Working from home is helping everyone muddle through the immediate COVID-19 crisis, but what do we want from it in the long run? Higher productivity? Savings on office space, travel, and cost-of-living adjusted salaries for workers in cheaper locations? Better morale and higher retention rates?
To know what’s “best” for your organisation’s future when it comes to remote work, you have to put it in the context of all the things that you are looking achieve. In other words, you have to have a conscious aspiration. Then you need to envision the “workforce system” that will make those things possible.
Having more or less remote work is not a “point change” in an otherwise stable system — work from home is a system in and of itself, with many interfaces and interdependencies, both human and technological. These include:
While you can model such a system up to a point, its design specs will inevitably need to be revised as they come into contact with reality; as such, experimentation and learning will be key — you cannot expect to have a one-time rollout.
For all of this to be developed and managed in the right way, a different innovation approach is needed.
Future-Back Thinking and Planning
Thinking and planning from the future back allows you to fully articulate what you hope to achieve with your new work system and then design its major components from a “clean sheet,” unencumbered by how things work today or how they worked in the past. Once you have developed your vision, you need to consider all the things that would have to be true for that vision to be achievable, and then test those assumptions with initiatives you can begin today.
Stage 1: What is your overall vision of your ideal work system of the future?
You are doing two things in this stage: Articulating your grand purpose and aspiration (your reason for designing the new system) and envisioning the system and what it looks like.
To determine your grand objective — your reason for re-imagining your existing system — think about what you have learned from the Covid-19 emergency that led you down this path. Your initial aim is simply to develop clarity about your intended future, not achieve analytic certainty.
As you begin to sketch out your workforce system of the future, frame it as a purpose- and objective-driven narrative. This is your vision. As such, it should include: your Purpose (your ultimate inspirational “why”); your objectives and metrics (your tangible “why”); and a concise description of the components of your system and how they fit together (your “what”).
Stage 2: Consider the implicit and explicit assumptions you are making.
As Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, there are known knowns and known unknowns, and also unknown unknowns that you must take account of. Work through each of them, surfacing as many of those known and unknown unknowns as you can. Each will need to be proven or disproven: that virtually-convened teams can problem-solve as well as teams that meet in person; that executive development can be carried out online as well as in-person meetings — or not, as the case may be.
Stage 3: Test those assumptions.
What do you need to learn and how can you best do it? To answer these questions, walk your vision and its key assumptions back to the present in the form of experiments. You will need more than one if there are different circumstances or contexts in which the system would work.
If you are a multinational and want to learn if WFH can work within one of your geographies, carve out a business function or small business unit; systematically apply the WFH technologies, practices, and rules and norms that you wish to use; run it in parallel for a short time; and then carefully measure its results against those of the larger unit.
Stage 4: Use the learnings from these experiments to adjust or pivot your system’s components and your vision itself.
Through this iterative process of exploring, envisioning, and testing, you will ultimately discover your best way forward. This learning will be an ongoing process, not a discrete event, unfolding over time as your assumptions are converted to knowledge.
Inevitably, there will be tradeoffs that must be negotiated. While you may be able to tap more talent and save money by not requiring your new hires to move, it is also likely that your creative ecosystem will become more diffuse. Some teams may need to meet in person as frequently as several days a week, so they won’t have the luxury of living wherever they wish. You will likely have to beef up your technical and human capabilities before you can fully apply your new knowledge across your organisation; significant investments may be required to provide sufficient bandwidth for your employees’ homes, reducing some of your expected savings. You may find, per those early experiments, that your new system won’t work in every business unit or geography.
You will likely have to grapple with the pitfalls of causal ambiguity (the fact that what drives good results in one context may very well not in another). Any organisation has constraints on its absorptive capacity; you must be prepared for systemic incompatibilities and rejection, which can stem from poor communication between units, the lack of a shared language, or longstanding rivalries and resentments.
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