24th May 1976. Eleven renowned wine critics, journalists and sommeliers met for a wine tasting that would disrupt the wine industry for decades to come. Referred to as The Judgment of Paris, as an allusion to the ancient Greek myth, this blind tasting event compared wines from California (the New World) with wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy (the Old World). At this time, it was common wisdom that the French wines were by far superior, so much that many ‘experts’ had declined to join the event arguing the winner was obvious. The frame of reference was that New World wines would not stand the test in comparison to the iconic wines produced in France and refined over centuries. The results resounded like an earthquake: the Californian wines topped the first ranks. It was a true paradigm shifts for critics and consumers alike. A deep-rooted way of thinking—the best quality comes only from old world wines— was shattered. It took an official experiment to confirm what was already there for many years, but which somehow could not be accepted due to deeply held beliefs.
Let’s fast forward to March 2020. COVID-19 is declared as a global pandemic by the WHO. States and companies alike bring ‘crisis units’ together to rapidly define an appropriate response to an unexpected major disruption. At first companies sent employees, whose jobs could be done remotely, home, to reduce unnecessary social exchanges and slow down the spread of the virus. While some had already worked remotely before, for most employees this was their first experience of working outside the office. Millions of employees had to shift to remote working within a few days. This was an enormous logistical challenge, fundamentally enabled by technology.
Rapidly new routines unfolded, and employees and leaders alike realized that work continued to happen, processes were followed, technology deployed, customers served, and collaboration sustained. The ‘home office’ honeymoon had started and with it the first large scale remote working experiment in human history. And like the Judgement of Paris, a new frame of reference, unthinkable to most until then, was born almost overnight: remote working is a valuable option.
Many flaws of organizational design and culture that were dormant and numerous opportunities waiting to be leveraged
With the ‘return to the office’ phase unfolding, companies now have a choice. The one to define the workplace that employees will return to. What we have experienced the past year was not an interruption, it was a disruption. A breaking point. Letting the old way of working come back would be a missed business opportunity. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” as Churchill said while scoping the UN out of the debris of war-torn Europe. Similarly, companies should now actively leverage the momentum for change created by this exceptional situation to imagine, design and deploy a New Work model and with it, create a new competitive advantage. The crisis revealed in a blatant way the many flaws of organizational design and culture that were dormant and with them the numerous opportunities waiting to be leveraged: thoughtful, flexible working, leading to increased employee engagement and office space reduction, smart office design amplifying social interactions and with it, innovation, reduction of costly travel allowing both costs and CO2 emissions savings, while empowering teams that increase productivity and are more engaged.
The transition to New Work 1.0 (from ‘office work’ to ‘home office’) has been forced upon us by the pandemic and was mostly a logistical and IT challenge. It has been well-mastered and focused primarily on making changes to the Workplace, Workflow and Workforce dimensions (see model Accelerating New Work below). The next step, to New Work 2.0, presents us with a choice. It will be a cultural shift and calls for a specific design, investment and supporting mechanisms. While the promises of New Work 2.0 are numerous and attractive, there are still some essential questions that have not been fully answered yet, leaving companies and leaders unsure about the course to take. We will now explore those in the three areas of New Work 2.0: Network, Framework and Artwork.
• Innovation: A frequently discussed dimension of distributed work is its impact on innovation. Can we still be innovative when social encounters are reduced to scheduled Zoom meetings, where we are not bumping into each other randomly? An extensive study from Microsoft1 on people’s behaviors showed at the early stages of the pandemic, interactions within people’s close networks (strong ties) at work increased, and at the same time within people’s broader network (weak ties) decreased. One reason explaining this has been the observed loss of randomness. Random thoughts coming from random encounters leading to serendipity. How can we connect seemingly irrelevant pieces of information or ideas to create new solutions when our days are full of intentionally scheduled calls, mostly with people we know? How could a distributed workplace leave enough opportunity for those random exchanges? How could technology recreate those encounters in a meaningful and impactful way? Most of these questions and concerns emerged from the emergency lock-down we have been experiencing; a situation where personal encounters were unfortunately not an option. The New Work model 2.0 looks very different. It is meant to be leveraging the best of office work and of remote work. What some calls the ‘phygital world’. A mix of physical and digital work, offering enough options for personal exchanges and random thoughts while also protecting time for focused work and deep thinking. Not an either/or equation but a both/and one. Additionally, in a hybrid set-up, innovation could come up from new spaces, new locations where work takes place. Suburban co-working spaces are starting to expand and are forecasted to double or triple over the next five years2. And with them the opportunity to create cross-industry random exchanges leading to further innovation.
Can we still be innovative when social encounters are reduced?
• Productivity: A key topic of concern for CEOs and leaders at large is productivity. What will be the impact of a distributed workforce on productivity? Can I be sure that my employees are still focusing on their tasks at hand while I cannot see them? Will they become increasingly distracted? This topic has been intensely researched since the onset of the pandemic, and no clear answer is yet emerging. If you ask employees, often they will confirm that their days have become busier than ever, with longer hours and less breaks. Though does this really equate to higher productivity, or rather, higher intensity and complexity?
In a CIPD research3 report 28% of employers reported that the increase in remote working had led to increased productivity, concurrently 28% indicated a decrease and 37% saw no impact. This does not represent a clear trend. While it might well depend on the type of jobs and the specific culture of each company, these types of questions can indicate the existence of an unproductive ‘presence culture’ in many companies. After almost two years of forced remote working experiment, most leaders will agree that a present body does not equal a present mind.
Remote, yet focused work, can be as (if not more) productive, particularly for tasks that are routine and involving only a few people. It might be more difficult for tasks which are volatile by nature (i.e., transformation project) involving multiple stakeholders. We are in need either of true productivity research projects looking at outcomes (for example leveraging the OKR methodology, aka as Objectives and Key Results) or simply in need of a new definition of productivity, one that broaden its definition to include intangible factors (i.e. engagement, health) to ensure a sustained productivity over time.
Most leaders will agree that a present body does not equal a present mind
• Identification: Another concern of the impact of remote working, is its potential impact on the sense of identification with the company. If people are not showing up every day in the office, they will be less exposed to symbols, rituals, stories as well as the tangible benefits (canteen, fitness…) that help create and sustain a bond with a brand, a sense of belonging which is paramount in the search for a purpose-driven organization. It is easier for an employee to switch company if their tie is reduced to transactional activities. How do we extend the office experience to recreate those elements that make an employee feel part of the family? This office experience now needs to encompass digital spaces too. If employees spend more time in digital platforms in the future, how do we design smart digital spaces that extend the sense of the place, ensuring a community feel beyond the bricks-and-mortar location? In essence a ‘virtual house’ that conveys the right expression of the brand and its promises, from the time employees connect to the company’s system in the morning to the time they disconnect in the evening?
• Working model: In a true phygital workplace, almost location agnostic, how we work is as important, if not more, than where we work. The way people work, exchange or collaborate needs to be rethought. Self-empowered teams, often manager-less or un-bossed have been experimented with in many organizations. One way to do this has been through the deployment of ‘agile’ working methods.
Though often those experiments stop short from impacting the organization at scale. Leveraging the current change momentum brought by the crisis, companies should seize the opportunity to move from ‘doing agile’ to ‘being agile’. Leveraging the tools alone will not suffice. Designing teams, roles, workflows, budget allocation and structure to be congruent with Agile will enable it to unlock the next wave of benefits: velocity, empowerment, and true customer centricity. While the original intent of Agile4 was focused on face-to-face interactions to have co-located teams sharing objectives, pizzas, and long nights, hybrid Agile teams will now need to work effectively through technology, embracing a location agnostic workplace. Can Agile go remote? Yes, though for this, early Agile evangelists, will need to be open to the same level of disruption that they expected from the bureaucratic structures they replaced.
• Data security: The exponential expansion of the number of work locations represents a heightened risk for the protection of critical company data and information. While the access to screens used to be limited within the closed circle of employees present in the office, the opportunity to work from anywhere will expose those screens, and the critical data they reveal, to the eyes of others. This is particularly true for work happening in public spaces, where additional risks of hacking, particularly through eavesdropping, need to be weighted. Even if you might only be working from home, do we know for sure that critical discussions are not being recorded inappropriately (thanks to active listening devices—aka Alexa, Siri, etc.)? Smart technologies will, over time, offer solutions to continue safeguarding critical companies’ data (and with it, its reputation). Though until then, a heightened risk will remain and will need to be managed effectively. The first reaction within companies has been to remind all employees of the principles of their internal data protection policies, though will this suffice to really safeguard critical information adequately in this new context?
Companies have started to work on improving their ‘resilience maturity’… to building an ‘antifragile system’
• Resilience maturity: We are still navigating the effects of the pandemic and will have to weather its aftermath too. Doing so should not make us forget that the next crisis will invariably come at some point and by preparing for it now, leveraging the fresh learning we collected, is the best way to strengthen the resilience of our companies. How do we best do this? How do we ensure IT systems, operations and value chain processes are improved and solidified? As a first reaction companies have started to work on improving their ‘resilience maturity’. To do so they started defining the minimum resilience standards expected across the organization, which would, ideally, lead to building an ‘antifragile system’ (if all those standards were fulfilled).
Leveraging this Resilience Maturity framework as a baseline, they then measured where their organization stood with respect to their practices and systems. Now the IT and operations teams need to work hand-in-hand to design and implement effective actions to close the identified gaps to ensure the predefined standards are fulfilled (ideally before the next crisis). The challenge in doing so often remains in the budget allocation and top leadership support for such a topic, typically based on ‘what if?’ scenarios. The chances are high that the sudden and unexpected pandemic has shown the importance to be ready for the most improbable scenarios to unfold.
• Enhanced leadership: Equipping leaders with the skills and mindset to lead virtually has been a pragmatic answer to the lock down situation. Though New Work 2.0 will go one step further. It is not based on remote working only. New Work 2.0 is the promise of an effective designed equilibrium that enables both productivity and engagement in a hybrid working set-up. To guide, coach, manage and develop teams in this context, leaders will need to further broaden their capabilities to respond to the needs of a distributed workforce. Building on the enduring skills of leadership that have been important in the past and will remain in the future (shaping a vision, decision making, change management…), those new skills will expand the leaders’ toolkits and enable them to lead effectively in a hybrid environment. While those skills have not yet been fully identified, some are emerging. For example, ‘digital empathy’, or the ability to engage through technology. This new capability, whose intricacies are still to be discovered, will soon become part of the skillset of every effective leader. This will enable them to equally engage employees in a face-to-face setting as in a digitally driven exchange. Doing so, our leaders will become the architects of a level playing field between employees being physically present and the ones being remote.
We struggle to see the path forward as we can only use our past ‘analogue’ experiences to think through these new models
• Recoded work routines: Over time teams develop work routines and unwritten rules about their way of working, collaborating or communicating. They do this either intentionally leveraging models and frameworks in their ‘norming phase’ or develop those through trial and error over time. With a New Work model emerging at the speed of light, leaving this to happen slowly over time will let teams operate in a new environment with obsolete practices leading to inefficiencies. How do we support teams at scale through a common process, knowing that they will all require a unique answer based on their specific situation and local context? An effective approach is to design a ‘dialogue structure’ that teams leverage to guide them through an effective reset of their practices answering practical questions like “How do we design effective daily standups while half of the team is not physically present?” or “How do we provide timely support to each other while we cannot see who is available and who is not (missing visual cues in an open office)?” This dialogue structure can be as simple as a toolkit in small companies or scaled via an IT platform and a global best practices library in larger ones. Such a solution offers a company-wide consistent framework that can be adapted and tailored locally.
• Continuous upskilling: The best source of continued productivity, sustained engagement and effective resilience comes from a workforce ultimately skilled at executing on the business strategy, and continuously remaining so. As you continuously upgrade your systems and software with the latest upgrade release, you need to design a system that enables your workforce to reboot their competencies regularly. Companies have tried to do so for a long time, often using competency models to define a baseline from which they then identify gaps in their employees’ capabilities and subsequently design training offerings to close these gaps. While the intent was noble, most initiatives using this approach ended-up with complicated and costly endeavours, leading to outdated models, bureaucratic processes and static frameworks. The rise of technology, including artificial intelligence, now enable small learning teams to mass customize learning plans. In essence offering every single employee a distinct, bespoke and relevant development roadmap, leveraging internal and external learning solutions alike. With this, employees can now leverage an effective platform for continuous learning. The biggest challenge for companies remains the design of a conducive learning culture that enables those platforms to be truly leveraged efficiently (anytime anywhere and not no time nowhere).
It is now our responsibility to take ownership to ensure this experiment leads to bigger positive changes
”You can’t use an old map to explore a new world,” Albert Einstein once said. In essence you cannot solve the New Work challenge with Old Work thinking. We struggle to see the path forward as we can only use our past “analogue” experiences to think through these new models. In a few years the context will be different and create an irresistible push forward. Consider the rise of Millennials and Gen Z’s, new emerging leadership capabilities, stronger technological solutions including augmented and virtual reality, extensive experience with hybrid working increasing employees’ ability to perform well under such conditions. All those combined will lead to the emergence of truly effective and engaging work models. A New Work Model 2.0.
The Judgment of Paris experiment had been designed intentionally. The Working from Home due to COVID19 happened unexpectedly. It was forced. With it came a real paradigm shift in the workplace. It is now our responsibility to take ownership to ensure this experiment leads to bigger positive changes. 24th May 1976, in Paris, was a paradigm shift for the wine industry. Its legacy has been the creation of a new ‘mental model’ where new world wines would be accepted as the equal (or at times even better) than old world wines. A concept not even thinkable before. Let’s hope that the new mental model that has emerged for the value of a New Way of working will bring similar changes to the way people work and collaborate.
1: Microsoft, Teevan, Jaime, Brent Hecht, and Sonia Jaffe, 2021 “The new future of work”
2: Allwork, 8th March 2021, “Coworking is the new normal and these stats prove it”
3: CIPD, 17th September 2020, “Two thirds of employers report home workers more or as productive as when in the workplace, but cite need to support their mental health”
4: Agile Manifesto, 2001