A year and a half ago, the world took part in the most significant shift in how work gets done since the industrial revolution. While many employees continued to show up in person (retail, manufacturing, etc.), the majority of knowledge workers transitioned to their homes to continue to deliver value. As the world starts to re-open and workers once again begin their daily commutes, a conversation about whether or not they should return “to the way it was” has been taking place on every media outlet, blog, and boardroom.
“The problem is that this conversation by itself is utterly useless.”
The conversation should not be about what seats are physically filled and where, but rather what creates value for our teams, our organizations, and most importantly our customers. Let’s start with a conversation about value.
How have we defined value?
If you look back to the Industrial Revolution, advanced technological changes introduced new ways of working and fundamentally shifted the way we work. Many of our current workday features are remnants of the Industrial Revolution — like being at a specified place for set hours — because the technology required human input to run. Simultaneously, this was the birth of large places where people congregate to work. At the time, this was a complete game-changer in the way groups of people came together to deliver value, being at a specific location was not only part of the equation, but it also was the equation. COVID aside, many industries have moved past this model of being in a specific place at a specific time, so why are so many companies insisting on heading back to the office? As humans, we create both flawed visions of the past and often resist the deep paradigm shifts required to conceptualize what a new model can look like. Statements such as, “Remember the good old days” and “Well, this is the way we have always done it, why change now?” are all mental traps that do not allow us to reshape and reframe the most important question, “What creates value”?
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller
COVID-19 disrupted the concept of “being in the office” and proved that many companies and individuals had the ability to produce valuable outputs in a different setting. As the pandemic slowly begins to retreat, many organizations have shifted focus to discussing work from home versus work from the office. The conversation that needs to be had is about what creates value not where you are physically located.
“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go to.”
This does not mean that coming together in a fixed location can not create value; on the contrary, when done properly it can be an accelerant for new ideas and ways of thinking. The “heavy lifting” required on the part of not only the leadership team but of the entire organization is putting in the energy to personalize how this split of location-based value creation is used.
It starts and ends with the customer
For many companies, the conversation around providing value to the customer is top of mind. Whether you call it your Value Proposition, Unique Selling Proposition (USP), etc. you can fill a cloud-based server with enough articles on the topic to keep you reading for the next decade. The breakdown occurs when you begin to ladder that “USP” back into the organization at the individual employee level. If your team members do not understand what value they provide in the course of a year, month, week, or day, they will soon be left with no sense of direction and begin to question their very relationship with leadership and their peers. For many organizations, this is “values” to the rescue. At no time does a list of values such as “Trust, Integrity, Collaboration” etc. fill the gap by telling people how we work versus having them truly understand the difference they are making for the customer and to the people around them. Values are how we work and are often not directly related to the value we create.
Value versus Values
Regardless of your company’s purview, you need to reflect on the difference between your company values vs. what creates value for the customer, the company, and your individual employees.
There is a concept that there are only three true motivators for any employee — the ability to make money, the ability to improve their skills, and the ability to provide value. I’ll leave the money conversation to the side and assume that your employees get paid fairly and squarely.
Let’s look at the other two — improving skills and providing value.
Ultimately, there are only two kinds of values — intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic values relate to what motivates you to stay engaged at work. These values can include things like:
- Helping others
- Doing challenging work
- Being an exemplary leader
- Having variety and change in your tasks
On the other hand, extrinsic values are concerned with the tangible rewards of doing a particular job — or what you get out of your work rather than what you put in. Extrinsic values can include things like:
- Job title
- Job security
- Having autonomy
What opportunity does your company have in fulfilling employees’ needs to provide value and improve their skills through intrinsic or extrinsic value? This is another critical to the conversations we need to be having — not about where an employee is located.
At my marketing agency, clearmotive, we have been grappling with this tough conversation around truly understanding what is creating value. When COVID-19 struck, and our teams in Calgary and Toronto moved to work remotely, we had to take a breath and consider what would bring the most value to our clients and our teams as they settled into a new and unknown situation.
Once we knew our teams were safe and secure we moved to understand what our clients needed most. As a services-based company, “customer-first” is not just a catchy buzz-phrase, it is a way of life. We quickly removed geographic barriers and got the right people working on the right accounts no matter where they were situated. With teams in Calgary and Toronto, this allowed us to work more effectively than we ever had in the past.
The second step was to identify what was valuable for our employees. Make it easy to get what you need to be done and to make it easy to perform at the highest level in relation to client needs. With the conversion of in-office vs. work-from-home removed we were able to quickly and effectively narrow in on what was important to our team and our business. We looked at our processes and marked them as “easy” or “hard.” Anything complicated, we had to change or do away with completely. We examined our technology solutions and found ways to streamline so that an employee could say, “Look at what I was able to accomplish today.” because artificial barriers didn’t slow them down.
This removal of obstacles (like a 45-minute commute to work, for example) also aligns with our workplace culture and organizational beliefs which is the ability to do more with less. This is an ongoing conversation that has continuously evolved over the past 18-months. What is setting us up for success going forward is that we are now having a value-based conversation and not slipping into the trap of office vs. remote which is an oversimplified black or white choice.
It doesn’t matter whether your team is at home or in the office. If you’re still stuck on that conversation — you’re simply conducting a lazy exercise.
Discussing what brings value to your team and company are difficult conversations. Yes, it’s not easy to do but we have to figure it out. Take, for example, this article on Forbes.com: “The Real Reasons Why Companies Don’t Want You To Work Remotely.” Some of their points include the expensive investments into purchasing, leasing, and refurbishing office spaces. Or that having a dispersed workforce creates logistical challenges. Or that 72% of managers would prefer all of their subordinates to be working in the office (if you are curious about that stat, click the Forbes link above, it may make you cringe). What do all of these points have in common? They’re complete and utter nonsense and not tied to value creation but to leaders placing value on the wrong things.
The value of being able to get more done, more efficiently, is something that remote work gives an organization and its employees. On one hand, technology and digital transformation have allowed us to work remotely and have automated and improved the way we work; but on the other hand, there are some things that simply cannot be digitized. For example, team collaboration isn’t the most effective over Zoom. The dynamic of people and what it means to manage, and work together, can get lost when remote and using technology. This is not an either-or exercise, it is one that requires an openness to the art-of-the-possible, which can be tricky for leaders to grasp.
In the spirit of optimism, it’s essential to look at how we can get to the heart of creating value within an organization. The best place to start is setting up your individual contributors to succeed by truly understanding what matters to them.
The future is “hybrid”
When confronted with a life-altering global event, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and look to the easier choice of “let’s go back to the way it was”. I am excited to say, that way is gone forever and the opportunity to create a truly hybrid work setting based on value is here to stay. If you can lean into the difficult conversations around how you create value as opposed to whether the value is created at home or in the office, you’ll already have a competitive advantage. And after all that we’ve been through, we all deserve a little extra edge!