This is a situation which various businesses are presently facing. As a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are working from home and are therefore saving time and money in travelling daily to the office, stuck in traffic, while in many instances still getting their work done productively — in some cases more productively than before. It is also true that some employees feel they are going crazy working from their makeshift home offices, eager for the camaraderie of the office. There is yes the case of some odd employee that have abused the working from home thing, but all research is showing that this is a very minute percentage of the working population.
However, in many instances, I see that the persons that have adapted worse to this working from home situation, are CEOs and Managing Directors. In many instances they are a self-admitted “old school” persons who love the energy of the office. They relish walking the office corridors to have impromptu conversations, stop by to thank employees for their work and ensure that the culture of collaboration is thriving. They are firm believers that all this cannot be replicated on a video screen. Many such CEOs and Managing Directors are finding it hard to adapt to a changed working world.
Add to that another dimension I see developing. Many CFOs or Financial Controllers are seeing a huge opportunity in all this. They are questioning if the business can operate with smaller office space and save money on expensive office rental costs. International research suggests that 74% of CFOs expect to transition some portion of their workforce to permanent remote or home work post-Covid. This expectation is based on the fact that international research indicates that on a global world level an estimated 62% of the workforce worked from home during the pandemic, compared to only 25% just a few years ago.
So, I see that the question on most minds of business leaders is : On what basis or criteria should we base our future decisions as to how we shall operate?
My advice is to avoid being short sighted. By being short sighted, I mean that no business leaders should base their decisions on employee preferences or the potential savings from office rental costs. There are more important criteria which should be given priority and a higher consideration.
The vast majority of businesses in Malta fall into the definition of SMEs, meaning that they are likely to have more close-knit cultures when compared to large organisations. This in my opinion should be the basis upon which businesses should design their operations for a post-Covid world. On this basis, please find some strategies to help businesses leaders approach this opportunity thoughtfully and with an eye towards the future.
- Think about your Business Strategy first! The pandemic hasn’t just disrupted your business, but also the lives of your customers. Before you can make choices about how to design your own work, you need to step back and consider if and how the way you serve and reach your clients has changed. Will your customers buy your product or service differently? Do they have new or changing needs you can now meet or need to meet? Have your competitors made adjustments you must follow, or have they fallen behind in ways you can take advantage of? One word of caution. You may instinctively believe nothing’s changed but if you give yourself time and space to have a fresh look at things, you are likely to be in for some surprises. Unfortunately many SMEs, take a very simplistic approach to business strategy based on some loosely connected financial goals, rather than a sharp articulation of what really differentiates them competitively. So my strong advice is to really take this opportunity to get more disciplined and honest about your strategic identity and sharpen your focus on your critical success factors before you decide where and how to locate your operations. Most SMEs might not have the internal competencies to work on business strategy in the right way. There is no shame in asking for professional help….and by the way, penny pinching on professional assistance on such an important basis of your business, is the mother of all false economies.
- Accept that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Now that you’ve prioritised the work relative to your strategy, you can consider questions of where and how to locate those activities. Key factors to consider include the impact the work has on customers, how much collaboration the work requires (both within teams and cross functionally), and what kind of talent is needed to do the work with excellence. Avoid short-sighted, binary choices here — for example, remote or onsite, as doing so will lead you to decide on the employee preference as a dominant criterion, resulting in extroverts in remote-friendly individual roles advocating for onsite work and introverts engaged in team-based work begging to stay home. Research is indicating that activities that are typically done by individual contributors, like analytics and reporting, claims processing, and call center work have successfully transitioned to remote work, despite the common belief that they needed to be done onsite. Other project-based activities, like product development, client service delivery and strategic planning have effectively employed a blend of in-person and intermittent collaboration. So my advice to business leaders is to high-level parameters for departmental or line managers to use in proposing what works best for their groups. Such high level parameters could take the shape like ” The location of work must never hinder effective coordination.” These approach should ensure that whatever is decided is based upon achieving a level of a consistency, fairness and performance.
- Design for the social connection you need. As I said, one of the main resources of SMEs is their tight-knit culture. Veteran employees who’ve grown up with such companies for years, even decades, often say things like, “We’re a family here.” It is likely that the CEO’s or Managing Director’s difficulty to adapt is fueled by the fear of losing that culture because of remote working. After all, research also suggests that many talented employees choose to work for micro or SME companies precisely because of that closeness. So my advice to business leaders of SME or micro businesses is to exploit the advantages of their size. First, they can be nimble with remote work offering their employees a level of flexibility that bigger companies can’t. Secondly, now is the time to rise to the challenge whereby you make sure that a deep sense of connection and belonging isn’t just a byproduct of onsite work. Please work on making sure that your company values are having an impact on how teams think and operate both when being physically in each other’s presence as when they are not. hence the extreme importance, more than ever before, to work on nurturing a deep sense of purpose, intolerance of bureaucracy and more intimate connection between business leaders and their teams, that SMEs can sustain even when working remotely, while large organisations will have a difficulty to do. In a nutshell, do not think and act like a large organisation, you would only be giving up an advantage you have. Once you’ve determined the degree of collaboration and social cohesion each team needs, you can determine how to create that connectivity. This is a great place to engage employees in the work. Many smaller companies have moved to always-on video conferencing and regular virtual happy hours and social gatherings, and leaders have significantly increased their one-on-one time with those they lead. Where possible, teams are gathering in person with appropriate social distancing to talk about work and non-work-related things. If you’ve felt the cohesive bonds of your culture weakening over the last 10 months, don’t instantly assume remote work is the entire cause. There may be other factors straining cohesion now, that the pandemic revealed but didn’t create.
- Get your technological resources in order. Technology has enabled deeper connection among teams, but I still see smaller companies struggling with technical issues and access to basic technological resources. Many micro or SMEs have been caught with the so called “pants down” having failed to upgrade technology systems during periods of intense growth. The pandemic has exposed legacy data servers, clumsy core processes and outdated customer relationship or financial management tools. Naturally, the absence of effective technologies can make remote work more difficult to employ consistently across the organisation because all of the “patch work” done in the past. As a general trend, this situation frequently occurs when Financial Controllers or CFOs have been allowed to have a disproportionate influence on what should be invested on improving technological resources over time. Many business leaders just gloss over the lack of investment in basic technological resources by simply play the culture card – claiming that for their culture to remain special, people have to be onsite. A simple case of missing the wood for the trees. So please take my advice and make sure that you use the fact that you where forced to apply a transition to a new type of workplace as the perfect opportunity to get serious about bringing your technology up to speed as fast as your budget will allow.
- Leave your decision in relation to any rental cost savings from office space, to the last. Rather than using cost-saving opportunities to drive your decisions, use the organisation design choices, outlined above, to completely rethink your office needs. If you discover that you have a greater need for collaboration space than you’d previously understood and that future growth will depend on greater interdependency between teams, then perhaps you need workspaces with more collaboration rooms than individual offices or cubicles. If you anticipate a highly varied use of onsite work at the office, then perhaps other flexible workspace arrangements work best. There are many workplace design options to meet your company needs and those choices are best made when preceded by sound strategic and organisation design choices.
So my final message to micro and SME businesses is that with all the hardship that the pandemic has brought with it, it also brought the opportunity to re-think the pathway you should work upon to achieve new heights in the future. Don’t let short-term thinking get in the way of taking advantage of the long-term benefits awaiting your organisation.