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Don’t return to work; reimagine it

Published 10 June 2021 in Strategy ‚ÄĘ 5 min read

Many businesses are mandating rigid approaches to returning to the office. Instead, leaders should focus on leveraging what we have learned about work through the pandemic and organize schedules and space around that.  

Right now, people around the world are¬†preparing to¬†return¬†to¬†work¬†in¬†offices.¬†Many companies are focused on¬†the¬†return¬†to¬†the office¬†when they¬†first¬†should be¬†reimagining¬†work.¬†One global consumer products company, for example, is¬†telling employees,¬†“You will spend x days in the office and x days at home each week.”¬†¬†

This is causing substantial unhappiness. Why? In part because employees have transformed their lives, schedules, childcare arrangements, and other essential domestic support processes to fit working fully virtually. A transition back to spending time in the office will involve painful adjustments.  

However, many employees also question the rationale for returning to the office on a rigidly prescribed schedule. They envision spending time sitting in their offices or cubicles doing work that they could be doing at home and being at home for meetings that would be better done in person. So, the worst of all worlds. 

What many companies are missing is that we have learned a lot about what types of work can and cannot be done effectively virtually. Leaders need to start by figuring out the optimal way to work given the new virtual possibilities. Then they should reason back from there to define the right balance of virtual and in-person interaction and supporting rhythms, processes, and tools. Only by doing this will they be able to make the right decisions about schedules and the use of space. They also need to empower their people to do this reimagination because the right answer will vary greatly depending on the nature of the work to be done, for example, in how much interdependence there is among team members.  

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Reimagining Work 

The starting point for this reimagination is¬†asking:¬†What¬†has¬†operating 100%¬†virtually taught us about what works and what¬†doesn’t?¬†We¬†asked¬†leaders¬†participating in an IMD executive session¬†to complete a survey¬†about this.¬†It validated our own experience working¬†ourselves virtually¬†and leading¬†virtual¬†team and leadership development¬†sessions¬†for our clients.¬†

For 1:1 virtual work, the leaders we spoke to said that interviews, reporting, and coaching all worked well remotely. Most of what needs to be done 1:1 by team leaders with their reports can be done virtually. 

But for teamwork,¬†they said¬†just coordination,¬†information-sharing,¬†and making simple¬†decisions¬†work well¬†in the virtual mode.¬†What¬†they reported¬†doesn’t¬†work well¬†are¬†team¬†activities that¬†require deep integration of knowledge and¬†intensive dialogue and debate. These¬†essential¬†team activities¬†are built on a¬†foundation of personal connection and trust¬†that is difficult to foster virtually.¬†

Speaking to these¬†leaders, we¬†found¬†four dimensions of impact‚ÄĮin team and leadership development¬†that are difficult to achieve and sustain without being physically together:¬†

  1. Collaboration 
  2. Innovation 
  3. Acculturation (building a robust culture)  
  4. Dedication¬†(developing a sense of belonging‚ÄĮ)¬†

These are further developed in our recent HBR Online article, When Do We Really Need Face-to-Face Interactions? 

We also have learned that Zoom is a great leveler. In a world where everyone is a tile, geographic proximity and physical size and presence become less critical. This makes it more likely that good ideas and solid thinking will win the day. For this reason, one leader we work with has decided to run all his global team meetings with everyone participating virtually, even when some could be together physically. He believes that hybrid meetings inevitably create an undesirable two-tier power dynamic.  

Implications for the future of work 

As we move into the post-COVID world of work free of constraints on meeting in person, we expect to see a battle between social forces and economic forces; we believe economics will win in the end. Many people want to go back to working in person for at least some of the time because they miss the sense of connection and social interaction.  

But the reality is that productivity is higher, and costs are lower when most employees spend most of their time working remotely. Chief Financial Officers are already looking hungrily at the substantial savings from the reductions in business travel that virtual work makes possible. The even greater potential reductions in real-estate and related costs for employees working virtually rapidly are becoming apparent.  

We expect a new equilibrium eventually to be reached¬†in which people come together physically in teams only when doing so creates value ‚Äď for collaboration, innovation, acculturation,¬†and dedication. Everything else will be done virtually.¬†

As large companies figure out when¬†working¬†in-person does and does not create value, they will move inexorably toward this¬†new equilibrium. Because if they¬†don’t, their competitors will gain an advantage. It will be a sort of race to the bottom, where¬†“the bottom”¬†is a workforce that primarily works remotely.‚ÄĮ¬†

Implications for managing talent  

There will be companies that continue to overly favor¬†in-person¬†work. They will¬†do this¬†because¬†they¬†haven’t¬†confronted the¬†reality that¬†virtual¬†is more productive than in-person for most work. Or they¬†haven’t¬†yet done the necessary analysis and optimization of work given what we have learned.¬†So,¬†there will be an adaptation curve.¬†

Some¬†companies¬†may¬†strategically¬†seek¬†to¬†recruit valuable talent with the promise of more in-person time¬†in teams.¬†Smaller firms, especially creative ones,¬†may¬†decide to operate on a co-located basis and in a way that¬†doesn’t¬†create an undue cost disadvantage.¬†But the economic forces will be hard¬†for large companies¬†to resist for long.¬†

Implications for leadership 

The implications for the future of leadership are profound. In our recent article in the Sloan Management Review, The Future of Leadership is Multimodal, we argued that organizations will need leaders who can operate well in two very distinct modes. For much of the time, they will operate in virtual coordination mode. This means establishing goals, monitoring progress, driving information sharing, and sustaining connections among colleagues working remotely. This will include almost all 1:1 oversight and coaching by leaders. 

When their teams periodically come together in person to engage in deeper work, leaders will need to operate in face-to-face collaboration mode, fostering deep learning, innovation, acculturation, and dedication. 

This multimodal work is changing the types of skills required leaders need to be successful. We also identified four roles that leaders will need to play as they adapt to managing a hybrid workforce. We called them Conductor, Catalyst, Coach, and Champion. Their relative importance will depend on the extent of team coordination and integration. 

Implications for the future of the office 

 In the foreseeable future, the office, as we knew it pre-COVID-19, will cease to exist. This follows directly from the logic that most 1:1 work and a lot of coordination work in teams will be done virtually, except in situations where physical work is required, for example, in labs and production facilities.  

We will still need collaboration spaces, where teams come together periodically for work focusing on shared learning, innovation, acculturation, and connection, punctuating their routine of distributed virtual work.  

Companies will need to have access to high-quality collaboration spaces, which many teams will share, and in which face-to-face meetings will be scheduled and supported.  

Ultimately,¬†companies’¬†essential physical infrastructure will consist¬†of¬†reliable access to collaboration spaces (potentially owned and operated by others). All other work will be done on a distributed, remote basis, either at home or in shared workspaces that people go to near their homes.¬†¬†


Robert Hooijberg

Professor of Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Robert Hooijberg is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD. His areas of special interest are leadership, negotiations, team building, digital transformation, and organizational culture. Before joining IMD in September 2000, Professor Hooijberg taught at Rutgers University in their MBA and Executive MBA programs in New Jersey, Singapore, and Beijing. He is Program Director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives and the Negotiating for Value Creation course.

Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 11 other books on leadership and negotiation. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. He taught at Harvard, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, and INSEAD before joining IMD, where he directs The First 90 Days and Transition to Business Leadership programs.


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