Smart leaders seize the opportunity to rethink the workplace


A study recently caught my eye that dramatizes the extent to which the changing workplace is reshaping company cultures—for better and for worse. It indicates that fast-growing organizations are embracing the new organizational structures wrought by COVID-19 and will be better equipped to weather both this storm and others that arrive in the future.

The global survey of 7,600 professionals conducted by VMware found that the use of digital collaboration tools has given rise to “tribes,” or groups of employees who regularly connect and interact based on shared interests. Most tribes are defined by work function, but nearly half of respondents said shared interests and frequency of collaboration are also defining factors, far more than geographical proximity.

The global office

In other words, the office has gone global. Organizations now have the means to create bonds around mentoring, community support, peer-to-peer education, and shared values that they never before considered. It’s a transformative idea that will propel forward those companies that take advantage of it.

The study also found that, paradoxically, an overwhelming majority of people at high-growth firms said collaboration and emotional support have improved in the remote work environment. In fact, it appears that distributed work has been good for morale and productivity overall; two-thirds of respondents said collaboration in the organization has improved, and just over 60% said they feel more valued by colleagues than before lockdowns.

At high-growth companies, a remarkable 88% said their personal connections with colleagues have improved, a figure that researchers noted was up significantly from a year ago. And 80% of all respondents agreed that allowing employees to work remotely helps their organization get more out of diverse talent pools with three-quarters saying it’s also created an environment that’s more tolerant of diverse viewpoints.

Nearly one-third of high-growth organizations have even gone so far as to create the position of chief remote officer. That indicates that the leaders of those companies are thinking about how to turn the current lemons they’ve been handed into long-term lemonade.

Nowhere to hide

The study also has a lesson for remote employees: Hiding in your home office is a bad strategy. Among people who have been promoted since remote work began, a significantly higher percentage said they communicate regularly with their managers via chat, text message, and video. More than four in five of those recently promoted people also said they turn on their camera during meetings most of the time, compared to 55% of those who haven’t been promoted. And by a two-to-one margin, people who regularly turn on their cameras say their personal connection with colleagues has improved.

“There’s obviously a connection when you see someone on camera and this study validated that,” said Teresa Chen, Director of Solutions Marketing at VMware.

But old biases die hard. The study also found that a remarkable 70% of organizations are monitoring employee productivity using tactics such as email monitoring, video surveillance, attention tracking via webcams, and keylogger software. People appear to be largely unaware of this oversight as only about half as many employees as human resource leaders said they believe their organization is monitoring them. Not surprisingly, companies that are using device monitoring have also seen significantly higher turnover.

“The fact that there’s a correlation between monitoring and turnover shows that organizations haven’t been as transparent as they want to be,” Chen said. “Transparency is key to productivity in the hybrid workplace.”

I’d like to think that the organizations that monitor employees’ online activities are doing so to be sure they don’t work too hard because that turns out to be a bigger problem than people sloughing off. Researchers didn’t ask, but I don’t think they had to.

Make lemonade

While I’m reluctant to take any single research study at face value, the size and scope of the VMware survey is impressive. So is the message: Business leaders who hunker down and hope everything will get back to normal once this crisis recedes are failing their people, their stakeholders, and their customers. A virus has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the workplace, and business leaders who see that as a gift are fortifying their companies for the future.

As I noted previously, I once worked for a startup that was all in on workplace flexibility. There were no set hours, no office-hour requirements, and no vacation quotas. I hired more than 100 people during my six years there and fired exactly one for abusing the privileges. I learned that if you hire smart, motivated people and show you trust them to do their best, they’ll amaze you with their ability to route around adversity.

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