Tsedal Neeley: Why we need to think of the Office as a tool with very specific uses

HBR professor Tsedal Neeley has focused for years on a pair of essential business imperatives: how to go global, and how to become truly digital. More recently she has established herself as an expert in the nitty gritty aspects of the new workplace – how to hire and retain talent, how to collaborate in a…

HBR Professor Tsedal Neeley has been focusing for many years on two essential business imperatives: How to go global and how to be truly digital. She has become an expert on the details of the new workplace, including how to retain and hire talent, how to work in a hybrid environment, and how to think about the office’s new role. Neeley, in this episode of “The New World of Work”, says that the office will not be the same as it was once and that it should be seen more as a tool in business. She urges companies to act now in order to meet the demands of technological innovation and leadership. She says, “Either adapt or you die .”

HBS professor Tsedal Neeley specializes in how companies can scale, go global, and achieve digital transformation. She published a very timely book last year, Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, and is co-author of the forthcoming The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Neeley in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • Thinking of the office as a tool, and identifying what that tool is good for
  • How some companies have successfully achieved digital transformation, and what awaits those that can’t or won’t
  • We’re not going back to the “old normal,” and employees’ expectations of work have changed, probably forever.

Neeley thinks the future of work is not going to be a choice between in-person, remote, or hybrid. She says that you must be “fantastic in all of them” and learn to connect with people to reach your goals.

The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. In a HBR newsletter, he shares his inside view of these conversations and invites readers to ask questions. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.

ADI IGNATIUS: Tsedal, welcome.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Thank you so much for having me, Adi. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

ADI IGNATIUS: Well, I love our conversations and I can’t think of anyone who’s better positioned than you to talk about the future of work. Let’s get to the main topic, which is the “Great Resignation” (or the “Great Reshuffle”, as you prefer. The impact is already felt by all. What is the impact of all this on our work? How will it affect our future?

TSEDAL NEELEY: It’s interesting because the “Great Resignation” captures the great recognition that people have had, that they want more from their work. They are looking for better work arrangements. They are looking for higher wages and better salaries. They are looking for better managers. People are leaving if you’re a poor or mediocre manager.

We are currently in the midst of a global catastrophe pandemic, which is still ongoing. This is the second year of a global cataclysmic pandemic. People are reassessing their lives and evaluating their priorities. They have also experienced new ways of working. A former marketing manager described the “Great Resignation” as a huge repudiation of suboptimal work arrangements. Companies are now being made to be more welcoming and inviting places to work. This is the “Great Resignation”.

ADI IGNATIUS: Implicit in that is that power has shifted in some ways from the employer to the worker. Are you referring to the pandemic or to how we have managed the economy and incentives, or is this a temporary phenomenon? Do you believe that everything has changed?

TSEDAL NEELEY: I actually think that the pendulum does swing over time, and we don’t know how long this will last. You are right, however. We are both witnessing the most competitive labor market in our lifetimes and employees are making demands about where they work. They hold the power today.

By the way, similar worker unrest was seen after World War I and after World War II. People start to look at themselves and ask for more. This is a very different one. It is extremely global. It’s also spreading quickly thanks to social media and other fast-reaching tools. Workers, I believe, have the power. Although we don’t know how long it will take, companies must think deeply about what they should do in order to achieve their goals.

We saw Adi, Adi, that many people in the banking industry began to pivot from “This is an aberration.” It won’t change. It will never change.

ADI IGNATIUS: Let’s stick on this topic of talent. After the war, you mentioned that there was another period in which workers enjoyed relative power. We probably thought of management back then as a top-down task. Now, we are in a place where good management is defined as being compassionate and taking all stakeholders’ perspectives seriously, including employees. How much should employees be allowed to have agency and a voice in deciding how, when, and where they work?

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TSEDAL NEELEY: I actually think it’s something that needs to be co-created. While employees can’t have complete agency on their own, they can have some by expressing their preferences and interests.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many companies over the past couple of years. Surveying their workforce is something that companies do rightly. You must do this anonymously, as you don’t want anyone to tell you what to think. You want the truth. Understanding people’s preferences is essential. This must be balanced with the work that the organization does. What are the most important things we can do? What can we do to ensure we are serving our stakeholders well? Once you’ve understood that, you need to create a policy that is both effective for employees and the work environment.

The agency can really come when it is about work arrangements. It is consistent this way when you look at survey results across companies and industries. You have about 15 to 20% who want to be in the office. We need to pay attention to their desire for in-person work. People in their early stages of careers, young people, want to work in an office. You have about 30% who often want remote-only work, and this is typically aligned with certain demographic groups, but remote-only and remote-first is the manner that they want to move forward with. The rest of us want hybrid work. This is a mix of remote-first and in-person work.

So the question is: What will you do within your organization to make it possible to accommodate these preferences? [to how] Looking outside your normal areas or localities may be a way to find great talent that you didn’t know. Diverse talent within the US and global talent from outside your country.

You need to rethink and reset how you attract talent and keep them.

ADI IGNATIUS: So we used to think that the key to building and sustaining a culture was physical interaction and it wasn’t just the planned meetings but those serendipitous unplanned meetings that created spark. All of this is impossible to prove. All of it is possible. It was something we believed in, and it is something many still believe in. Which is your conclusion? Although there aren’t any data to prove or disprove it, you have studied truly global companies with many employees working remotely and no single headquarters. Yet, I am sure that they will say there is a culture and a defining ethos. Help those who believe it’s just everyone in the office, or that we have lost the magic. There is clearly a middle ground.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Yes. You will find that in-person interactions with the serendipitous, or as some call it, the water cooler conversation, the cappuccino conversation, or the tea-kettle discussion, are a great way to make connections, build relationships and advance your work goals. This pandemic revealed for many that in-person culture isn’t a panacea. When you look at the Future Forum’s data (this is Slack’s think tank), looking at Black and brown professionals, the in-person culture was actually very difficult. In reality, inclusion was a problem. Many people felt a lack of belonging. Remote work has kind of shifted and changed [things], because people were taking these psychological commutes in order to be able to fit into their organizations. The in-person meeting is not always the best option and may not work for everyone. It is important to fully understand.

However, these small in-person interactions with people can help you to build a deeper relationship and ultimately, improve your work. It all works differently when you are in a remote environment. It all happens differently when you are in a hybrid environment.

My position has always been–after about 20 years immersed in virtual work, global work, remote work–that these things happen differently and we need to learn how to do them. It’s not possible to get serendipitous results in remote environments, but it is possible to make it happen. This is what I call structuring unstructured times. We must be great when we’re physically present, and we should be amazing when we’re remote. Multimodal workers are essential. This is our new reality. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of that and more. Do you find that this makes sense?

ADI IGNATIUS: It makes total sense. It is important to take this seriously. We must be able to communicate with others and be purposeful in our interactions. Do you know of any companies that are achieving the right hybrid experience?

TSEDAL NEELEY: There are. It’s fascinating to see what companies are doing well. People will often say that all or nothing is difficult, but in-between, or hybrid, is the most difficult. It will take work and culture changes to make it possible.

What have we learned? We have learned one thing: technology is key. There are many people watching this and listening who have been on hybrid calls. You couldn’t see or hear the other people, it was difficult to communicate with them, and you feel disconnected. We need to first invest in the right technology to capture people. Then we must make sure we have the right practices.

For example, it is a good idea to bring your laptops to a hybrid meeting. If people see the chats coming in, they can see you. People feel more connected than being isolated on a screen. Another best practice is to clearly define the rules of engagement for these conversations. How can we communicate? And how can we ensure that everyone gets a chance at participating in a conversation? These conversations must be explicitly initiated. Managers and leaders should ensure that everyone participates, not just the dominant or most visible people. All participants must be allowed to enter.

You need the right tools, the right skills, and the right mindset to make these work. Some companies are ahead of the curve because they have embraced this concept long ago. Another thing we see is that many companies, many organisations, and many groups are in a wait-and-see mindset. They think that they can wait for the problem to go away, and then they will return to normal. This makes it impossible to prepare and prevents you from developing the skills you need to succeed.

ADI IGNATIUS: And implicit in that is that we’re not going back to the old normal.

TSEDAL NEELEY: I don’t think we’re going back to the old normal. Work has been disrupted. Many workers have stated that their work has changed. They’ve seen a new way of working. Productivity has risen for many, many companies. We must accept that the world has turned upside down and brought a new way of working. If we don’t accept, accept, and adapt, then we will be behind the times.

You mentioned our upcoming book, The Digital Mindset. We are just around the corner of a bigger disruption in work, where technology and data will fundamentally change how we do business. If we believe it’s all about in-person or not, we don’t really get the fundamental shift happening at work. We will soon have data and other technological devices that will change the way we work. Doing some adaptation now is actually prepping us for the future in the next three to 5 years.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s well said. I will be asking the audience questions, and they are many. This question is from Ontario, Canada. You’ve already touched on it, some. But what can the best companies do to keep remote staff engaged and in their offices? How do they connect with their employees, who may have been hired during the pandemic but have not yet met them in person?

TSEDAL NEELEY: That’s such a great question. Talking to companies, I find that employees are the most important thing they worry about. We need to get rid of the idea that employee engagement is only possible when we are present in person. This is false. Engagement is about having a great leader who creates the conditions for cohesion in groups and at work. You need to maintain contact with your employees. The informal contact is important, as well as virtual interactions with other people that are valuable. It is important to ensure that people have great jobs and that they are connected to others, even for higher purposes.

The point that you make though, Adi, and the numbers that I’m seeing across the board is about 18% to 20% of new employees in many companies, especially large companies, have been hired in the last couple of years in the middle of this pandemic with very little in-person contact. These people I call remote natives. So remote natives need not only to be engaged, but they need

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