By Nevo Hadas, Partner at DYDX

MIT has released research (conducted between 1 April and 5 April) showing that nearly half of the US workforce is now working from home,  and this number is set to increase. This is a massive jump from the usual 14%-16% range that report working from home or partially working from home. Whether to work remotely or not is no longer a debate, while how to manage and benefit from remote work have become key conversations.

With a global recession looming and cost-cutting a prerequisite, many CEOs are using the learnings from the global lockdown to ask why they need so much office space, and more importantly, parking space. Even if companies don’t reduce their headcount, having a remote and distributed workforce provides many cost savings not limited to physical space and facilities. Even on a social impact and environmental level, there is any number of civil society organisations who are closely monitoring the impact on infrastructure of a reduced commuting workforce, looking at carbon emissions, improved accessibility. 

Cost savings aside, remote working allows companies to recruit talent globally removing the geographic talent pool limits of “head office”. If location is not an issue then it is as feasible to hire a knowledge worker in Parys as it is in Paris.

However, companies need to be willing to adopt this change, which, until forced into it via the lockdown, they have been slow (or loathe) to do. This is generally due to nothing more than fear of change, inertia and the concern of unproductive staff working in their pyjamas.

The tools have existed for over a decade that enable remote working and are getting better at an increasing rate. While there are IT and other complexities involved, which can be overcome, for many businesses their “culture” is the key item that keeps them office-bound. There is a fear that their teams won’t be productive if they are out of the office (i.e. out of sight), or that there won’t be enough communication or they will lose the spirit that binds them together.

Speaking to many executives over the last two weeks, the key feedback received is that they have never been busier or felt more productive. That their days are filled with zoom calls, that the company has miraculously adopted group messaging tools, like Microsoft Teams or Slack, but they are now inundated with messages and emails. They are so busy speaking to people that it is hard to fit in all of the work they need to get done. It appears the cultural benefits of communication are not limited to the office, in fact, when working remotely over communication appears to be the problem. The challenge, however, has undoubtedly been one of effectiveness due to busyness.

Fundamentally, culture is the primary issue that makes remote working succeed or fail. Managers have not been trained or equipped to lead or enable remote teams. The systems and processes that are followed in physical environments do not translate well into remote ones. Meetings, which are not everybody’s favourite pastime at the office, become a far too easy norm as a video call and as diaries fill up, decision making slows down. More meetings mean the days feel busier, but there is less time for work.

The big cultural shift that we see accelerating post lockdown is the move from a physical/information age context into a digital context. This isn’t meant in a technological way, but rather in how the management approach has changed. Where in the information age it was hard to keep track of productivity and activity in employees therefore you wanted them in the office, in the digital age, the tools and systems make this easy. Managers no longer need to worry about whether people are working, but rather whether their output is meeting expectations. 

Leading a remote team is much more challenging and requires more effort. Where the default in the office is to call a meeting, remote working offers more tools and ways to resolve problems/make decisions/share information than offices do. Moving out of the “call a meeting” paradigm unlocks new productivity and effectiveness levels not experienced before by most organisations. 

Upskilling managers to lead effectively can make the difference between an organization realising the benefits of remote working or sending everyone back to their desks reverting back to the way things were.

Managers, and their teams, need to master the new collaboration tools to really unlock the power they provide. This is more challenging than expected as people generally choose to stop learning a new tool when they can replicate what they did before. This is similar to buying a fancy new cement mixer, only to mix cement by hand in its bowl. While technology plays a key role in enabling remote working, it is a blank canvas. The company’s culture and behaviours are reflected in the rules created upon it. Too often “we trust our people” cultures are shown up by draconian IT rules and regulations that limit collaboration.

What the last weeks have taught the nation is that a segment of the workforce is at least a little malleable – and that even through a period of great disruption the business of business kept on going, although with great effort and at a significant cost for some. 

The challenge for South African managers of large and small enterprises will be to understand how to flourish in this new space. Some of the changes will be forced onto business through necessity, others, who still have the luxury of a strong balance sheet, can be more measured in their implementation. Whatever the approach, the dinosaur of the “office” has hit a significant existential threat and wearing pyjamas will never be the same again.

Nevo Hadas led the development of “The Culture Canvas”, an open-source framework that makes work culture actionable for businesses to shape their team’s behaviours. The latest ebook on managing remote teams, “me.we.us” is available as a free download and a 10-minute “Remote Team Maturity” assessment, designed to help companies measure the effectiveness of their remote teams.

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