It’s Not Just Remote, Now or In the Future

It’s happening again. We’re falling into an all or nothing trap. Before COVID-19’s almost overnight shift to remote work, the four-day workweek was the future of work topic du jour. Now, after a six-month collective “work from home” pilot, there’s a myopic focus on remote work as being THE future of work reality.

This despite the fact that senior leader reviews are mixed as noted in Chip Cutter’s recent Wall Street Journal article that featured the opinions of nearly 20 CEOs. To be sure, until it’s safe for us to gather in the same workspace, remote work will continue to be one of the ways to keep organizations running and people healthy and employed.

But it will not be just remote work. It has been and will continue to be a FLEXIBLE dynamic way of operating across place, space, tech, time, process, and pace that is high performance flexibility.

As I described in my April USA Today opinion piece about flexible work as a business continuity and economic recovery strategy:

“An ongoing flexible work response to COVID-19 will combine remote work and flexible scheduling determined by the realities of an industry, job or person. That blend of flexible work would scale up or down based upon the goals of the business and the response required to manage the virus. As stay-at-home orders ease, there may be a transition period during which employees rotate working remotely two days a week and at the office three days a week as members of staggered A and B teams that allow for onsite social distancing.”

And that is exactly what’s been happening:

Time (Schedule) and Team Flexibility

PathGuide Technologies surveyed its warehouse distribution customers and found remote work, “options simply are not feasible for warehouse workers. Instead, we’re hearing from quite a few distributors that are splitting warehouse crews into two (or more) groups, so if someone on one team is exposed to or experiences COVID-19 symptoms they still have the other team that is able to keep operations going.

Work and Life Flexibility

“This is a smart approach, as it not only limits the number of employees in the distribution center at the same time, but it also inherently increases the physical space between employees. As an added benefit, this tactic provides flexibility for workers with children participating in online schooling or facing childcare constraints,” wrote Eric Allais, president and CEO in a recent column.

Workspace and Process Flexibility

Allias also noted his distribution customers were not only using this time to protect employees in the workplace but also to maintain a strong culture and plan for the future including how to better configure workspace and processes. “These companies are steadfast that now is not the time to close shop. Instead, they’re prioritizing steps they can take today to come out the other side stronger, leaner and more efficient.”

What’s next?  Dynamic flexibility in how, when and where work is done.

These organizations are clearly using NOW to stabilize and plan for what’s NEXT.  So, what is next?  It’s not just remote, even in organizations where that has been the primary COVID-19 response. Leaders and organizations are starting to announce that going forward, as safety considerations allow, the reality will be dynamic flexibility in how, when and where work is done.

Google will pursue a “hybrid” work model when offices reopen. In a recent survey of employees, 62% want to return to the office at some point—but not every day. Google’s leaders are highlighting adaptability as they make future plans.

“I see the future as being more flexible,” Pichai said in a recent CNBC interview. “We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new so we don’t see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility and more hybrid models.”

“What do we need to do, and how, when and where do we do it best?”

This is the COVID-19 opportunity – the opportunity to reimagine work with managers and employees sharing leadership as they determine “what do we need to get done and how, when and where we do it best?”  But this time use the coming months to approach it with ample strategic planning following a consistent process that’s rooted in culture yet dynamic and responsive as needs evolve.

A recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report, Recreating Work as a Blend of Physical and Virtual Experiences, reinforced this “not just remote” reality.

“Coming out of the pandemic, business leaders have a real opportunity to optimize and even transform their way of working. The workplace of the future will blend physical (onsite) and digital (remote) work to an extent not seen before.”

I couldn’t agree more! This was the main topic of discussion last week when I joined a line-up of world-class speakers for the Irish Management Institute’s (IMI) National Management Conference. The program focused on how business leaders can “Reflect, Reimagine, and Rebuild” to move their organizations through the pandemic’s economic fallout and accelerate their pathway back to growth.

I’ll share more about what I said and heard in a future post. But until then, check out my Six Words of Wisdom IMI preview.

There’s a lot happening right now.  What continues to encourage and inspire me is the energy and commitment I see at every level within organizations to pull together and navigate this evolving work and life reality.  Ultimately, we will emerge on the other side, better and stronger.  We will.  I know it.  Keep going.