Humans are spectacularly bad at predicting the future and have always had to make the most of imperfect data to cast our best bets. Almost 18 months into the pandemic, this has never been more true. We are having to adapt to new and changing information at a rate that is, dare we say, unprecedented and this is making the future harder to predict than ever before.
The best way through – and what we teach our clients at &us on a daily basis – is to equip ourselves with just enough information to make small steps of progress, allowing us to take what works a little further and leave what doesn’t behind, without betting the house. And as always, it is research and experimentation that unlocks this progress.
In this article we speak to organisations, including our own, about the approaches they are taking to experimenting with the world of work we want, knowing that another big change is always around the corner.
Gathering insights from your people
At many organisations the most fruitful source of information on which to build a new working culture comes from the people who will be affected by it the most.
For Nationwide’s Society Secretary, Jason Wright, that started with a series of surveys sent out to their 19,000 staff about their experience of work during Covid soon after the first lockdown was announced in 2020. “We asked colleagues how they’ve found it: What are your challenges? What do you think the future of work will look like? What would work for you? What would be more challenging for you? What are you scared about? So we’ve got a very good picture. The response rate was incredible … on the first day there were thousands of people who responded.”
Building this nuanced picture of their employee’s experience has allowed Nationwide to start testing flexible working initiatives that respond to the real needs and wants of their staff, as well as those of the business. “Based on the feedback and some work that was done with Ipsos Mori, we landed on this ‘work anywhere’ rather than ‘in the office’ approach. I think flexibility is the key. And we are adopting that stance very much.”
Jason tells us that Nationwide are looking at how they can offer improved flexibility by reimagining how their spaces are used too. “Say I live in Newbury. I’m halfway between London and Swindon. But actually, if I need to pop in and do something … then I can just come into my Newbury branch if there’s space. We are looking at ways to allow people that live further away from the large hubs to work nearer to home, rather than going into an admin Centre in Swindon, or head office in London”
Beyond their employees, this flexible mindset could have benefits for business operations too. “One of the things we did during Covid, was to set up a flexible workforce so that colleagues could be deployed quickly to relieve the pressure, and increase capacity in those more immediately critical areas.”
Testing your assumptions
For every progressive working culture success there is no shortage of failures. Yahoo famously reversed their remote working policy in 2013 citing drops in productivity and a lack of camaraderie. You can’t help but wonder if any policy might have been better designed, or avoided altogether, if it was tested on a small scale first.
Making big bets on little data can be a sure-fire way to waste time and money. Finding opportunities to declare and test your assumptions before committing to a course of action gives you the best prospect of course correcting early and mitigating risk.
As the Managing Partner of &us, our own Alexandra Johnson is no stranger to experimentation. After having to painfully let go of &us’ beloved new office once it became financially untenable during the first lockdown, &us found themselves with a blank canvas and some budget with which to experiment with the future of work. She says that the situation was treated as a learning opportunity.
“We came at it with a completely open mind and once the rules started being relaxed, the first thing we wanted to understand was how people might use a physical office space if we were to get one again. So much had changed in such a short time, we had questions about whether the office was still valuable in the way it was before – and whilst we knew that on the whole, &us people neither wanted to be back in the office full-time nor work from home full time, it wasn’t clear what the alternatives might look like”
&us ended up choosing the option that could return the most learning at the least cost. “We explored a variety of creative options but in the end decided to ‘start by starting’, taking a small office in a relaxed, local co-working space. This allowed us to move fast whilst offering the flexibility to see how our team would use the space now, without committing to something long term.”
Through this experiment, she found some things that surprised her: “What happens now is that when you go into the office, not as much work gets done and what actually happens instead is relationship nurturing with your colleagues, which is obviously super important. But it’s a real revelation to me that actually the most useful function of an office could be social. It now feels a little mad to think that an office was the place that you went to do work because these days it’s the last place I would go to concentrate.”
Whilst Alex has been looking to the wider &us staff to test the unknowns, James Hirst, COO and Co-Founder of Tyk, an API Management Platform, sees it the other way round, recommending that the boardroom be experimenters in chief and test the pain points of a new idea themselves. “I would go to the very top of the business and ask them to be the trialists. Ask the board if they will do their board preparation and their board meetings entirely asynchronously and remotely. Do the next few board meetings that way. I would ask the leadership team, if they’ve got a leadership meeting, to run it, to prioritise, do all of those things remotely by default, and just see how it goes. Apart from anything, it’ll show the stress points.”
In the case of remote working policies specifically, James explains that this approach can also reduce the risk of inadvertent divides opening up between those who choose to work at home and those who might be incentivised to work from the office to be in closer proximity to more senior staff. “I think if you do it from the other end you’re in real trouble there because you’re running a two tier system. So it has to come from the top. Otherwise people won’t believe that they are contributing as much to the business as those who are sat in a boardroom somewhere. I’m not saying ‘destroy the boardroom’ but don’t use it for board meetings anymore.”
Embracing a culture of continuous learning
Uncertainty presents a number of challenges for organisations trying to reimagine the future of work. If remote working is being talked of as the ‘new normal’, what will the new ‘new normal’ become in 2022 and beyond, and what does that mean for how we invest our money and creativity in the short term?
Nationwide are combating this by taking an approach that is flexible enough to accommodate personal preferences and business needs rather than commit to wholesale or irreversible changes. This is a sentiment that Jason reinforces. “We’ve already decided we’re not going to soften anything or land on anything permanent until September because we want to try things out. So we’re going through a new process of test and learn”.
&us are seeing the benefits of taking a similar outlook. When staff were forced to work from home during the first lockdown, &us responded in a similar vein to many other organisations by immediately providing a working from home budget to all permanent employees. However, new insight has already led them to look at improving policy to be more inclusive.
“There is an equity versus equality point about people’s situation” Alex explains. “I think our first instinct on the equipment was that we’ll just make £300 available for everyone. But it quickly became apparent that some people were more in need of that money than others. So probably the approach of equality wasn’t the right one, and that and I think going beyond that we may have to provide unequal amounts of money to certain people to allow them to participate equally”.
And this desire to constantly try new things to see what works is now being formalised with an experimentation fund available to all &us staff. “It’s about getting everyone to start thinking about how they might want to come together as project teams or Communities of Practice and making money available for them to do that. We’re asking for a bit of creativity in the thinking about what people might want to do. And that’s all about the experimentation”
The great thing about now is that we don’t yet know the answers, and the answers are going to be different for every organisation. This makes it a fantastic opportunity to use our creativity to experiment with the world of work we want going forward.
At &us we are already working with client teams to help them design and launch flexible policies with clarity, practicality and humanity, and to transform their cultures to support these new ways of working. If you’re interested to learn more, or would like our input and perspective on how to do this with your teams and in your organisation, we’d love to help.
You can email on email@example.com, fill in our contact form with your details or give us a call on 07973 913959.
You can read our Future of Working series which covers what the future of working might hold, how we might design for hybrid work, and how we might design for a more inclusive workspace.
Huge thanks to Jason Wright of Nationwide, James Hirst of Tyk, And Alexandra Johnson of &us for being generous with their time and expertise for this article.
Alexandra Johnson is Managing Director of &us.