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Future of Work

Q+A with Tangram CEO Joe Lozowski: The Long-term Risk of Remote Work

April 25, 2022

“Hybrid work” is the buzz phrase in corporate conversations right now. What is missing from the conversation?

When people talk about the hybrid work environment, they’re talking about working in the office part-time and working remotely part-time. During the COVID-19 lockdown, most of us experienced a work-from-home arrangement on a very intense level, with obvious pros and cons. During my own time from home, I thought deeply about the long-term business implications of a workforce that is entirely or partially remote.

The fact is, when it comes to running a successful business, there are significant hindrances if you don’t work together in person. The current conversation among leaders is missing acknowledgment of those essential in-person elements, as well as discussion about the long-term, strategic implications of going remote.

What is your biggest concern about a remote work environment?

From a leadership perspective, I’m concerned about the inability to create meaningful networks. Personal networks within a company are a significant way for more experienced people to pass along knowledge to less experienced people. Steady knowledge transfer allows a company to maintain and grow its position in the marketplace. In addition, in-person networks allow for career pathing and succession planning. Without them, a company can begin to lose its foothold.

I know one young person who recently graduated from college. She’s been in a job for nine months and has never met anyone in person – not even for the job interview. On top of that, she’s never seen anyone’s face, because their company culture is to not turn on cameras during Zoom meetings. To me, that’s a leadership issue. How will she learn from other people and create mutually-beneficial relationships or participate in the company culture? In that company, she will likely struggle to do those things, and I struggle with that style as a permanent way of working.

Leaders take care of the ‘we’ in an organization and they must be present. The current and future challenge is how to be present for people, if those very people are absent.

Leaders take care of the ‘we’ in an organization and they must be present. The current and future challenge is how to be present for people, if those very people are absent.

Beyond networking, what does an in-person environment offer that can’t be replicated?

There are plenty of nuances that come with in-person work. We all know that sitting in a room with someone to have a conversation is different than being on a Zoom call. “Reading the room” and understanding body language are key skills for leaders. Meeting attendees recoil, they smile, they sit forward, or they roll their eyes. It matters, and you can learn a lot.

In addition, there’s a certain cordiality, politeness, and professionalism when you are in person – the decorum of human interaction. We’re moving away from that, and the warmness is missing. We attend remote meetings and may not even turn a camera on, bother to get dressed or brush our hair.

Without hallways, breakrooms, and a favorite lunch spot, we also lose all the “in-between” ****conversations. Impromptu interactions help you know one another on a personal level, and they can help move work forward, in ways you never expected. Some of the most important and impactful conversations start with “Oh, I’ve been meaning to talk to you!”

Some of the most important and impactful conversations start with 'Oh, I’ve been meaning to talk to you!'

Which departments are tasked with figuring out the new workplace model? And where should this responsibility be housed?

At the moment, the responsibility has largely been passed to corporate real estate and HR departments. We’ve had a massive change in the way people work, but the topic isn’t making it into C-suite strategy conversations. We need to treat the hybrid workplace decision as a strategic priority, right up there with acquisition, pricing, or R&D strategies. Beyond asking if we have the right desks or HVAC for people upon return to work, the bigger questions regarding hybrid work are:

  1. Are we going to be hybrid and what does that mean in practical application?
  2. What is the strategy for creating networks in our organization?
  3. What is the strategy for knowledge transfer to onboard new people and foster leaders?
  4. What is the strategy for having a strong culture in our hybrid workplace?
  5. Which job functions can be successful in a long-term remote situation?
  6. What steps will we take to make hybrid work beneficial for everyone and the company itself?
  7. How will hybrid work contribute to the long-term success of our organization?

What practical steps can a company take to develop a balanced and thoughtful hybrid environment?

This very question could be something to ask leadership in order to get the ball rolling. In addition:

  • Make “hybrid work” a C-suite agenda (and/or advisory board) item for the next year, until all questions are answered and clear plans have been implemented.
  • Hold in-person sessions that pair leaders of departments who rarely meet to discuss hybrid work, brainstorm its challenges, and brainstorm solutions. Ask them to report out to the group.
  • Foster human interaction and back it with budget. Create a schedule of in-person versus remote work days and meetings for all employees. Build bi-annual events for all employees, and meet-ups for lunches, happy hours, etc.
  • Advocate for all innovation and brainstorming sessions to happen in-person.
  • Keep safety a clear priority: explain safety rules clearly and outline benefits/support for those who get sick or have sick family members.

What do you predict the fallout will be for companies that swing too far into remote work?

I think too much remote work will eventually result in greater turnover for an organization, which is always costly. Some of the reasons people turn a job into a career is that they feel valued both professionally and culturally, and as if they have a trusted network. If it’s just about the paycheck and talking to people on a screen, you’re less likely to remain with an organization.

Another fallout may be that great ideas never get off the ground, due to lack of collaboration. We’ve just witnessed a generation of innovators who collaborated – in person – to bring their now global companies to fruition. Mark Zuckerberg moved to Silicon Valley and worked in a house with other coders to get Facebook off the ground. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak collaborated in a garage, and Elon Musk slept on the assembly plant floor in solidarity with his workers. I don’t think these scenarios can be replicated in an all-digital world.

Do you feel always being in-person is the answer?

No; that’s equally untenable. In fact, my own company is flexible, and we allowed people to work remotely, even before the pandemic. What I’m advocating for is intentionality and serious consideration from leadership on striking a balance so that the best benefits of a physical environment can still be experienced.

I think that remote work may be fine for someone who’s been at a company several years and already has an established network. In addition, some positions are uniquely suited to remote work – coding for example. But even those coders need leadership, which happens best through in-person interaction.

What I’m advocating for is intentionality and serious consideration from leadership on striking a balance so that the best benefits of a physical environment can still be experienced.

Could there be an entirely remote scenario – yet to be developed – that adapts and thrives?

It could happen, but leaders still have to solve for knowledge transfer, relationship-building, trust, innovation, and succession planning. If a company thrives 100% remotely, take a look at the careful leadership and thoughtful planning they’ll do to make it happen. They are not simply saying “look at how much money we’re saving on real estate.” The innovators who figure out how to make hybrid work succeed in the long-term will have a strategy led by the C-suite and real solutions to the challenges.

Originally posted on CFN.news