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Fueling innovation and culture in a distanced work world

By Mats Röjdmark on 14/12/2020

Search online for “future workplace” and you’ll find dozens of articles published per day that cover everything from post-COVID office design to measuring productivity for at-home employees — a sign that employers are still scrambling to make sense of pandemic-fueled changes. It’s not that working from home is such a new phenomenon — even before the pandemic, at least 10% to 12% of US workers said they worked from home at least part-time. Rather, it’s the speed and scale of the transformation that is unheard of.

At Universum, we work with global brands to help them recruit top talent, and we do this by studying what young talent looks for in a future employer: What attracts them to a particular company? What brand values resonate? (We study this not only at the aggregate, but exploring demographics like area of study, region, and gender, among others.) 

The research shows common themes each year; among them, young talent in business, tech and engineering prioritize things like:
– friendly work environment,
– innovation
– a creative and dynamic work environment when choosing future employers

And we suspect these priorities will not change. But employers must now consider how to support these values when workers no longer share an office. And how can employers design workplaces — both physical and virtual — to recreate these in a post-COVID world

Innovation at a distance

One big point of contention among CEOs as they consider workplace strategy: Can a company drive innovation when most of its employees don’t share an office space? 

While some tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have announced plans for employees to work from home permanently, others aren’t fully on board. Reed Hastings from Netflix recently told the Wall Street Journal that he will invite employees back to the office “12 hours after a vaccine is approved.” He explained, “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” Bank of America Corp.’s Chief Operations and Technology Officer Cathy Bessant echoes this idea: “Our employees feel like they’re more of a team with a purpose [when face-to-face].”

For the vast majority of employers, however, the answer lies somewhere in between both extremes. “The office is not going to disappear, but it will require a fresh, new approach,” say four experts in architecture and design in Harvard Business Review. “People will still need places where they can come together, connect, build relationships, and develop their careers. The size, scale, and openness of the modern office can be detrimental to the quality of those relationships.”

With this in mind, many companies are pivoting to adopt a hybrid approach, either requiring workers in-person only part-time, or using smaller satellite offices where employees can gather for collaborative meetings on an ad-hoc basis, but otherwise work remotely. Tech company Fujitsu, for example, announced its plan to drastically reduce existing office space in favor of a “hub and satellite” approach. 

How these models will affect innovation is still under vigorous debate. Writing for the Financial Times, Lynda Gratton worries that impromptu conversations, which can be the spark for new ideas, will be snuffed out when knowledge workers don’t share a workspace. She explains, “Innovation comes from ‘novel combinations,’ the basis of which are serendipity and chance encounters. These encounters are often face to face and rarely structured — they are the “water cooler” conversations.”

Some believe technology will make up the difference, but to date cloud-based enterprise solutions like teleconferencing, project management, and messaging are poor proxies for in-person collaboration. Yes, platforms like Slack, Zoom and Teams have bridged the gap in a crisis, but they simply don’t approximate (yet) the fast-paced energy and intellectual friction you might find in an in person brainstorming session. As Tyler Cowen summed it up in Bloomberg Opinion, “Virtual tools can help organize teams, but they simply can’t replicate the intellectual frisson of ‘gathering the smart people’ together, and this could damage performance and innovation.”

Supporting training and mentoring from a distance 

Universum’s research shows young talent also highly values training and development as they consider future employers; in fact, training and development often scores higher than salary as an attribute knowledge workers look for during a job search. 

For many organizations, online training was already the norm pre-COVID, most often for “microtraining” or “microlearning,” which focuses on teaching discrete skills in a short period of time. Some kinds of learning, however, benefit from in-person engagement. Mentorship, for example, is a critical aspect of development for young professionals in technology and engineering, and can be difficult to recreate from a distance. One redditor explained, “Everyone is saying how great it is to work from home, but as a software engineer, I learn best when seated shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have more experience than I do. COVID has been a huge setback for me professionally.” Huw Richards, head of digital transformation of JPMorgan’s investment banking division, shares a similar sentiment, “In an analogue world, you can lean over and ask your cube mate. In a distributed world [working from home], you can’t do that.”

Protecting employer culture when no one shares an office

Finally, how will employers maintain their carefully honed employer culture in the post-pandemic, virtual environment? Research from Gartner shows nearly 1 in 3 (30%) of business leaders worry the work-from-home model will undermine culture. The concern is likely well-warranted. 

Companies spend lots of time thinking about the type of culture they want to embody — whether an agile, “fail fast” culture many tech companies support, or a more traditional top-down culture that values outcomes more than process. So much of culture is cemented through in-person interactions and cues. Agile environments, for example, are known for stand-up meetings and boards covered in sticky notes. Employers that value a family-like employee community may host lunchtime gatherings devoted to different employee hobbies, or organize group health and wellness events. 

In-person interactions aren’t the only culture influencers; the physical environment people share has a big effect on culture. Companies have invested significant money in office design that supports work values: open workspaces with comfy, informal seating for agile brainstorming sessions, or more traditional spaces that value privacy and quiet over shared work. These are all “cues” to culture for new employees that are hard to duplicate remotely. 

Where others see challenge, leaders see opportunity

The COVID crisis and the resulting reinvention of the workplace is a tremendous chance to rethink what works and what doesn’t work. As Stewart Butterfield, CEO, and co-founder of Slack, thinks this way: “There’s an opportunity to retain the best parts of office culture while freeing ourselves from bad habits and inefficient processes, from ineffective meetings to unnecessary bureaucracy.” 

Employers must be intentional about designing experiences that are as good or better than what came before — be it strategies for onboarding new employees, crafting an innovation-driving company culture, or attracting a new generation of talent. For people across the globe, 2021 will be a new beginning after a long period of deprivation. For leaders in HR and talent management, the shift to “post-COVID” will require a wholly new mindset, one focused on opportunities rather than obstacles.