HomeLeadershipBoardroom RelationshipsUniting the boardroom: Creating cohesive culture in a remote work environment

Uniting the boardroom: Creating cohesive culture in a remote work environment

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An economic slowdown has brought the debate about where we work back to the table. Bruce Daisley argues that CEO’s need to ensure they’re listening to all of the voices in the room.

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After an intensifying drip over the last few months, the dams have burst on the full push to get workers back to the office. Last week the global boss of JPMorgan, Jamie Dimon, justified his request that staff return to the workplace full-time, explaining that hybrid work is “perfectly reasonable to help women” but was unsuited to managers or younger workers. It followed the demand the previous week for Disney employees to find themselves in an office for four days a week.

What these management pronouncements miss is that away from the CEO’s seat boardroom-level leaders are more divided on what to do next.

“A strong sense of team”

“I need to balance the need to create a strong sense of team with a genuine concern that I can’t lose any more people right now,” Karl told me. Karl is a board director at a media company based inside the M25. Hybrid working has proved popular with his team and Karl has found himself struggling to enforce a demand for workers to be back in the office on the mandated three days a week. Revenue for the business has been strong, holding up better than expected and the biggest threat to performance has been the growing number of vacant roles in his team. A previous ‘return to office’ push barely registered in lifting attendance levels and Karl didn’t want to press the team too hard at this stage.

“I’ve been told to formulate a plan to get people back in,” Adam told me. Adam has board-level responsibility for HR at a construction company. Most of Adam’s fellow directors have enjoyed the balance of flexible working but the CEO has complained of empty seats and “never seeing anyone”. A sluggish start to the year has been cited as a reason to revisit the flexibility of the last year or so and Adam has been tasked with winning the team over to making things happen “in [the company’s name] way” (meaning in the office).

Productivity paranoia

These stories are indicative of what Microsoft has styled the ‘Productivity Paranoia’ that surrounded hybrid working. In the tech giant’s data 85% of leaders doubt that their workers are productive when working from home, while 87% of workers believe they are. But what the Microsoft data appears to miss is that these paranoias aren’t evenly distributed – CEOs seem most concerned of all. There’s a degree of bias in the way leaders are making these judgments.

Data from Leesman, an organization that measures employee experience, suggests that those who are keenest to drive a return to the office are those who have their own private space there – namely the bosses with corner offices.

It’s worth reminding ourselves why hybrid working has proved so popular, in new data published this week we’re reminded that it’s all about time – working from home saves us an average of 72 minutes per day (from a combination of commuting time and getting ready), half an hour of which tends to go into us working longer.

Flexible working has proved so popular that it is the top item on the wish list for job seekers.

Three solutions

So what is the solution to these quibbles over what should do next?

Firstly, employees need to feel listened to. Little will alienate a workforce more than feeling that the bosses with their own private parking spots and corner offices have forced everyone back to a crowded office four or five days a week without discussion.

Secondly, leadership messaging should emphasize that everyone needs to give a little. As the hybrid guru Professor Nick Bloom tells us, we’re seeing that the biggest determinant of good culture is proving to be having coordinated office time. Bosses might have to accept that it’s not necessarily more total time in the office and workers might need to acknowledge that it’s making sure that the time that is spent there is spent seeing colleagues.

Thirdly, the best organizations are thinking about intentionally designing how they work to maximize the impact of these coordinated moments. So much of work happens accidentally – meetings go in the calendar where there’s a gap, and while Mondays or Fridays might feel different we don’t set out to differentiate the rest of the week.

A group of British researchers challenged 76 organizations (of at least 1000 employees each)  to implement one meeting-free day per week. The impact of something like Meeting-Free Thursday was seen to increase productivity by 35% and job satisfaction by 48%. Combining a meeting-free day with being around colleagues in the office might seem initially counter-intuitive but workers reported feeling energized by being free to swing by each others’ desks or to go to talk about ideas over coffee.

An economic slowdown has brought the debate about where we work back to the table. CEOs need to ensure they’re listening to all of the voices in the room if they’re going to get this one right.

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Bruce Daisley is the author of Fortitude – Unpicking the Myth of Resilience

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