As my home city of Melbourne appears set to see the one week extension of “snap 7 day lockdown” extended again to at least a third week if not a fourth, the entire State of New South Wales being in lockdown and Western Australia seeming intent on a long-term policy of isolation our thoughts turn to the challenge for both working executives and executive search.
Harvard Business Review reported in the May June 2021 issue in an article by Lynda Gratton, a professor at the London Business School, “Since the pandemic, companies have adopted the technologies of virtual work remarkably quickly and employees are seeing the advantages of more flexibility in where and when they work.” Gratton goes on to discuss how companies need to take account of human considerations as they seek to take advantage of newfound flexibility.
In interviews with senior people in executive search projects recently, we have been interested to see the development of some subtle divergence when it comes to working from home. These appear to fall into two camps:
1. “Working while at home” this seems to be the experience of a cohort which has been required to “work from home wherever possible” while also managing the challenges of home schooling and technology solutions that are less than commercial grade.
This group seems to find the new way of working most challenging and in many ways they long to get back to the office. They may have made space to work in the home rather than having dedicated space. It is best described as a compromise and explains why we have seen some leaders driving hard to get their teams back to the office as soon as possible. They are simply not as productive at home as they are in the office.
It seems more likely that this group is missing the social interaction and collaboration of work more than others, finds it more difficult to separate work activity from home activities and feels the need to be in a workplace where they can function more completely.
2. “Work from home”. While this sounds almost the same, it’s more representative of executives who have dedicated office space at home. They are likely to be more senior, have high-grade technology and can dedicate an entire space, sometimes more than one space, to be a fully functioning office that is supported by high-grade Internet, multiple screens and computers, quiet nooks for reading and even new studio space for recording video blogs and pod casts. This cohort is less likely to seek out an early return to the office and is more likely to see offices as places to visit when, eventually, face-to-face collaboration is essential again or when customers and clients need to be visited. This group has made themselves highly productive from home, any children are probably past school-age, and such workers are likely to have high levels of both authority and autonomy.
Gratton, discusses the need to consider hybrid work arrangements in the context of both place and time. In our view, the often talked about Nirvana being able to work from anywhere, anytime has some significant challenges. The first of these is that without a dedicated and fully equipped home office it is unlikely that an employee “working while at home” will have consistent access to the kind of technology-based productivity tools that they would in a fully functioning office - either at home or in an office block.
During the executive search process, it is quite easy for us to understand which cohort a new candidate falls into. While many are using virtual backgrounds for their Zoom calls or Microsoft Teams calls there are some who are starting to allow full visibility into the office environment, almost as if they are saying, “this is me and this is how I prefer to work”
This creates some significant challenges for business leaders. While it seems lower office occupancy costs are almost certainly materialising as office leases come up for renewal, leaders need to be cognizant of supporting true “work from home” settings in order to optimise productivity, fairness and equity and a whole range of human interaction requirements that have been changed, perhaps permanently.
As executive search consultants we are also seeing the need to become increasingly effective with technology, often taking longer over finalising shortlists and preparing preferred candidates because of the absence of face-to-face interaction. We are having to satisfy clients more thoroughly in the preparatory work where clients have been accustomed to flying executives interstate or even internationally to conclude an executive search process.
We have also been making extensive use of psychometric assessments to modify the thinking of companies away from a mindset that employees are now working "all the time and from anywhere" towards a core of collaboratively available time and a surround of flexibility that takes account of the changed human conditions of working in the same environment that families occupy. By identifying the human needs of individuals we can develop conversations about this systemic change with clients about how they work together in the future with their new executives.