Return to Office: Magnet or Mandate?
Discover more as these senior technology leaders examine the intertwined issues of adaptability and flexibility, and the concept of remote work in an unquestionably hybrid future.
Return to office: an overview
“I think with everything in life, it’s not a binary answer”.
Flexibility is no longer a luxury. The Covid-19 pandemic showed technology leaders around the globe that adaptability is key, forcing some organisations to change their working practices and environments while others managed to adjust to these conditions with ease.
While some welcome the flexible life, disregarding the traditional way of working as old-fashioned, other leaders emphasise the need for face-to-face physical interactions in the workplace, attempting to find ways to “unwind the genie in the bottle”.
Throughout this roundtable debate, the speakers shared their thoughts on the return to office question, discussing the impact this has had on their teams.
Return to office: meet the panellists
Moderated by former Bloomberg presenter and event speaker Sasha Qadri, the panellists of this roundtable debate included:
- Kieran Higgins, Head of Digital Workplace Transformation, Cisco
- Gerard McGovern, Director of Digital, The Tony Blair Institute
- Conor Whelan, CIOO, Experian
- Elizabeth Akorita, Deputy Director, Digital Delivery, Department for Science, Innovation & Technology
Watch the roundtable highlights below for Return to Office: Magnet or Mandate?
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Return to office: key takeaways
Re-evaluating your return to office strategy and flexibility
Moderator Sasha Qadri asked the panellists what they thought of the topic at hand, given their backgrounds and roles in their respective organisations.
“I think with everything in life, it's not a binary answer,” said Gerard McGovern, Director of Digital at the Tony Blair Institute for Change. Whether or not a technology leader believes the return to office consideration is a magnet or mandate depends on the type of organisation you have, or “the type of organisation you want to be” in his view. He added that the pandemic showed organisations that when under pressure, they can work differently while maintaining the same outcome and level of staff productivity.
Back at Cisco, Kieran Higgins, Head of Digital Workplace Transformation, argued that the technology for both office and remote working remained the same. “Technology during the pandemic was better than anybody expected it to be”, he said, later adding that this has ultimately changed the way people work, with many growing accustomed to this method of work. With this in mind, Kieran’s view is that it would be very difficult to “put the genie back in the bottle”.
“We did luck out with the timing,” said Elizabeth Akorita, Deputy Director, Digital Delivery, Department for Science, Innovation & Technology. She pointed out that her organisation—the Civil Service—has always been flexible with working methods. Before the pandemic she said that they were soft-launching working remotely, allowing them to adapt to pandemic working conditions seamlessly and rolling out tools to thousands of people in the digital and wider team. All in all, Elizabeth’s team is officially hybrid, applying the 3:2 method of working.
Becoming a human sponge 101
Sasha asked the panellists about their own experiences of the return to office approach and how they have dealt with this. Kieran explained that the more process-based roles were more suited for remote-based work. In comparison, creative roles or those just starting out in their career tend to want to be based in the office in order to interact with peers.
In agreement with his fellow panellists, Gerard pointed out that “there will always be a need for office space”. On the other hand, he acknowledged that senior management feel the need to use the spaces they have, making this a classic case of sunk cost fallacy. “Productivity is either not improving, or actually going down… That doesn't make sense from a business perspective.” The real challenge in his view is dealing with the multigenerational workforce and their different levels of experience. To Gerard this is not simply an office or technological situation, it is about line management and leadership, making sure that new joiners are secure about their career.
“We have apprentices, graduates, younger generations in the organisation, and all the age categories. And it's a team game,” said Conor Whelan, CIOO at Experian. Their main focus is ensuring that the younger generation learns and interacts with the team; whether that is through buddy or mentor-systems. Conor believes that a higher degree of physical interaction is required, making sure that people are asking questions and giving feedback to let senior management know what is and is not working.
Agreeing with the rest of the panel’s views, Elizabeth underlined the significance of remembering the early stages of one's career. The act of absorbing information and learning through passive observation is what she describes as becoming a “human sponge”, which she pointed out plays a crucial role in career development and growth. She proposed implementing a structure to facilitate this learning experience for new employees, through targeted efforts such as orientation days, personal introductions and scheduled team gatherings. By doing so, she aims to foster an environment promoting swift integration for new team members.
Return to office: changing your remote work tactics
When it comes to the return to office subject, Kieran is all about being outcome-driven, a consistent theme in his working environment at Cisco. He wants senior leaders to consider the business outcomes they are trying to achieve and drive, proposing an adaptable approach where the specific hours of an employee’s working day matter less than the results generated.
In applying this perspective on remote work, Kieran acknowledges that team members may have diverse personal responsibilities and activities an employee might engage in outside their job. This could include caring for a family member or indulging in hobbies. “But if they're getting the outcomes delivered, you shouldn't really mind,” he said. In fostering a more flexible working environment, Kieran aims to promote swift integration and optimal knowledge absorption for new team members, ensuring their successful adaptation within the organisation.
Conor conceded that remote working has given teams more flexibility–but this is something that Experian has struggled with. “When someone says I want a certain day off the weekend, that's harder when you're running operational routines” he said. Much like Kieran, he emphasised the ease of adopting an outcome model for flexible hours, which has already received positive feedback from workers at Experian. One other area of focus for Conor, which was considered a “can of worms” by fellow panellist Gerard, is switching on cameras during remote calls and meetings. For the larger team calls there is wiggle room; aside from this, his view is that “you've got to try and get as close to simulating a face to face meeting.”
This roundtable was in partnership with Cisco. Discover more insights on “Return to Office: Magnet or Mandate” in the Studio roundtable highlights video.
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