On Sunday December 11th, 2005 an explosion at the Buncefield Oil Depot completely destroyed the Hemel Hempstead office of Northgate Information Solutions (NIS), a payroll outsourcing business. Fortunately, there were no people on site. But the property damage was so extensive that the building and all of its contents were lost.
In a payroll business, it’s critical to pay correctly and on time. By December 24th, all internal systems were restored and salaries paid. And even though the Disaster Recovery Plan worked, we learned that we should never depend on a physical location again.
Stay Safe, Stay Home
As the corona virus spread across the world, governments declared lockdowns that forced people to stay at home. Companies scrambled to move equipment to people’s houses, so they could continue their work at home. Employees picked up their desktops just before their offices closed. Unexpectedly, the “working from home” privilege became the new normal for many people around the world.
With that came a host of headlines declaring the ‘death of the office’ and images of smiling people working from home. Meanwhile, families were confined to small spaces, parents were home schooling children, and everyone was worried about the disease. No wonder working from home sounded far better in theory than in practice.
Now that many countries are easing their lockdowns, the debate picks up again: should people go back to the office? Is it safe? Isn’t it clear they are more productive at home? Isn’t it better for their well-being to avoid the daily commute? And why would you even want to go to the same place every day when you have everything you need at home?
Make location irrelevant
The Bunsfield explosion made one thing clear: The Business Continuity Plan worked well, but we needed to expand our thinking. We stored spare laptops in secure locations and added more connections between locations. We arranged for standby facilities and we practiced recovering from a disaster at least once a year so we could test and improve our readiness.
To further increase redundancy, we started to distribute activities over service centers, countries and regions. We hired people outside of office locations who could work just as if they were in an office.
Slowly but surely, we created a remote workforce and migrated systems to the cloud, so we were able to work from anywhere. We made the physical location irrelevant whenever we could. And that was an improvement for all of us.
Embrace your remote workforce
I have been a remote worker for most of my career. I started as consultant and advised various companies at the same time: my laptop is my office. And with internet connections getting better, faster and cheaper, as long as I have my phone and laptop, I am good to go.
I was lucky to work for a company that understood the importance of a global, flexible workforce and paid attention to “remote workers” as an employee group. Which meant that whenever policies and procedures were defined, we thought through the consequences for remote workers and made sure they were included.
It didn’t stop there: when there were global celebrations, remote workers were included virtually, and they received their ‘swag’ at home. I was the proud sponsor of the ‘remote workers’ town halls. And most importantly, many of our remote workers were promoted (including myself).
Work where you get things done
Remote workers are not people who work from home 100% of the time. The key to being remote is that you choose the location that is fitting or necessary for the outcomes you pursue. In my case, that means working at home about 50% of the time. The other half I spend at the customer, in an office, at the airport or hotel, at a conference. I pick a location based on what I am trying to accomplish or who I need to interact with.
If I have a day of calls, it doesn’t make any sense to leave my home, where I don’t disturb anyone, and the coffee machine is close. The same for following a training or doing work that requires deep thinking.
When I need to kick off a new project, I’ll get the team to an office for a couple of days because that works best. Even if half of the team is in the room and the others are on Skype just because travel isn’t feasible for everyone, the proximity works well for brainstorm activities.
When I attend a conference, I work in my hotel room before I go over to hear keynotes and meet clients and partners. I have visited customers who have special working spaces for guests, and I have worked from coffee shops, shared spaces and cramped aircraft seats.
Working from home versus working in the office isn’t an either/or proposition. Once you stop focusing on location, you’ll discover that there’s a whole world out there.
Why ‘anywhere’ is key
The bottom line is: don’t be fixated on “working from home”. For many activities location isn’t important, so make it irrelevant. Sometimes you have no choice: the customer wants a product demonstration in the office, or an employee must work in a secure environment. Other times all work is virtual and can be done anywhere.
Focus instead on equipping your people with the right tools to get their work done regardless of location. Organize your company in such a way that every employee has the same opportunities, no matter where they work.
The payoff: you will be more resilient as a company and better prepared to handle a next pandemic or disaster. You’ll also have a global talent pool to hire from and you will be more attractive to them.
As we discovered in the HR2025 survey, workers don’t want to be tied to an office: 23% of respondents want to work anywhere in the world, while another 65% want flexibility to alternate between office and home.
Make no mistake: this is a huge change for your leadership team. Managers go from watching their team work to trusting their team to do the work. They must be able to plan the work and define it in the results/outcomes they want to achieve, including milestones.
Defining outcomes isn’t always easy, especially not if you want them SMART so you can track progress and hold employees accountable. Not everyone will embrace this change in behavior.
As a leadership team, you need to think this through, develop a program with HR, and help managers with the right education. How can they motivate employees from a distance? How do they address mental health and other sensitive topics virtually? And what happens if employees are not performing? From experience, personal issues are harder to deal with virtually than face to face, but they can be handled tactfully.
You will have to rethink policies and procedures: think about pay and career development. Does everyone have the right to work from anywhere? How can remote workers become visible, so they are not “forgotten” and passed over for promotions? How do you reward people fairly? Do you pay based on location (as is the current approach) or on result or both? When people move to a different country, does that affect their pay? And do not underestimate the review of technology and security policies, so you can keep your networks and data safe.
You might assume that you’re all set technology-wise because you’ve adopted Teams or some other productivity suite and your people are collaborating well. You made a good start, but you are not there yet. You will need to think through tools and technologies for all of your processes: How will you support remote workers? Can people use personal laptops? What happens if their laptop breaks down and you cannot solve it online?
How will you onboard people and ensure they not only understand but breathe your culture? How can people rate performances delivered by others? How will you celebrate success virtually? The good news: it is all doable.
Once you start this journey, you will discover that every day brings new questions – and new solutions!
Innovation is key
Until some brilliant minds develop a working covid-19 vaccine, we will see new outbreaks, followed by lockdowns. Just as the Buncefield explosion triggered us to change our approach, let this be your call to action. Use this time to enable your workers to work from anywhere.
Fortunately, help is on the way: I am seeing a rapid increase in technologies to address these issues. Sometimes you already own the solution and just need to tweak or expand its use. In other cases, I am pretty confident there is a startup working on it somewhere and we will see a host of new HRTech solutions come along shortly. And if not: ask the question.
Here is one of mine: many team tools only record what we do – wouldn’t it be great if action items and meeting notes were automatically captured and reported back to us at the end of the session? Complete with reminders in a team calendar that signal upfront that there isn’t enough time for completion? And who will create a solution to combat zoom-fatigue? Or help us decide if the new hire is a good cultural fit? There is so much to innovate!
If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that people don’t need an office to deliver results. In fact, many workers are more productive despite working less hours or outside of the traditional 9-5. They are happier because they spend more time with their family at home and waste less time on commutes.
At the same time, people miss the water cooler and social interaction. They are mentally exhausted and under a lot of stress to make it all work. Empowering your employees to select the best location for their working day will make work life better for all. It will also enable you to let people return to the office in small groups or make room for employees who must work on site.
The pandemic is showing us that people are endlessly creative, productive and resilient. Let’s use that energy to design a better workplace that works for all of us.
PS: if you have a question about “working from anywhere” send me a message and I will be happy to chat.