Chief Operating Officer, responsible for leading Softchoice’s Strategy, Business Development, Innovation and Marketing functions.

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Earlier this year, as vaccines became available, there was a lot of talk about the “return to the office.” Eager to see colleagues in person again, many looked forward to the day on the near-term horizon when everyone could all safely interact in physical offices that were adapted to the needs of the pandemic.  

However, as things continue to evolve, it’s quite clear that “return to office” means different things to different people. And, besides, what are employees returning to? 

This leads to some potentially thorny questions: 

Should leaders persuade — or even force — their employees back to physical locations? 

Can hybrid solutions that fuse innovative digital and physical spaces together foster productive collaboration for everyone? 

How do you attract and retain team members who would like to stay remote and choose instead to employ their talents in an anywhere, anytime world of work? 

There’s no clear consensus on these answers, or to what approach works best. And that’s likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. I firmly believe we all have to come to grips with a new reality. And as a tech company empowering organizations to adopt digital workplaces, I and my team see this clearly. Namely, while physical offices need to be hybrid collaboration spaces, the headquarters, in effect, is no longer a physical location but an innovative and dynamic collection of software and tools that you use to do your job. 

The word ‘office’ is losing its connections to physical things, given how many activities can be increasingly done without regard to geography, and how many days people will spend working outside a company building. 

So, what are the implications of this reality on leaders? 

I suggest there are at least three. 

1. You need compelling reasons to attract team members to a physical office. 

Some team members can’t wait to walk back into a physical office. But on the whole, and certainly, in my experience over the last 18-plus months, remote working is the preferred option for most people. And many of them intend to keep this option on most days of the week. As someone said to me the other day, “Why would I spend an hour commuting each way to and from a physical location only to wear a mask and be on video calls all day when I could just stay at home and do my job?”

Leaders wedded to the notion that physical office spaces are still paramount over hybrid (or even entirely digital) have a huge challenge to overcome in attracting and retaining team members within distributed workforces. They need to start thinking virtual first when building or re-purposing physical spaces and then design around that.

It’s a big — and growing — challenge, and one I struggle with myself as COO of a technology services and solutions provider with more than 1,800 team members in two countries. Confronting this challenge has me working more closely than ever with colleagues in IT and HR, among other groups. Together, we continuously focus on keeping employee experience (EX) front and center in developing and executing our corporate strategy.

2. Learn more from data. 

In this emerging world of remote work, you can’t assume things are going well just because output metrics like productivity may be improving. You likely have to dig deeper. You can do so by harnessing the power of huge amounts of data being generated in the workplace today to manage workflows, enhance EX and, by extension, improve corporate performance. 

The predictive capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), for example, can be used to optimize workflows within physical spaces, when colleagues have to be together in person, to foster collaboration with colleagues not physically present. Likewise, workplace analytics can inform policies and shape culture when used to create a work-life balance for everyone. It’s not for nothing that some people ask their colleagues “Are you working from home or living at work?” when they receive emails at all hours. 

As Microsoft wrote about earlier this year, hybrid work is here to stay. Yet the intensity of that work can be overwhelming. Managers can help avoid burnout by understanding the underlying signals sent by an array of metrics on things such as the number of Teams chats per week, meeting-time duration and the hours people are working. 

3. Our collective understanding of culture building needs a readjustment.

Building and cultivating an organizational culture in a dispersed environment is tremendously challenging. The topic comes up all the time, in a variety of meetings on different issues. It’s not surprising. Humans are innately social beings and leaders have spent decades testing and perfecting ways to build organizational culture by bringing people physically together. Most leaders don’t have a playbook for how to do this virtually, thus the onslaught of headlines recently of CEOs calling workers back to offices in the name of culture building. 

The lack of a playbook is exacerbated by a related tension in generational outlooks and expectations. Many leaders today are older and have likely worked for their respective employers for many years. Contrast that with younger team members who see their own careers through the lens of experiences and skills, and who have grown up using digital tools to engage with those around them. 

The point is that when employees are spread out across generations and locations, managing everyone as though culture is created by people sitting beside someone is an outdated model. Instead, leaders should think about culture as an enabler of personal and organizational growth, with technology acting as a catalyst to that growth at all levels. Leaders need a new culture-building playbook for this hybrid world. 

Wherever they may work today, millions of employees are using innovative, collaborative technologies to connect with customers and colleagues alike. That will only expand, both in the number of people using these technologies and in the capacities of those technologies. 

As digital HQs replace physical buildings, it opens up a world full of opportunities to business and tech leaders who truly understand the implications of this permanent shift. 


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