March 12, 2020 began as so many other days had since our founding in 2005. It would end with our culture forever changed.
Around 8:00 that morning, our team members began rolling into the office. Soon music was humming in the background and the phones were ringing. Lola, our Boston Terrier officemate, was making her morning rounds, eagerly greeting all who entered, including a few clients who had meetings with our project teams and delivery people dropping off supplies. Casual conversations could be heard along with waves of laughter as the office filled. Mixed in with the banter were shared concerns about #Covid19, which had been dominating the news, including reports that our state’s largest school district would be canceling classes until further notice, and, in California, San Francisco was on the verge of a city-wide shelter-in-place order. An anxious energy was taking hold, and for good reason. No one had ever experienced anything like this. And it was scary.
For the first time, our team’s physical health felt threatened. My business partner and I knew we had to take action. That day, at noon, we held a staff meeting to share our decision to close the office entirely. Thinking it would only be a couple weeks—a month at the most—we announced that everyone would begin #workingfromhome starting the next day. Our team felt relieved, though concerned about what the coming days and weeks might bring.
By 3:00 p.m., everyone had packed up the last of what they needed to begin working from home. Gradually, the familiar vibe of our office, and all the energy that pulsed through it, disappeared as each team member left the building. Then, in an instant, we became a #virtualteam and my business partner and I were #virtual leaders—something we had never done before.
Many months later, save for a few team members stopping by from time to time for supplies and a couple who have commandeered former conference rooms that were once collaboration centers for clients and project teams, the office that once served as a galvanizing gathering place for our culture, remains strangely silent.
With more than 100 million Americans working from home, a great experiment is taking place. As a #vaccine makes its way to the general public, leaders are feeling the weight of critical decisions waiting to be made, including what the future of their organizations will look and feel like post-#Covid.
The pandemic has forced organizations to embrace remote work for an extended period of time, certainly well into 2021. Some organizations, such as #Facebook, recently announced the creation of a new role called Director of Remote Work, along with a pledge to transition half of its nearly 50,000-person global workforce to work from home within the next five to 10 years. Other organizations, such as #Twitter, #Square and #VMware have taken steps to allow employees to work from home indefinitely.
While examples like these have ignited a new work-from-home movement, some leaders haven’t been so quick to permanently lock their office doors. Instead, they’re taking time to consider an important big-picture question:
Once the pandemic is safely behind us, even if all roles can be performed remotely, is a permanent office closure the right long-term decision for my organization’s culture?
It’s a question fraught with tension as more and more employees share their preference for working remotely. A recent Gallup poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of US workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so. It makes sense. Many feel more productive and the freedom and flexibility they experience are both valuable and liberating. Who wants to sit in traffic just to go to a building to do work when the same or more can be accomplished from home?
While this is a valid and convincing argument, it’s one that should be carefully balanced with close consideration for the kind of culture that’s needed to not only further employee engagement (which is different from employee satisfaction), but also help sustain business success. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, chief executive of human resources for Humu and the former HR chief at Google said, “There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable.’”
As you contemplate the pros and cons of transitioning to a permanent work-from-home policy, consider the following:
Your culture is a unique and valuable strategic asset.
An organization’s culture is, by far, its most important strategic asset. Without question, it is the one thing that cannot be duplicated by the competition. Though often taken for granted and frequently misunderstood, an organization’s culture is a powerful force—one that holds the key to every success an organization will ever achieve.
One of the most defining responsibilities a leader has is to nurture the conditions and collective spirit that allows an organization to reach its full potential. In the remote work environment you may be envisioning, consider the strategic role your culture needs to play in the success of your business. Start by answering these questions:
1. How will innovation take place?
2. How will creativity flourish?
3. How will trust emerge?
4. How will relationships be formed?
Leading from afar requires a plan—and some regrounding.
Leading from afar isn’t a new thing. Certainly, regional and global leaders have been doing it for years and, as a result, have developed a level of comfort that has become second nature. However, for leaders who are new to leading work-from-home cultures, successfully making the transition, without sacrificing the impact of their culture’s contribution to success, requires a plan and a particular
Recently a client, who was new to a leading a remote workforce, shared with me that they felt awkward leading a virtual team, as though they were suddenly forced to write with their non-dominant hand all the time. They felt disoriented and tentative in their approach to working with their team. The old rules of engagement no longer applied. What made their culture gel #preCovid was different and they no longer felt the same level of confidence.
While leading via a two-dimensional computer screen looks and feels different, the good news is it’s doable and you can once again feel that same level of ease you once had as a leader. If you determine a permanent shift to working-from-home is right for your business, it will be important to understand the range of leadership implications it presents. Are you prepared?
Every leader has a particular formula—a unique leadership philosophy or value proposition that allows them to consistently show up at their best and positively influence their team. The formula you used pre-Covid will likely serve you going forward—however, it will need to be adapted to fit within your new operating environment. As part of your decision-making process, take time to reground yourself in the substance of your leadership approach by asking yourself the following clarifying questions:
1. How do I define leadership?
2. Why am I called to lead?
3. What is the experience I intend to create for my team?
4. What, above all else, can my team count on me for?
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Now is a good time to do some organizational soul searching. Stan Slap, author of Under The Hood, Fire Up And Fine Tune Your Employee Culture, brings this idea to a fine point:
“Understanding the true motivations of culture is the most critical information you can have.”
What is really motivating your people when they ask to permanently stay at home? A closer look may reveal that transitioning to a permanent work-from-home policy isn’t the solution. Instead, it’s only part of it.
You have options. Rather than a one or the other decision, consider thinking in terms an integrated ecosystem of flexibility.
For example, perhaps it makes sense to collaborate with your team to design an environment in which work takes place in a variety of physical settings, including client sites, travel sites, home offices and a shared space that everyone recognizes as their home base where they can experience connection and a sense of belonging. An integrated option like this would honor the preference for flexibility, while at the same time appreciating the critical contribution that a strong, connected culture plays in driving your organization’s success and strengthening your employer brand.
No doubt, the work-from-home experiment has brought with it more questions than answers. Looking toward the future, how and where work gets done—whether it’s from home, from an office or some combination of other creative ideas—will be one of the most pivotal decisions you’ll make as a leader.
Take the time you need to think it through. Listen closely to your people while also keeping the big picture in mind. Don’t underestimate the contribution culture makes to the success of your organization’s long-term success. The best decision you can make right now may be to look before you leap.