Can remote work sustain, or do we go back to onsite work?
When Covid hit, the world shut down. Remote work became a necessity. Across all business, leaders are trying to evaluate the sustainability of it all.
Listen to the podcast of Pavlo Phitidis discussing this on The Money Show or read on…
In manufacturing it’s less sustainable as the means of production are plant and equipment. Unless its digital production like websites and software or even drafting and product design. The challenge there is the cost of technology to get the job done. Product and trade need people at site to lift, carry, make, pack, send their offerings to their customers. Hard to coordinate remotely with the business centred around a warehouse.
The service industry is where the greatest shift may lie. With people and rent being the biggest fixed operating costs, the motivation to shed the landlord is high. On paper it’s almost irresistible. But what is the cost?
Beyond a job, beyond a paycheck, why do we work? Hopefully, we find purpose, meaning if we are lucky and a sense of value in that we count and matter to our colleagues and peers.
This manifests in the social elements of the work environment. Laughing at joke, raising eyes or brows at the remark made by a colleague commenting on their kid’s behavior, gossip about the boss’s new shoes, sniggering at the hung-over manager who had a rough weekend. All subtle, all social cues that evolve the character of that company’s workplace, that shape the culture through a series of unspoken rules of engagement beyond functional work ethics and norms. Playing, humoring, charm, interference, irritation, and celebration add further to the social environment, mimicking the character of the boss or managers or outspoken characters that every business has.
How does it work in the cold hard stare of a screen, cameras off, staccato communications, tones unattached to facial expressions and body language? It’s hard to get right. What does it say when your employees don’t want to come back…or do? Might this be the truest reflection of your company’s culture.
Culture is vital to create meaning and value beyond function. Work is a social engagement and the extent to which it can happen, how it happens has a tremendous impact on the wellbeing, happiness, and engagement of your team. This in turn impacts productivity, performance, and innovation.
How, where, and when does it occur?
A sales rep or BD comes back from a client engagement and needs to talk about the meeting. They had an epiphany moment, and the client is asking for a service that needs discussion. Getting it right gets the deal and might open a new market or competitive edge.
Operations is struggling to service a client’s expectations. Scope creep, eroding profit and time is moving out of control. The client is important, so is the time and budget driven project plan. Who has the relationship with the client to sort it out and who can ask?
An insight to a workflow comes to mind. The opportunity to improve a system is real. Quickly gathering a few colleagues in front of a white board to map it out makes it happen.
The impromptu nature of these engagements is lost and with that comes a cost.
In the flow of work, a problem arises. Leaning over the workstation or stretching across the desk, asking a colleague how to resolve it or whether they too have it is lost. How do we quantify that cost? Is it a function of time or worse, will it be ignored and what then follows on from it?
How do you engage in a negotiation across a screen? Negotiation relies on cues, expressions, tone, body, and face language. Measuring its intent – taking a chance to being deathly serious – is normally understood through these human cues. How do you get it done with cameras off? And if the cameras are on, how much can you read beyond the words being spoken, losing out all the other cues. Getting it wrong comes at a cost and we have not yet begun to understand it.
How do figure out what’s right and what’s wrong in terms of behavior and practice. Would asking suggest you don’t know and what then would the company think of your question, answer or behavior. Especially if you are a new employee, who can you observe or ask casually at the coffee station or water cooler?
Securing and onboarding future talent is particularly hard. Whilst it is the norm in multidisciplinary software projects, it is not in the everyday functions of a services business. How do you induct new recruits into the social dynamic of a business and weave them through the fabric of how, who, what makes the business work…beyond the function of their job? The goal driven and focused screen engagements get them only so far!
Can you measure your team’s performance? What if you have a bigger team, can you still? How do you measure performance? The great majority do so through activity and action. Very few businesses have systems to measure through output metrics. Logging onto the ERP or CRM and then logging off 8 hours later does not mean 8 hours of work was done!
How do you build a cohesive team? Especially true in the age-old battle between sales and ops. Tensions arise as sales ‘over sell and promise’ when ops ‘underdelivers to the client expectation’. Teams form, battle lines are drawn, managers resolve, learnings are gained and the physical engagement around it matters deeply. A great client meeting from an enthusiastic BD cannot be shared as she triumphantly walks into the office; the ring of a bell on a deal done is heard by nobody, a problem solved in administration is respected by no one. Team is built through the multiple, small, seemingly insignificant actions that create alignment, coherence, and loyalty. Is there a cost to not, having it?
We don’t know until we do. Understanding and interpreting the interactions between people is a dark science. Hard to measure, hard to notice often, hard to put a value onto until one day, things are different and not for the better. Truth is found in action and already some of the biggest service companies in the world are telling their team to come back to the workplace – Apple and JPMorgan count in amongst them. Why? And especially because they have worked remotely for years, well before the pandemic. Already, hybrid models are forming. Services organizing and reshaping to accommodate hybrid models are burgeoning as the race to find what works best is still to be seen!