Founder of Collaborativity Leadership Advisory and the former chief human resources officer of American Express Canada.
Bright open office spaces and millennials working at coffee shops are popular images conjured by the phrase "future of work." Workspace and telecommuting continue to be hot topics for debate among executives. With the available technologies today that support collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing, it is possible to have high-functioning global teams that work in and out of offices and in various countries and time zones. Teams can work around the clock and workers who were traditionally sidelined due to mobility or personal constraints now have more options to participate in the work force.
The idea of the "workplace of the future" – a combination of redesigned office space and telecommuting – was devised as both an employee-engagement tactic and a significant real estate cost-saving opportunity. By introducing telecommuting, bringing down cubicle walls and allowing for more flexible desk assignment and work spaces, companies can operate with a smaller footprint: That's a win-win for companies and employees alike, who enjoy the freedom of working where and when they are most productive. More emphasis is placed on productivity and results and less about "Have I seen you lately?" In fact, I haven't had a dedicated office space for most of my career and when I did, I worked remotely a few days a week. Some weeks I did not see my team members at all – and those were some of our most productive weeks.
We've seen the pendulum swing back, with some tech companies (such as Yahoo in 2013 and more recently, IBM this past winter) bringing workers back into the office. These companies that once led the way for remote working have reined workers in under the assumption that face-to-face interaction leads to better collaboration, innovation and, ultimately, results.
But that doesn't mean all companies should abolish work-from-home policies. A reasonable balance between private and open space and between face-to-face and remote working drives engagement and productivity, as those who can work outside the office feel empowered and trusted. The optimal balance depends on many factors such as the company and the team's maturity (e.g., newly formed teams or teams with a new leader may require more face-to-face interaction upfront to build relationships and trust), goals (e.g., new product innovation may require more in-person brainstorming sessions) and work force structure (e.g., a large, distributed face-to-face sales force may have a very different office footprint, layout and telecommuting policy than a call-centre team).
A few things to consider for companies who are looking to implement or evolve in the "workplace of the future" for their organization:
Having some form of physical gathering and meeting space is critical for most companies. The purpose of the brightly coloured chairs and open, collaborative spaces is to inspire employees to work most effectively. Many companies have implemented work spaces that force "collisions" between departments, that lead to more collaboration and innovation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for space design and it should be considered carefully, based on the company's culture and goals.
Once you decide to implement a flexible workplace plan, is important to build a culture of trust and to empower employees to work where and when they are most productive. At the onset, leadership may need to provide guidance on what types of interactions and meetings should be face-to-face versus virtual … but over time, norms develop and employees self-manage. If a worker is unable to deliver in this environment, it is likely because they are not aligned with goals or not best suited for their role – not because they are telecommuting.
It is important for workers to see leadership participating in the new workplace – both different work spaces and telecommuting. I've seen executives sit out on the floor with employees, use open collaborative spaces and try to work at least one day a week remotely – whatever it takes to set the tone and let employees know that the company's new ways of working are for real.
And for workers:
Plan a weekly routine and stick to it as much as possible. Clearly, one of the benefits of this approach to work is flexibility – so this may seem counterintuitive. However, the more routine you can be in your planning, the less disorganized and overwhelmed you will feel and more able to focus on the task at hand. For example, implementing weekly rituals such as letting your team know where you will be, setting up your home office space to best serve your needs, making sure your technology works offsite, etc. can help make your week more predictable and productive.
Working and leading remotely can be difficult and is an acquired skill. In this world of constant distractions and "multitasking," we can find it near impossible to stay present on those seemingly endless conference calls. How many of us are guilty of saying "sorry I was on mute … what was the question again?" or monotonously reading off speaker notes in a presentation delivered over the phone or putting in just one more load of laundry before it's our turn to speak? Of course, there are benefits of working from home, such as spending an extra hour with family instead of in traffic … but use a reasonability check and ask yourself: "If I was in the office, how much break time would I take" and "If I were face-to-face in this meeting, would I do X (e.g., leave the room for an unrelated, non-urgent task.)" Check in to see how present you were in each meeting – self-reflection and asking for feedback are great ways to improve virtual presentation and leadership skills. Also, oftentimes presentations delivered virtually are recorded, so listening to a playback of your own presentations can be very helpful as well.
Be open to possibilities
When a company implements a flexible workspace, there are always resistors who "need" private space, "need" their own desk, "need" to be in the office every day. Some reasons may be valid, but more often are based on resistance to change. So while acknowledging change is hard, leverage work spaces in the office appropriately – and don't underestimate the knowledge gained by sitting on an open floor with colleagues.
Also, embrace your company's telecommuting policy to enjoy a few hours of uninterrupted heads-down working time … and maybe squeeze in a workout, too.