When I moved from New York to Boston in 1989, I completely lost my sense of direction. It wasn't me, though, it was those winding, nonsensical Boston roads. Urban legend has it that in Boston, they paved over cow paths to form the very roads we have today. Now, if you're an urban planner designing a city from scratch, you would not base it on how the cows wandered.
And if you think about it, that's exactly what we've done with work. Hundreds of years ago, in the industrial revolution, people left their homes to perform repetitive tasks in the fixed time and place of the factory floor. And when knowledge workers entered the scene, we kept the same model, this time with fixed job descriptions and fields of cubicles from nine to five. Even globalization and technology did little to change the dynamic.
Fixed time, place and job descriptions are the cow paths of work. And like cow paths for roads, it just doesn’t make any sense.
I've been challenging and changing how companies work for the past 15 years, starting with my own company, Boston Consulting Group, and then with dozens of other Fortune 500 organizations. And I have to tell you something amazing happened to work during the tragedy of COVID-19, especially those first weeks and months. If you remember, all the low-value work disappeared. It didn't matter what your job technically was. People just worked together across silos and even companies to get stuff done wherever, whenever, however it was needed. Leaders simply had to trust their people. They didn't have time for endless steering committees or death by PowerPoint. We just needed to trust people to deliver, and they did.
So I'm on a mission. A mission to bottle these great work practices and not go back to the old ways. And yes, of course, I want to get rid of endless back-to-back zooms and loneliness and days that blend into evenings. But we have to make sure we don't go back to the rigid, structured, bureaucratic, sluggish ways that sucked the joy out of work.
And I have to tell you, the future of work is not going to be created with top-down, opinion-driven edicts from senior leaders whose day-to-day realities don't match those of us dual-career, time-pressed and income-pressed people. Of course, senior leaders want to go back. That worked for them. But they have to recognize that for 18 months now, their people experienced unprecedented agency, control, flexibility, trust and accountability.
And people don't want to go back. And it's this difference in perspective from senior leaders and their people that's one of the main reasons driving so much backlash to all these return-to-office announcements over the past months, with employees venting on social media and quitting in what’s being called the “great resignation.” And employees, I don't blame you. But before you take to social media and walk, try talking to your leaders, tell them what you loved about the past 18 months. Tell them what you want to keep. They might be more receptive than you think.
And leaders, let me share three tips — rather three must-do’s — to get the future of work right. Number one, trust your people. Millions of workers and employees have proved their trustworthiness since March 2020. But even with that, so many leaders want to go backwards. As part of the work I do, I've spoken with hundreds of leaders over the past 18 months, and I get some really crazy questions. One is, "Well, Debbie, how can I tell if my workers are productive when they're working from home?" And I can't help but say, "Well, how do you know they were productive when they were in the office?" Just because you could see someone, doesn't mean they're productive.
Or I have to love this, "You know, when it's safe to go back to the office, we're going to let people work from home two days a week, as long as it's not a Monday or Friday because we don't trust them not to slack off and take long weekends." What does that say about the culture of trust? Will there be abusers? Of course, but they'll be a tiny few. So why make rules for the vast majority who've earned your trust every day for the past 18 months?
A trusting culture will not only attract, retain and motivate your people, it'll also save you a lot of time enforcing rules. So that's number one. Trust your people.
Number two, be data-driven. We all have our opinions about how work should be done, and the more senior we are, the more we're convinced that our opinions are not just opinion, but they're fact, they're truth. But one thing COVID’s taught us is that people are so different. I have genetically identical 17-year-old twin boys, Abraham and Boaz, and I emphasize the point "genetically identical," because these two guys could not be more different. Abraham really struggled when school went online. He did everything he could to engineer outdoor, socially distant get-togethers because you can't call them playdates when the boys are 17.
But his brother, Boaz — Bo was loving life! "Ma, this is fantastic! I don't ever have to leave my bed!" My boys couldn't be more different, and so are your workers, so we must get data.
How? Well, try this. Get some of your best people together and ask them, "What did you love about these last 18 months? What did you hate? If we were to give you a magic wand and you could create the perfect work environment for you, what would your days, weeks and months look like?" And then experiment. Yes. Experiment. So many people are saying COVID's been the biggest work experiment ever. I beg to differ. I'm not a scientist, but I know that prospective experiments have hypotheses, control groups, data collection, learning loops and revisions. We didn't do that. And so now’s the time to experiment.
And we don’t have to wait until it’s safe to go back to the office. We could do it now. Take two teams that do similar work, let one flex and work whenever and however they need, and another, give them fixed times. You want them online and you want them working. And then measure. Survey them every week. Everyone says people are oversurveyed. People are not oversurveyed when it comes to this topic. They want to have their opinions heard. So ask them, "How's it going? Are you delivering value? Are you able to collaborate well? How's your work-life balance? What do you love? What do you hate?" And take those learning and spread them around.
This is new for all of us. We're not going to get it right the first, second, third or even fourth time. But together with conversation and data, and experiments, we're going to learn our way to a better future of work. So that's number two. Number one, trust your people. Number two, be data-driven.
Here's number three. Think beyond the schedule. Guess what? The future of work is not two days that you get to work from home. This is our chance right now to reimagine, reduce, replace or even eliminate things like long commutes, endless meetings with too many people there, recurring meetings that never go away, synchronous work, silos, command-and-control leaders, administrivia — that's my word for the low-value stuff that clogs our calendars. In other words, we could stop contorting our lives around work, but we could actually reshape work to better fit our lives. So that's number three. Think beyond the schedule.
And guess what, a lot of companies are getting it right. Take Dropbox, for example. Before COVID, Dropbox only had three percent of their workers working from home. They're now moving forward with a remote-first model and trying to push as much asynchronous work as possible. And to help collaboration with their model, they're setting core collaboration hours that very slightly by time zone, so they have four hours a day when you know everyone is online in case you need to collaborate.
One of my favorite examples is the Mr. Cooper Group. And Mr. Cooper Group's been described as a mortgage giant no one's heard of. A lot of their workers, a large percentage, are call center operators. And like many, in the first days of COVID, they got them all home safely and successfully. And guess what? They were more productive, and they were happier. But even with that data, many on the leadership team wanted them back in the office as soon as it was safe to do so. They just couldn't imagine call center work being done from home permanently. Well, that's where Kelly Ann Doherty, their amazing Chief People Officer comes in. When Kelly Ann and her team presented their recommendation for a home-centric working model, she got a ton of questions. "Well, Kelly Ann, what about onboarding and training?"
She said, "Of course, we're going to get people together for that. Home-centric doesn't mean we're never together."
"Well, what about day-to-day coaching and mentoring?"
"We're experimenting with software that allows managers to do that even better."
"Well, what about culture? Communication? What about —"
And she just stopped them It was a moment, and she said, "I know you all want to go back to your offices. So do I, but we have to take a minute to walk in the shoes of our call center operators. They are loving the flexibility. They're saving real money by not commuting, and we know this is a high-turnover population. Imagine if one of our competitors is more flexible than us. How many people are we going to lose?"
And with that, Kelly Ann and her team had the leadership team on board. They’re moving forward with a home-centric model, and they're investing in upskilling all of their managers to be able to coach, mentor and manage their teams remotely. And now they're taking it one step further. They're tapping into more flexible talent pools, like military spouses, who need a ton of flexibility when their spouses are deployed. In other words, Kelly Ann and the Mr. Cooper Group are urban planners of the future of work. They're trusting their people. They're using data. They're thinking beyond the schedule to not go back to the old cow paths of call center work. They're making work better for them, for the company, the customers and their people.
This is our moment, right now, to together with our people and our teams design a future of work that's more engaging, more productive and more humane.