them. And there’s only upside in it. Employees feel recognized, and it fulfills a primary need of the humans around the table to be understood and to be able to contribute. Just as importantly for the company, it provides much higher quality input for decision-making, which allows a senior leader to move forward with a higher degree of confidence that they haven’t missed something or made the wrong assumption.
So again, the idea of calibration over control preserves the decision-making hierarchy in companies, but it actually allows more people to contribute to it.
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