The historic opportunity that continues to get buried behind RTO Mandate headlines

What’s behind the most recent round of post-holiday RTO mandate headlines? Since the calendar flipped to September, I’ve been asked to weigh in on this important topic with CNN This Morning, USA Today, and WorkLife.

We have a historic opportunity to be strategic and intentional in reimagining and recalibrating work to meet the needs of the business AND the workforce.  But, that requires asking a better question than, “How many days in the office?” This was the crux of a great conversation over Labor Day Weekend on CNN This Morning.

On the same topic, in his recent article, “Return to office mandates pick up steam as Labor Day nears but many employees resist,” USA Today’s Paul Davidson talks about how Amazon CEO Andy Jassy was “losing patience” with the internal tug-of-war between leaders who want people in the office and employees who don’t understand the “why” behind RTO mandates.

The Amazon situation is a classic case of employers believing if everyone “returns to the office” on a set number of days, then the in-person interactions that achieve the outcomes they think are suffering will magically happen.  Unfortunately, too often, they don’t.

That’s why, on the other side, you have employees who feel they end up sitting in the office doing the same work they were doing remotely, and they want to know why they are there.

The reality is that being in the same location doesn’t automatically result in the collaboration that optimizes that time together toward priority outcomes.

In-the-office and in-person are not the same. 

As I told Paul, “Without a clear rationale, supported by data, and a plan to achieve those outcomes with more in-person interaction, employees will resist.  Employers can choose to double down on mandates and risk the turnover and recruiting challenges research is showing can result.”

Or, instead, ask, “What aspects of talent development, productivity, or culture benefit from more in-person interaction?  Where does that happen best, and when?”  Then, use the answer to determine the number of days in an office, at a client site, home, or other remote location.

Research and our experience show that workers’ sweet spot for onsite is between 2-3 days. If you define those days by focusing on the work, or the “what,” and then the “where,”  everyone will have a clearer picture of why it matters to be together and prioritize those activities AS WELL AS plan and prioritize what will happen when you’re NOT in person, which is equally as important (and too often overlooked).

How are the various stakeholders impacted by the RTO debate faring? Amazon earned a spot on the losing side of the equation in the latest piece from Jessica Davies, managing editor at WorkLife. Another stakeholder she focused is HR. They need to enforce a policy they often know isn’t optimal. I noted, ultimately, HR will need support from senior leaders in the business willing to “experiment, innovate, train people … a much more resource-intensive, time-intensive, focus-intensive endeavor.”

In today’s flexible work reality, one-size-will-not-fit-all. Employers and employees can engage in a consistent process to determine where, when, and how work is done best together, but that takes time, resources, training, and willingness to experiment.  However, despite being on round three of RTO mandates, some employers believe it’s faster and simpler to mandate a top-down “return” and risk resistance.

Hopefully, this time we will take a different, better path.

My NJ Star Ledger Op Ed What’s Next for Work Now that COVID Emergencies Expired

Imagine a future in which leaders, rather than clinging to a model of work that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020, invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high performance flexibility.

Yet, with COVID public health emergency declarations expiring last month, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. In an opinion piece published in this past Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger, I provide both context for why and guidance on how to close this gap.

You can read the full piece below, but if I can offer one hopeful takeaway it’s this:

“Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together … The effort is not only worth it, but also transformational.”

By Cali Williams Yost

While COVID public health emergency declarations expired last month, the way we work is forever changed. Flexible work certainly had roots before we were mandated to stay home in March of 2020. But those changes were abrupt with no time to plan. Organizations quickly had to transform how they operated, and in some cases even survived.

Three years later, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. Many leaders with genuine concerns about innovation, talent development, and culture believe the best work happens onsite while employees believe they’ve done their jobs well, or even better, with increased flexibility.

Both sides have some validity, which has led to a historic clash of contexts between the two. Leaders demand “come back” and employees rightfully ask, “Why?” Attempts to close this gap with return-to-office mandates, extra perks, and events fall flat.

As employers double down on compliance, it’s pushing employees further toward the door. Additionally, this approach makes work even less flexible than before COVID. The more rigid policies become, the more organizations miss the opportunity to develop a well-executed flexibility strategy that enhances job performance, employee engagement, and well-being. Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together.

But first, we need to recognize that COVID accelerated an existing trend toward greater flexibility and the priority now is to optimize that flexibility. Leaders need to stop wasting resources trying to “go back” and instead invest in high-performance flexibility across workplaces, spaces and time.

Data from my firm’s research conducted before the pandemic found most U.S. employees had some form of flexibility with more than one-third saying they did most of their work remotely. But that same survey showed nearly half of those with flexibility received no training or guidance how to use it. Additionally, in a Harvard Business School survey of 6,500 global leaders, also conducted before COVID, respondents cited “expectation for flexibility” as the top future of work factor they expected to impact their businesses, yet prepared for that flexibility was ranked 14th.

Second, come to terms with the price and payoff of optimizing flexibility. Just as with other business priorities and change, high-performance flexibility requires strategic intention, resources, commitment, and a willingness to collectively experiment and learn. The payoff is a dynamic, agile business and workforce that takes the best of how, when and where we worked both before and during the pandemic and moves forward from there.

Third, stop with the mandates and stop using a set number of days in office as a proxy for performance. Instead, leaders and teams together need to first ask, “What do we need to get done and why?” That lays the foundation to determine how, when and where we can do the best work and meet the needs of both the business and the employees. This also allows leaders to address what they believe was lost during the pandemic’s crisis-driven shift to flexible work and what they see as most important to regain.

Lastly, understand that inclusion in the process, not the outcome, ensures consistency and fairness. When everyone’s involved in answering the questions above, then everyone’s involved in redefining how, when and where they work next. That will differ by the job, the organization and the clientele, but under the umbrella of a consistent flexibility strategy.

For the majority of workers who do their jobs onsite, reconsider how and when they work. For those who can work either onsite or remotely, rethink how they spend their time when in person. And for those with fully remote roles, determine how they remain connected with colleagues and integral to day-to-day operations. Work will never be one-size-fits-all.

As we move past COVID’s public health emergency, some will continue to cling to a work model that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020. But I hope most will invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high-performance flexibility, one in which we move past entrenched beliefs and reimagine the future of work. The effort is not only worth it but also transformational.


“Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development”

As questions about hybrid workplaces and how, when, and where we do our best work continue to take center stage moving forward from COVID, one of biggest reasons leaders give for seeking a return to the office – either by mandate or by guessing on a magic number of days – is the need for onboarding, training, and developing talent in today’s flexible work environments.

This was the topic of a recent conversation I had with Jeanne Sahadi of CNN Business and the focus of her resulting article, “Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development.”

As I told Jeanne, and as I tell every leader who will listen, “Fixating on the question of ‘how many days should employees be in the office?’ is the wrong approach. One size will not fit all. That is why mandates are failing.”

I advise leaders that the better approach is to let individual operating units within an organization decide for themselves how often they need to be in person after addressing the same series of questions:

1. What work needs to be done?
2. How should we train and mentor new talents to achieve that?
3. How, when and where can training and work happen best?

When mandates are handed down in the name of enhancing the onboarding process or being necessary to preserve an organization’s culture, it sets up what I call the clash of contexts: employees fail to see the need to be in the office when they’ve been satisfied and productive remotely; organizations fail to clearly define how on-site work supports the purpose and goals of the business.
My suggested questions put the focus back where it needs to be: on the work that needs to get done. And, as I also shared with Jeanne, “Included in the answers are issues of onboarding and how to successfully foster observation and learning — while realistically assessing what is best done in person versus what can be accomplished remotely. In general, there has been a lack of intentionality of how we develop young people. It wasn’t awesome pre-COVID either. This is an opportunity to do better.”

To be clear, in-person absolutely matters, unless time together is spent siloed behind closed doors on randomly mandated days. But leaders have to start by defining their why or purpose and then work with their teams collaboratively to re-imagine how in-person time supports culture and collaboration and, in turn, fosters productive and meaningful onboarding and training.

Finally, a quick shout out to Mark Gilbreath who recognized the importance of this topic and included Jeanne’s article in his “Another week, another wave” round up newsletter, which includes 5 news items from the world of work and workplace you can digest in 5 minutes.

“What keeps you up at night?” My interview on UC Berkeley Extension’s The Future of Work podcast

“What keeps you up at night?”  That’s one of the thought-provoking questions the host of UC Berkeley Extension’s The Future of Work podcast, Jill Finlayson, asked during my recent appearance. Finlayson is also the Director of EDGE (Expanding Diversity and Gender Equity) in Tech Initiative at UC, and the monthly podcast she hosts focuses on the changing evolution of the workforce and the skills needed to stay competitive.

In this episode, The Humanizing of Flexible Work, we discuss the costs and benefits of flexibility, the impacts as more employees work a hybrid schedule, and who might get left behind or forgotten.

But we started our conversation with a question I’ve never been asked before: what keeps me up at night?

First, I am constantly thinking about how can I share with organizations, leaders, and individual employees what I’ve learned over nearly three decades actually transforming work so they don’t feel so overwhelmed. There is a proven path. How can I help them be as excited as I am about the possibilities of a well-executed flexible work strategy? I’ve seen the results and benefits that I call “the spark.”

Second, I still don’t think leaders truly understand that we’re not going back to the old ways of working. Without senior leader buy-in and sponsorship, a broad flexible reimagining of work is much more difficult.

And third, we are still too hyper-focused on where we work. Instead of leading with the work – purpose, values, and also job tasks – and THEN, determining together not just where, but how and when that work is done best.

It’s not that where doesn’t matter. It’s just not the most effective place to start. For example, what leads to a better outcome–setting “anchor days” and then figuring out what you’re going to do on those days onsite together, or looking first at what you need to do and then deciding if anchor days make sense and, if they do, what would the best anchor day or days be?

Yes, change is scary.  But I’ve seen what happens when work is the focal point. You start to ask “How can we do this better?  How can we do this more effectively?” That’s innovation in action.

Take the best of how we worked during the pandemic, and add back what was missing. That’s how you move forward to the best of what’s next and unlock new levels of performance and well-being.

But it requires a consistent process to guide that decision-making and a new set of skills for both leaders and employees. It also requires us to expand beyond hybrid and remote work, which are just two possible ways to work flexibly, and exclude nearly half of the workforce that needs to be onsite for their jobs. To fully seize the beneficial outcomes of high performance flexibility, organizations need to consider the full continuum of how, when, and where work can be done across the entire talent base.

We discuss this and much more, including my look ahead at how, when, and where I believe we’ll be working 10 to 25 years from now. Listen to the full episode.

In the Boardroom and Why Values are Foundational to High Performance Flexibility

Produced by BDO’s Center for Corporate Governance, BDO in the Boardroom is a podcast for board of directors and those charged with governance. I joined Amy Rojik, Managing Partner, Corporate Governance, on a recent episode to address whether today’s directors truly comprehend the new reality of work and how it’s fundamentally changed.

We discussed why the successful execution of high performance flexibility requires full C-suite participation, organization-wide training, and a willingness to experiment. I shared how the boards and leadership teams that have instilled a strong set of core values and a culture of innovation have more success evolving and optimizing the flexible way their organization operates. 
When organizations align their work with their values and live those values, they’re leading with what they need to do. They lead with the work first and in service of the work, then they determine how, when, and where they do that best. Using your office building is not a value, but it can certainly enable connection and culture – those are values. (Yep — Return to office mandates, I’m talking to you.)
Whether it’s supporting colleagues or serving customers or communities, when work and values align, that’s what increases productivity and moves organizations forward.
Listen to the full BDO In the Boardroom episode. And for a refresher and further insights into why flexibility matters to corporate boards and governance execs, look to my July 26 newsletter on the topic.
A bit about my relationship with BDO. The professional services firm is a long-term Flex+Strategy Group client. High performance flexibility serves as a critical business driver for the firm, which continues to take its flexible work strategy to the next level as an integral part of its culture and operations.  
“Together, We Thrive” was the theme of their recent partner meeting where I gave a keynote that included stories and insights from the three partners — Meredith Pilaro, Ayoub Sunna, and Daniel Kramer — who champion the national effort. (That’s us illuminated by the backstage lights after we presented.)

The keynote served as a force multiplier kick-off. The goal was to ensure the firm’s 800 partners are poised to lead from a shared understanding and consistent approach as they continue to optimize how, when, and where their offices and teams are working to meet emerging employee and client needs.

This leveling-up execution includes the launch of a new Flex Success training series to provide professionals at all levels the skills and tools to partner with each other to define and execute the flexibility that will work for the unique needs of the firm and its employees. 
What is your organization doing to involve, engage and prepare every level for flex success and how can we help? Let me know.

Why Flexibility Matters to Corporate Boards and Governance Execs

As oversight of talent and human capital issues become front and center for corporate boards, I joined KPMG Board Leadership Center’s (BLC) Spring Directors Roundtable as a panelist for a discussion about “What workers want – Understanding the new employee/employer dynamic.” We explored the factors driving employees’ needs and expectations—from personal well-being and work-life fit to alignment with the company’s purpose.

Moderated by KMPG BLC Senior Advisor Stephen L. Brown, the panel also included Columbia Business School’s Todd Jick. Todd is the Reuben Mark Faculty Director of Organizational Character and Leadership and a former independent director of Claire’s Stores, Inc. Our other panelist was Eskalera co-founder and CEO Dane E. Holmes, who is also an independent director of KKR & Co., Inc. and Goldman Sachs’ former global head of human capital management.

We all agreed regardless of how directors structure their oversight of human capital management and talent strategy, it should be part of every board discussion. And as I noted, that includes work flexibility.

When people say, “I want flexibility,” they really want to be able to have some control over how, when, and where they’re going to do their jobs best. That means flexibility is not an HR policy or program that sits outside of the business. But unfortunately, that’s why a lot of organizations are stuck.

Why does this matter now and going forward? Because institutional investors and regulators are increasingly focused on ESG and human-capital metrics, all of which are directly impacted in some way by flexibility in how, when, and where we work.

Read more about our Spring Directors Roundtable in this Insight recap that was published in the July edition of KMPG’s Directors Quarterly publication and is also available at the KMPG Board Leadership Center. Additionally, you can watch webcast replay of the full Roundtable.

Flexibility was also on the agenda at the recent Society for Corporate Governance National Conference where I was a panelist for the general session, “The Modern Workplace” along with Randy Clark, CAO of Sempra Infrastructure, Geralyn Ritter, Head of External Affairs and ESG at Organon, and Adam Kokas, EVP and General Counsel of Atlas Air. We all agreed whether it’s cybersecurity to DEI to pending SEC rules regarding human capital metrics, the flexibility at the core of the modern workplace impacts a variety of management and corporate governance issues.

Lastly, the update of a popular corporate finance textbook reinforces the role strategies such as work flexibility will play in the operational, cultural, and financial success of organizations. The 14th edition of Principles of Corporate Finance (Brealey, Myers, Allen, Edmans) was released earlier this month.

Read more of my thoughts about this.

The days of flexibility as the sole responsibility of HR and thought of as nothing more than an employee perk or policy are long gone. If flexibility isn’t an all-C-suites hands-on-deck issue at your organization, you’re at risk.

“Flexibility was among the top reasons workers quit their jobs.”

To the organizations that had hoped the threat of a recession would cause people to place less value on flexibility, it’s not happening.

Flexibility+Pay+Opportunity remains the value proposition that drives whether people quit or stay in their jobs, per new research from The Conference Board

“Flexibility was among the top reasons workers quit their jobs.”

Reasons people quit: “If you voluntarily left your organization for another job, what were your reasons? Which of the following reasons would influence your decision to stay with your organization?

* 17 percent of workers voluntarily left their company within the last year for a flexible work location, flexible work schedule, or the ability to work from home/anywhere.
* Other top reasons workers left their jobs were higher pay (22 percent) and career advancement (14 percent)—the usual drivers of job change.

Reasons people stay: More flexibility, higher pay, and career advancement were also the top factors that would influence workers’ decision to stay at their company:

* Flexibility: 54 percent
* Higher pay: 53 percent
* Career advancement: 33 percent

However, “Employees are voting with their feet to gain flexibility. But with flexibility must come boundaries,” said Robin Erickson PhD, Vice President of Human Capital, The Conference Board.”

In other words, people want flexibility BUT that flexibility needs to be effective and intentional. This is the next phase for organizations.


Overcome Skepticism to Hybrid Work

This exchange during a recent LinkedIn Live discussion hosted by Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times perfectly illustrates the current state of flexible, hybrid execution in organizations.

Leaders are grappling with how to navigate the very real tension between what people want and how to operate their business in a flexible dynamic way that achieves performance AND well-being.

At minute 27, Shrimsley sets up the challenge with this question, “Are we in danger of being a little bit fluffy?…Of course, we want to be as helpful as we can to employees but we actually have business needs and can’t lose sight of that. Thoughts?”

The responses from the panel:

–you need to be human-centric in how you lead or people will not work for you, and that includes giving them the flexibility they expect and want.

–yes, but it has to work for the business too. We have a business to run, customers to service, and salaries to pay.

Finally, an agreement that ultimately it needs to be BOTH.

Yes, but then HOW DO YOU DO THAT? That’s the $64,000 question. This threading of the “both/and” needle will be the next-stage of execution.

Here’s the good news — the process for executing a flexible operating model is NOT NEW.

What’s new is the scale at which it’s happening and a different leader/employee dynamic driving the change:

Pre-pandemic flexible work transformation was led by a visionary leader who had to bring their workforce along and show them they could do it. There weren’t that many of those leaders but we’ve been fortunate enough to work side-by-side with them for years.

Now, it’s the workforce that knows they can do it forcing EVERY leader to be more visionary about how, when and where work can be done.

Again, the good news is, once leaders make the leap, the roadmap to translate that vision into a reality that works for the business AND people exists. And the even better news is the performance, engagement and well-being you will unlock make taking that leap worth it.

#reimaginework #flexiblework #strategy #innovation #leadership #evolution #performance #futureofwork #hybridwork #remotework #wellbeing #talent #worklifefit #business #people #transformation #linkedin #change

Was it ever OK to go camera off?

I’m consistently asked this question: how do we communicate most effectively as we transition to working across different onsite and remote workplaces and spaces?

Many of the default communication norms adopted during the crisis-driven shift to remote work no longer serve us. They need to be reviewed and, possibly, revised.

Thank you to ROY MAURER for asking me to share my thoughts on virtual meetings, video conferencing and the need to intentionally clarify norms like, “cameras on or cameras off?”

Full article can be accessed here

It’s Not Too Late: How to Rapidly Switch to a Remote and Flexible Workplace

Monday morning we woke up to additional states and cities announcing “shelter in place” and “stay home” mandates. That means this week even more organizations and employees find themselves working remotely and flexibly for the first time.

It’s not too late to take action. Leaders still have time to help their organizations make the remote and flexible workplace pivot. And, in doing so, maintain a level of operating continuity without unnecessarily jeopardizing their employees’ health during the evolving new normal of the coronavirus crisis.

They also avoid the risk of having to scramble at the last minute if forced to completely shut down in-person, non-essential operations at some point.

Here are ten basic, get-started steps to rapidly transition your organization. These steps are taken from four more comprehensive posts listed below if you want more details.

I also discussed five of the steps in this episode of the Disrupt Yourself podcast (episode and transcript) with disruption expert, Whitney Johnson.

To get started:

Map out Jobs and Tasks. Note which roles and duties:

1) Can be done, even partially, remotely,

2) Cannot be done, even somewhat, remotely, and

3) Not sure (experiment with these by starting remotely).

Divide Non-Remote Employees into A and B Teams: For jobs that cannot be done even partially remotely, AND if you are not under a “shelter-in-place” or “stay home” mandate yet, divide employees deemed ESSENTIAL to onsite operations into A and B teams.Spread parents across “A and B” teams and be creative with schedules to allow them to coordinate childcare.

Prioritize Use of Available IT Hardware and Software. Start with the tech most people know and can easily use. Keep it simple. Wait to explore adopting any new technology solutions until later.

Set up a Communications Protocol. Clarify how different constituents will communicate and when. Don’t be afraid to “interrupt” each other. Assume everyone is “working” unless otherwise indicated.

Redirect Work: Identify tasks/meetings that can be handled virtually without disruption and execute as many details as possible. Experiment where you aren’t sure.

Optimize Work: Fill extra time and capacity that opens up with important, backburner projects that never seemed to get done before (e.g. manuals updated, market research conducted, client lists reviewed), but can be completed virtually.

Continually Prioritize and Check-in (Even If It Feels Like Micro-Managing): Set a schedule for formal one-on-one and team updates. During these check-ins, continually review and prioritize what matters. Leave space for some personal community-building.

Shift Your Productivity Mindset: This is not business as usual. It’s an immediate crisis with very real challenges to address. Adjust your productivity expectations accordingly. SOME productivity is better than NO productivity right now. Keep the flywheel going and people contributing as much as possible especially as everyone gets their bearings in this new temporary normal.

Accept Imperfect Remote Workspaces and Practices: Encourage people to be accessible and responsive during this crisis transition, even with dogs, kids, and roommates in the background.

Capture Real-time Learning and Insights: Each week, check-in and capture what’s happening. These insights can guide the ongoing reimagining of how, when and where work can be done through each phase of the crisis and beyond.

More details regarding the above steps can be found in the following posts:

What’s Your Company’s Remote Work Plan? (HBR)

Tips for Leading Organizations New to Remote and Flexible Work (LinkedIn)

How to Work and Take Care of 32 Million Children (LinkedIn)

A/B Teams: Flexible Schedules and Locations When Remote Work Isn’t an Option (LinkedIn)