When it comes to the return to work, there’s a lot that enterprise companies have already accomplished and reconciled throughout the course of the pandemic, like navigating the virtual environment and adopting the tools needed to successfully work from home.
That said, there’s a lot that still needs to be fixed and determined as we slowly return to office—and getting employees back to the physical space will invariably be more complicated than sending them home. There are so many factors to keep in mind— real estate, company culture, employee safety and satisfaction, etc., — and the situation will likely remain a moving target for the foreseeable future.
At Accruent, I have found that this all requires going to GEMBA, a Fortive FBS mindset—originated in Japan — that means “going to the real place,” or, in other words, getting out there to where the work is done, identifying problems and working ruthlessly to fix those problems. This is a crucial component to a culture of problem-solving and collaboration that has been, and will continue to be, key to maintaining business continuity and meeting customer and employee needs as we continue to navigate “the great return.”
Here’s how that really looks and where we stand today.
What We’ve Learned so Far During the Pandemic
We’ve come a long way in the “new normal,” and today’s work environment already looks starkly different than it did a year and a half ago. As we entered the pandemic, we had to completely redefine how to be productive, how to create culture and how to start replicating our in-office work in a virtual format. And there has been definite value in all of these pivots, as they’ve allowed Accruent to maintain business continuity, serve our customers, ensure safety and increase visibility in a mostly virtual environment.
For example, mere weeks into the pandemic, we figured out how to control access to buildings and set up safety protocols in all our offices to:
- Ensure that no non-essential employees or visitors were going to the office
- Develop a consistent cleaning regimen
- Ensure that there was a safe environment for critical employees – like front desk attendants, porters and mail collectors – that did need to return to physical space.
This type of cleaning regimen and space management transparency will continue to be important for the foreseeable future.
We also figured out who would remain virtual and how to get our critical in-person or customer-facing teams back into the field during this initial period. This was a massive undertaking. At Accruent, we have three big customer-facing teams. Two of these teams, our Customer Success team and our Professional Services team, were able to smoothly transition to a virtual environment while still effectively doing their jobs and serving customers. Our Assessment Services team was not. This team carries out architectural assessments of the health of a building in order to build customers a 10-year capital plan – and this can’t be done virtually.
To get this team back on site, we needed to:
- Build processes to improve travel and ensure travel safety
- Develop a daily check-in routine to ensure the team’s safety
- Ship PPE to team members
- Build a quarantine protocol after team members visited customers.
It was difficult, but it ultimately worked, and it set a new standard work that has been crucial for business continuity.
Finally, we came to terms with the capabilities and limitations of our new virtual environment. For some teams, like marketing, the transition to a virtual environment was largely seamless. For others, like sales and product management, the drawbacks were much clearer. In sales, teams immediately felt the sting from no in-room collaboration. They couldn’t engage in the same room with customers and build a rapport in the same way. This was one of their biggest strengths, and it was lost. In the same vein, product management lost much of their voice-of-the-customer capabilities and their ability to get out in the field. And to be honest, while we have made excellent progress in these areas, many of these issues haven’t been fully resolved, so we keep experimenting.
Must-Have Considerations of Returning to the Workplace
That is where Accruent has walked – and it probably all sounds fairly familiar. But where do we still need to go, and what do we still have to focus on to move forward effectively? To me, we must continue to focus on how our organizations:
Keep the right people in conversation
The first step is to get the right people in these important conversations. And this room – and the nature of these conversations— will continue to look completely different than it did a year and a half ago. Things like case management, floor planning, facility management and hoteling were 10 minutes of a 5-hour conversation before COVID – and it was primarily the facilities manager and the construction teams that gave their input on these topics.
Now, these topics have become the dominant part of the conversation – and they have necessarily become a senior executive discussion. This is because things like facility management and space management are now culture and growth-driving topics, and organizations must effectively figure out:
- What percentage of people they want in the corporate offices
- What roles they want returning to work
- If they should create new roles
- What long-term real estate goals should be
The list goes on. To get this right, organizations must acknowledge this shift in the conversation and make sure that they have the right stakeholders in the room asking the right questions.
This raises one of the biggest challenges and questions that we continue to face today: how do we impact culture and create meaningful interactions in an all-remote environment? Or, if we do go to a hybrid work plan, how do we create the right cultural foundation for a successful hybrid environment?
And this question goes beyond customers. Operational reviews, all-hands meetings, team meetings, new hire orientation, innovation days, mid-year sales training, project kickoffs – these are the places where culture is made in any enterprise, and establishing the right culture is the backbone of any operation.
To us, that is a culture of change, problem-solving and continuous improvement. Establishing this culture will require that we go to the meetings and spaces where that culture is made and make sure that the processes in those spaces are thoughtfully reconsidered to meet your expectations.
Continue listening to employees
If you’ve looked at LinkedIn, Forbes, or even the news, you’ve seen articles about, “The Great Resignation.” The short of it? Employees have re-evaluated their priorities and – whether it's due to pandemic burnout, a desire to stay home, an increase in opportunity, or something else entirely – they feel more empowered than ever to leave their jobs.
And employers’ responses have really been across the spectrum. Some executives want their entire company back flat-out – and this has created significant issues for employees who feel unsafe or who need time to re-establish lifelines like childcare, dog-sitters and the like. Other companies – like Square and Twitter – have gone to the other extreme with “work-from-home forever” policies.
I believe that the chips will likely fall somewhere in the middle. This isn’t an overblown topic, and it’s something that employers must be very thoughtful about and attuned to on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis if they hope to make an informed decision.
What we’ve heard from our employees is that yes, they are concerned and yes, they want the option to stay home. But they also miss each other. They miss collaboration, problem solving and the social aspect of being in the office. And make no mistake – creativity, innovation, growth and problem-solving fundamentally benefit from in-person connection and collaboration.
This is where the hybrid role can really come into play, and we need to have the tools, methods and processes in place that allow people to make the choice on their own and – if they choose – to come back in a safe, clean way. We must also have the tools to call employees back should the need arise, and to be able to do so in a way that doesn’t trigger mass attrition.
Strive to master hybrid dynamics
There is a lot to think about when it comes to mastering hybrid dynamics, including productivity, compliance, taxes and – maybe most importantly – culture.
With a hybrid environment, there is the inherent concern about hierarchy between the office workers and the remote workers: namely, will those in the office have promotion opportunities and raise opportunities that at-home employees don’t have just because, as Jamie Dimon put it, you can see that they “want to hustle?”
How do you overcome this kind of issue as a leader and as an organization? And how can remote leaders get their team to show off their work in the same way? Business leaders and managers must be really thoughtful and proactive about this. They must reconsider how they train managers, create career structures and create recognition structures or promotion systems to ensure that they are equitable and that they take this concern into account.
Restructure the office with the intersection of behavior and technology at the forefront
Culture, facilities and behavior must go hand in hand. We already talked about the places where office culture is made – the meetings, orientations, kick-offs, and all-hands. Well, if we expect to impact culture effectively in those places, then the facilities themselves must be right.
At Accruent – as with many other enterprise organizations – this has meant a massive restructuring of our real estate and our spaces. Before the pandemic, we had a huge number of square feet in our Austin office. That was way too much space for us, even when we had all of our Austin-based employees in the office.
During COVID, we had the opportunity to reconstruct the office and to make important changes like:
- Using our space management software to change from assigned desk seating to reservation-based seating, which affords more space for collaboration.
- Creating obeya rooms, or war rooms, where we can build customer artifacts and do real problem-solving.
- Creating better offices and rooms that are built for collaboration. This means getting desks out of the way, putting up whiteboards, pinning up problem trees, and figuring out a process design and workflow that allows us to seamlessly integrate our technology and our physical spaces. This will be crucial for workers that are not in the office to feel like they have a presence and a place in the room.
Then there is behavioral training that must be done with our remote organization in mind. In short, we must continue to figure out how to connect floor plans, technology and cultural training in a way that allows for true productivity and hybrid collaboration. And the importance of this intersection cannot be overstated.
Rethink role designation
In the past, we’ve had two role designations: office and remote. I was a remote employee for almost all of my career, and there were set expectations that came with that designation. For example, I got a stipend for the internet and it was well-accepted that I would be traveling – but I didn’t have office rights or office capabilities early on.
Office employees, conversely, got a desk and a place to put their things. With the return to workplace, if the entire team doesn’t return, employers will have to figure out a way to reset benefits and expectations for the hybrid employee. This could require an entirely new role designation.
Final Thoughts: We Must Continue to Go to GEMBA and Adapt
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next six or 12 months. What I do know is that our teams are incredibly resilient, and they’ve shown us that they can adapt, experiment and change. That’s in their DNA.
I also know that no matter what happens, Accruent will need to be agile and prepared to face new situations as they arise. This will require that we continue to “go to the real place” and find:
- Better use of technology that facilitates collaboration rather than getting in the way
- A culture of agility, collaboration and problem-solving
- An openness to understanding our problems and areas of improvement
- A way to continuously remain in tune with employees and customers
The unknown is okay. Problems are okay. And the organizations that face the unknown and relentlessly work to solve those problems are the ones that will win at the future of work.