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Innovation Matters is an invitation-only series bringing together leaders in innovation to exchange ideas and address shared opportunities. The first in our series discussed a topic every executive in the world is currently grappling with: How to return to work?
New technologies, demographic shifts and the impact of COVID-19 have sparked radical shifts in how we live and work. Many companies around the world have risen to the occasion, acting swiftly to safeguard employees and migrate to a new way of working that even the most extreme business-continuity plans hadn’t envisioned. However, what comes next? How, where, and when will we work in the future? Is virtual the reality?
For this session, L Marks brought together business leaders across industries, as well as three hosts:
Most of the business leaders in the discussion were grappling with how widely to extend remote work options, and there’s no consensus yet on what’s optimal. Many of the participants shared the belief that it was best not to mandate any particular set of days or times for employees to be present “in the office” but rather focus on flexibility and output.
The answer to the above is going to require an iterative process itself. Our conversation highlighted just how hard it is to make any sort of decisions at this juncture, as the work-from-home environment right now is not normal. Participants shared how their employees are juggling child-care, education, working from kitchen tables, not being allowed to socialise, and the stress of living through a global pandemic. Everything right now is in flux, making it unwise to set any “final” policies.
To complement the iterative approach to the hybrid work policy, business leaders discussed how they were turning to real estate options that offered short term obligations without tie-ins.
Other options discussed included looking for spaces that can be bought on-demand for an hour, a day, or a week. One of the session participants shared how they are turning their fixed desk HQ into bookable spaces.
It was clear that flexibility from physical locations is going to be a key driver in the success of any hybrid work policy.
As Magnus from Zoom put it: digital transformation 1.0 separated tasks that could be done by machines from those that needed human involvement–automating as much as possible. Digital transformation 2.0 is where businesses are taking human interactions, and separating those that could be done virtually from those that must be done in person.
But one participant shared how the lines are blurring between what is possible to do from home and what should be done from home. To date, they have run virtual product panels, signed off their Mother’s Day flower range, completed Christmas new product development, and even taste-tested new dishes–receiving the products and cooking them up at home.
However, there’s another aspect to consider; not just what’s necessary to do in person from a task point of view, but the other benefits derived from in-person interactions.
Those in the session felt that companies who were able to shift to remote work and thrive had accumulated social capital, through shared experiences, strong culture, and social interactions in the office, before the pandemic. But most shared concerns that social capital is being eroded the longer teams remain remote without some form of physical interaction.
Replenishing social capital is an important consideration for business leaders who are developing any hybrid working policies, and should also influence the types of environments available in their real-estate portfolios.
While it’s not a new model, it will be a new way of organising a portfolio of real estate for many businesses. Even for companies such as WeWork, which has a 350,000 square feet international HQ in Waterloo.
Driven by the pandemic, WeWork has now created five “spokes” based on postcode analysis of their staff, so that their employees could use the residual part of their portfolio to work nearer to home.
While some participants shared concerns over losing the branding opportunity and status that comes with owning an impressive HQ, others felt that these benefits were diminished to a certain extent, due to more companies turning away from owning an HQ. Thus, some felt the need for a big centrepiece location wasn’t as important anymore.
One challenge felt by many of the business leaders was how to implement the same tenets of responsible data practices and security, for their remote workers.
Magnus from Zoom shared how he had felt the force of security concerns. When the pandemic hit and Zoom’s number of daily meeting participants rocketed 30x (to 300 million daily meeting participants), they weren’t set-up for new use-cases. Zoom reacted by dedicating all of its innovation power to privacy and security for 90 days, which led to them introducing new features like true end-to-end encryption and subsequently the hygiene feature the ability for users to pair a Zoom room with a personal mobile device.
While this discussion point requires dedicated planning and governance (a whole topic in itself), any short-term tools or technology used to “make it through” this period of upheaval should be reviewed to ensure they are compliant with internal policies (or can be made to be compliant.)
The room was split when it came to discussing approaches to upskilling and driving innovation remotely. Some participants who worked on physical products, felt in-person sessions where the team could interact with physical elements together, was the only way to upskill and innovate.
While others had seen successful onboarding and upskilling of team members virtually by buddying people up and running video sessions, paired programming, and using P2P chat tools.
It was also suggested that new roles/or responsibilities are needed within teams to help stimulate serendipitous interactions that drive innovation. Alongside this, a toolset is needed that enables virtual interaction, ideation and collaboration such as virtual whiteboards etc.
Overall, it was felt that remote teams using technology could still innovate, for the most part, if the tactics and tools discussed above were deployed.
One common question from the business leaders who attended this event was how to gauge what’s going on in your team when working remotely.
Most agreed that leaders need to be more mindful and purposeful in how they communicate, act and include other parts of their team. For example, you can’t spot one of your team struggling when you aren’t around them every day. So you might need to spend five or ten minutes per employee, dropping in and seeing how they are during the day.
Another consideration raised by one participant was around technology overload/fatigue, and how we as leaders need to work harder than ever to ensure our employees maintain mental wellbeing. One suggestion is that leadership creates “meeting-free zones”. Even Zoom has “no-meetings Wednesday” for just this reason.
With hybrid working policies comes the hybrid meeting; a mixture of meeting attendees in the office together and some on virtual connections. But many participants raised the point that virtual members might be at a disadvantage.
One participant shared that they were considering a policy where all meetings are to be conducted online, even if eight people are in the office and two people are at home. Everyone sits at their desks, creating a level-playing field from a communication standpoint.
However, Magnus suggested that such policies might not be needed if meeting rooms are fitted out with good screens and microphones. In the past, a lot of the pain points of remote work were around poor communication caused by terrible speakers and video quality. One innovation from Zoom to try to resolve this is a feature that uses AI to capture the faces of everyone in the physical meeting room and presents them all in the ‘gallery view’ for remote team members.
It’s not just hybrid meetings that might cause division. One participant shared how their organisation was already struggling with a “them vs. us” divide, typically with more senior management continuing to go into the office. But as Magnus suggests, the best CEOs intervene in such cases, to ensure executives reflect the work choices of the majority. After all, leaders have always had to lead by example, and this is just another element where leaders need to project the culture of their organisation.
This first event in the Innovation Matters series covered a range of key topics and challenges around working policies and practices faced by business leaders. With open and active participation, the session concluded with ideas beneficial to each leader.
The key takeaways from the session were:
While some of the topics can only be resolved through the iterative development of policies and solutions over time, others were combatted through shared ideas, debate, and examples. We’d like to thank everyone who contributed, making this event so valuable.
Innovation Matters is a new invitation-only series from L Marks, bringing together business leaders and corporate innovators to discuss key issues on business trends and shared innovation opportunities. To learn more about Innovation Matters, please enter your details below:
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