Pictured to the left is the entrance to Forrester’s US headquarters in Cambridge, MA. The building can hold over 600 employees, but there have not been more than 150 people there on any given day in over 21 months. As a company, we are lucky — while 40% of jobs in the US require employees to be on-site (nurses, pilots, factory workers), we are in the 60% that can use technology to work and serve our customers from anywhere. And during the pandemic, our productivity has remained strong — our business and client count will grow at faster rates this year than in 2019.
What’s going to happen when the virus recedes? We had originally decided to return in a “2/3” footprint — we would require employees to be in the office two days a week, with the ability to work at home or elsewhere for the other three days. We have now decided that when offices fully reopen, we will be in a “full-flex,” or what Forrester terms “anywhere-work,” mode — employees and teams will decide when they will be in the office based on their work. This doesn’t mean that employees are free to move to goat farms in Idaho; we want most Forresterites to be “office-associated workers” — close enough to an office to be able to use the resource when required.
Why have we made this decision?
- The office isn’t always needed. We used to think that the office was our toolbox. We have now come to see the office as simply another tool in the toolbox — when you need it, take it out and use it; if you don’t need it, work elsewhere.
- Technology. While virtual work is not perfect, it has enabled an unexpectedly high level of collaboration. To paraphrase Marc Andreessen, software is eating office buildings.
- Employee experience. Our research (summary only if you are not a client) is showing that companies that move toward anywhere work have happier, more engaged employees. On a 100-point scale, anywhere-work employees are 13 points higher in happiness, 7 points higher in engagement, and 10 points higher in seeing their companies as innovative.
- Talent acquisition. Our research shows that 53% of US workers want more flexibility to work at home. In Forrester’s search for the best and the brightest, we cannot exclude half of the workforce.
There will be challenges. Many of the CEOs who I meet with have two big worries: 1) How will we build culture (the behaviors and values that bind us together)? and 2) How do we develop our people?
First, culture. If you think about it, modern popular culture has been built entirely through virtual — television, radio, advertising, the web, gaming, and social media. While companies will still construct behaviors and values using the in-person office, they must also learn to use virtual to teach and reinforce their specific culture. Forrester has made a significant shift in culture during the pandemic, adopting a new brand: Bold at Work. We did it with targeted virtual events and moments. Our quarterly company meetings were switched to monthly meetings — this put leaders in front of the company more frequently and, some would argue, with more intimacy. The leader of the future will be very, very facile with live video communications.
What about development? Formal development (training, certification) works well virtually. But it’s the serendipitous, in-the-flow development that can’t happen when we aren’t in person. Some of this will be lost, and we will have to invent new ways to fill that deficit. I would point to technologies that enable quick, unplanned connection — virtually bumping into colleagues in the “hall.”
What’s holding you back from moving to anywhere work? In many companies, it’s the CEO. As I initially was, many leaders are uncomfortable if they can’t see the workforce and exercise their typically high emotional quotient to “lead.” Big buildings full of busy workers make CEOs happy. Yes, those days will happen, but they will be planned events rather than everyday occurrences.
But what may really be holding you back is uncertainty — is this really going to work?
Our research says that when you make the move to anywhere work, you must take two actions. 1) Watch your numbers closely — specifically, productivity, customer, employee attrition, and engagement data. There are many unknowns; by continually monitoring, you will ensure that it’s working for your organization. 2) Stay agile. Be ready to change the plan if it’s not working for your business or for your customers.
I believe that we will look back on the pandemic as a sea change moment for work — one that enabled companies to work more efficiently and productively while improving the happiness of employees. There are still many questions to be answered, but ultimately, anywhere work has the potential to lower cost and increase output — an extraordinary opportunity.