Directors Consider the Future of Work

As the dialogue around “return to work” heats up and the likes of Twitter and JPMorgan make headlines for their respective approaches, companies must not lose sight of the task at hand: critical decisions must be made about the long-term health, competitiveness, and vitality of the enterprise — truly, the future of work.

Mainstream media has done much to cover employee preference in the debate regarding the return to in-person work. However, it is important to bring in other perspectives when making such an important discussion. The decisions will also need to factor in how to maintain a culture that’s cohesive, collaborative and nimble; one that produces the best ideas and creates the best products and services. The more important question is really in pyramid order, the purpose for the enterprise to exist, and the vision and mission of the enterprise. The human talent pool is a very important portion, but is only one of several layers in a pyramid.

All stakeholders involved need both clarity and accountability. Employees need to understand expectations and how their success will be measured. Leaders need to focus on goal-setting and measuring productivity at the team level, not just on an individual level. Investors will need to know why you make the choices you do, and what you’re measuring on their behalf.

Given these complexities and potentially competing interests, boards will need to request clear go-forward recommendations and plans from their management teams, rather than let this foundational topic be addressed quarter-to-quarter. To help sort out the signal from the noise, here is a list of the foundational questions about what makes corporations successful, and what boards should consider heading into discussions and debates about the future of work.

How Should We Think About Productivity?

One big challenge for companies is around defining and measuring productivity, particularly for knowledge workers. Does a baseline for understanding productivity even exist?

In a distributed environment, you’re trying to assess the individual’s maximum effectiveness in creating value for the enterprise. Sure, there are surveillance tools with screen monitoring capabilities, but those are really meant to ensure that employees are not shopping or surfing the internet. Measuring the productivity of knowledge workers is not precise, often incorporating factors like revenue, profit, and customer satisfaction, and is ultimately meant to be the summation of accomplishments that move a company forward.

Companies’ focus seems to have under-weighted teams and over-weighted on the individual. Leadership needs to put in place measurement systems for team productivity to assess the units of work coming out of the team so that they may do the following:

  • See what is working well or not.
  • Identify why it’s not working well, i.e. is the talent mix on the team correct?
  • Understand connections. Are the connections correct on the team? How do you add the “serendipity” of the water cooler conversation when you run into somebody not on your team who adds a different perspective?

If you are a manufacturing company, productivity is measured by the number of units made at a certain cost. If you’re a software company, productivity is the output of your knowledge workers (e.g., new products or lines of code) and is ultimately measured by market share. These are not at the individual unit of work level, and that makes measuring hard. For key line functions, how you define productivity in your knowledge workers is in their results to create a differentiated and more inspired, advanced, and valuable product or service.

Additionally, you must consider the differences between individual and team productivity. The entire chain must be solid, connecting multiple tasks, responsibilities, projects, and processes to deliver solutions and innovations to the marketplace. Being in-person helps ensure continuity and quality across a full creation chain. Individual productivity can only go so far — overall organizational productivity will be the deciding factor when it comes to the companies that succeed or fail.

As companies seek continuous innovation of products and services, delivered in new and better ways to the customer, it’s important to not confuse tools with the solution. Slack, Zoom, and other tools are work group enhancers. Having better project management software can help measure timeliness of deliverables, but they don’t in any way replace the magic of live, in-person collaboration.