I was indoctrinated. From the day I started at Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) it was clear that if we were not on-site, we were doing something wrong. Being on-site with our clients built trust that was essential to our change-management role, and it helped to build strong interconnections that are integral to long lasting relationships—which helped us sell further work.
As you can imagine, nearly 20 years at PwC instilled in me a strong predisposition to be “in the office”. Fast forward 20+ more years and I am not so sure the lessons I learned from my time at PwC are universal, at least as they relate to a subset of jobs that are important to our economy. Why have my views changed?
After leaving PwC, I spent a good deal of my time at both Mayer Brown and Textura working to get (and retain) the right talent. Attracting the best and brightest was a struggle. We always seemed to be 25- 50 people short of what we needed to be able to meet the aggressive technology goals that we set for ourselves. During my tenure at these organizations we never solved the problem. We found some stopgap fixes, like opening an office in downtown Chicago for Textura, as it was a more desirable location to work than our suburban headquarters and partnering with outsourcing companies. This helped, but also pointed out that people, even then, were sensitive to the logistics and the potential time commitment of getting to and from work.
After I left Textura, I joined a new company as a board member. The challenges of finding good people remained, but collaboration software that supported working at distance had matured. We simply couldn’t attract enough people to Charlottesville, Virginia to support our software development ambitions. The CIO, who was a visionary in this respect, pushed successfully to hire people in place, i.e. we allowed people to work where they wanted to live. We started a grand experiment. At least that is how I saw it. There was no requirement to be in the office. Eliminating the need to be in the office vastly enlarging the talent pool, making it infinitely easier to attract top talent. And, this was done pre-COVID.
Then came the pandemic. It supercharged to motivation for a broad range of companies to adopt the strategies and tactics from Co-Construct’s “grand experiment”:
- It made an already tight labor market even tighter. This made recruiting and retention even more challenging and will continue to put pressure on companies to be flexible and support their employees desire to work-at-home;
- It forced many companies to adopt work-at-home constructs. Governmental requirements to adopt social distancing made working at home the only practical way to keep employees working. It accelerated a trend that I would argue had already started and largely proved it workable; and
- It proved that within limits that we have technology that can support a flexible working environment.
That said, many CEOs, a good number of whom are my age or slightly younger, were brought up to think that a necessary part of work was being at work. So now with COVID waning they are beginning to think that it is time to get everyone back to work. I would counsel them not to move too quickly or unconditionally in that direction.
Why do I say this? There is a shortage of skilled labor. And there is a serious war for talent underway. Flexibility (in terms of where and when people work) weighs heavily in the decision-making process as current employees and candidates decide where to work. Just to be clear (according to a study by Marissa Baker at the University of Washington) we are probably only talking about 25% of the workforce. She breaks it down:
- Likely can work from home (25%)
- Computer Science
- Likely cannot work from home (56%)
- Health Care
- Industrial Processes
- Material Movement
- Cannot work from home (20%)
- Food Services
- Personal Car Services
You can quibble with a percentage point or two here and there, but the order of magnitude is correct. So, when we hear that companies need to consider whether it is a good idea to continue to let their workers carry on working at distance, those eligible to work at distance are a fraction of the workforce. Albeit, if you look at the functions listed in Dr. Baker’s study, an important part of the workforce.
I believe that there are several things that need to be considered when deciding if workers need to be in the office. And, to make things more complicated, there are three general groups of considerations:
Can you attract and retain workers:
- We have a hot labor market. And, some of the hardest to fill jobs are amongst those who fall in the category of those who can work at home.
- “Compensation” is a multifaceted concept and flexibility concerning when and where you work has become an attractive (from the workers point of view) and viable (from the employers’ point of view) tool when specifying job parameters.
- The bottom line is that companies that adopt hiring strategies that adjust to account for the realities of points one and two above will have a significant competitive advantage when it comes to attracting the best and brightest.
What are the attributes of an employee’s job responsibilities that make someone a good candidate, or not, to work at distance?
- Some of the choices seem obvious. If the employee’s work requires face to face interactions, like a health care worker’s interaction and a hospitalized patient, working from home would be impossible. On the other hand, one could argue that a call center employee could work as well at a desk in their home as at an in-office call center.
- And, there are individual employee-by-employee situations that need to be considered. Does the employee have a workspace at home that is conducive to work. A household where the employee is constrained to sharing space with young children would mitigate against a worker qualifying to work at home since working conditions would not be conducive to high quality, productive job performance.
- Are there tools to support the function you are looking to deliver via distance working? Fortunately, in many cases, tool sets that support in-office working and collaboration port very nicely the distance working arena. I would point to the service desk function as a prime example. While I can think of several tweaks that would improve its ability to support distance working, it is well set, as is, to support workers at distance.
Software development is another function that already has many of the tools necessary to support working at distance. There are excellent project management, collaboration and software development tools on the market. Between them, the tools to effectively manage the software development process in a distributed environment are robust and capable.
That said, the functions requiring upstream (gathering and specifying requirements) processes are less well covered. I would argue that the collaboration between the people who need the software and those that capture requirements and specify design is still best done in person, which suggests in-person office-based interactions.
And, do you have the management practices need to manage at distance in place?
- While many of the techniques used to manage people in the office transfer nicely to the management of employees at distance, I would suggest that there are differences, and ignoring those differences has its costs.
- There is a fundamental need to maintain a discipline around people management irrespective of whether they are working at home or the office. While there are more mature processes around office related people management, I would not say they are good. So, there is work to be done.
- And finally, do your employees have the skills and experience necessary to be successful working at distance.
I will expand on this last set of ideas in a future blog post.
- Carefully choose which functions are eligible for distance working and specify the requirements that eligible employees must meet to individually qualify to work at distance.
- Make sure to communicate who (and why) distance working applies to, so that employees who are and are not eligible for distance working understand the reasoning
- Make sure that you have the policies and procedures in place to support distance working.
And don’t forget to read the follow-on to this blog post where I talk about what it takes to get the most out of a working-at-distance program.
Copyright 2022 Howard Niden
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Martha Gershun says
Well said, Howard. I think the younger generation is way ahead of us on this one. Our 30-year-old son has worked remotely from his home in Minneapolis for a NYC-based organization for the past five years, and our 27-year-old daughter used to go into the office in N. Virginia to work online with a team based around the country. Now she just logs in from home! They seem engaged, productive, and highly loyal to their employers. Technology has made much possible – those of us fortunate enough to take advantage should embrace it – and all the benefits!
Dave Sosnow says
Great post, Howard. I agree that talent acquisition and retention is critical to businesses – small and large, and having a “must be in office” mindset without full thought to the tradeoffs is like fighting the talent wars with rocks and sticks. It’s industry-dependent, role-dependent, and leadership dependent. I still think too many managers are using “butts in seats” as a proxy for productivity, because productivity remains difficult to measure in many roles. Having a good understanding of productivity and quality remains the important work of managers, whether done in person or remotely.
Jim Berridge says
Howard, great post and certainly a very pragmatic perspective. This is a super tight labor market and indeed flexibility to allow for working at home is table stakes. I think the blended at-home, at-office model has to kick in. There is too much isolation and limited community with long-term remote working. I toughed it out in an office through Covid but it was lonely and its good to see folks back in the office a few days a week. Looking forward to part 2! Cheers.