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3 lessons for leaders in the work-from-anywhere world

12 May 2022

Slack’s Deirdre Byrne writes that a ‘golden era of work is in reach’ – as long as leaders apply a more flexible approach.

After two years away, we’re looking at offices with rose-tinted glasses. But while meeting rooms and desks are novelties for now, it’s important that they don’t stop us from learning the lessons of the past two years. Work has been through a transformation. Let’s cement positive change, rather than bounce back to an outdated world.

Leadership, though, is too often lagging behind. According to Future Forum [a research consortium launched by Slack], executives are twice as likely to want to get back to the office full time than the wider employee base. We’re seeing this disconnect play out in organisations attempting to push stringent return-to-office policies. But as Bloomberg columnist Adrian Wooldridge noted, in this tussle workers are winning, because they’re right.

Rather than rushing back to offices – a recipe for burnout, low morale and poor retention – let’s look at how we can keep transforming work to build better workplaces for all.

Lesson 1: Embrace flexibility

Flexible working is on its way to becoming the default for most employees. Over three-quarters want flexibility over where they work and 93pc want flexibility over when they work. As competition for great hires heats up, ignoring the demand for flexibility is a high-stakes gamble.

Offering flexible work, though, isn’t a trade-off. A truly flexible workplace instead empowers teams to succeed from anywhere, and to have autonomy in how and when they approach work.

This requires a mindset shift from ‘command-and-control’ approaches with set hours for set activities in set environments. Leaders need to recognise that so long as great work is being delivered to deadline, when, how and where it’s achieved doesn’t need dictating.

Businesses benefit from this freedom. Empowered to shift priorities without running simple questions up the chain of command, teams can move faster. Organisational resilience and agility is boosted. And people are happier, meaning they’re more driven, more likely to stick with the company, and more likely to achieve results. In a world in which 60pc of workers are thinking of changing jobs, flexibility is a must-have.

Lesson 2: Asynchronous work is the future

Flexibility can only go so far if your calendar is filled with must-attend all-hands meetings and numerous status check-ins day in and day out. Flexible work requires flexible processes.

Asynchronous collaboration – teams working together, but at different times – is central to flexibility flourishing. So, what does that look like in practice? Let’s think about meetings.

A synchronous approach might mean that a team meets daily to hear next steps from their lead and then shares individual updates. Everyone loses 30 minutes of their day when, as individuals, they’re contributing three minutes of updates.

In an asynchronous approach, that team lead instead shares a short video clip for everyone to view when they choose. Then everyone responds with a bullet point on their update. All the same info is shared, but everyone doesn’t need to be in the same space at the same time. Rather than everyone losing 30 minutes, they spend three minutes on their action points and then get back to the deep work that has a business impact.

Creating more async-friendly processes like these requires the right tools. Relying on email or spreadsheets, for example, to keep track of asynchronous updates won’t cut it. Instead, we need to invest in the ‘digital HQ’.

Lesson 3: Your digital HQ is now more important than the physical one

Digital HQs have no barriers, so teams can unite across time zones and workspaces. They’re naturally flexible and inclusive, helping everyone invest in a shared vision of work. And they offer faster access to customers or partners than relying on physical meet-ups.

But a digital HQ isn’t simply a set of tools – one for video calling, another for signing documents. A digital HQ is a cohesive place in which work happens. Where all those tools, teams, partners and more come together.

Man Group, the London-listed global investment firm, is one business that invested in Slack as its digital HQ when the pandemic struck, moving its entire 1,400-member workforce across 19 offices to a digital and remote-first approach in under two weeks.

Using channel-based messaging, the business was able to connect the entire organisation from Boston to Beijing in a digital space to facilitate collaboration with teams, discussion among traders, or to continue key financial operations. Those teams had instant access to integrations, like Webex and custom apps to work seamlessly regardless of location.

Man Group found there was actually more time for discussion and decision-making between colleagues, rather than bouncing between apps or hunting for meeting invites in emails

Building the work-from-anywhere world

For employees and businesses, a golden era of work is in reach. If we fall back to outdated office-centric ways of working and processes, it could easily slip through our fingers.

Instead we can flourish through flexibility, driven by a more asynchronous approach to work that keeps employees engaged and boosts organisational agility. We can move forward with digital HQs that connect everyone, their customers and the tools they need.

In short, we can unlock the promise of the work-from-anywhere world.

By Deirdre Byrne

Deirdre Byrne is area vice-president for enterprise sales in the UK and Ireland at Slack.

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