I put my money where my mouth is and it didn’t pay off! | Sue-Ellen Watts | No Plan B
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I put my money where my mouth is and it didn’t pay off!

It was the fourth speech I had given in a month on the topic of the Future of Work.  I was sharing with my audience what we can expect as our workforce changes, due to technology and the millennials entering and leading our workplaces.  In this particular speech I began to notice a theme from all four presentations.  The theme was the enthusiastic note taking that would commence when I came to the part about what we need to be doing as leaders to manage the changes that were most definitely coming.

It was at this moment I stopped to take a sip of water and worryingly thought to myself “these people are really listening to me, I hope what I am saying is right’!  I knew the trends we are expecting were accurate but that doesn’t mean that what we think will result from these trends will actually happen.  It made me think about the most recent ‘buzz workplace perk’ of the time which was unlimited leave.  When this was first launched the concerns of leaders was that everyone would be on holidays all of the time.  What in fact happened was that people stopped taking holidays, even the ones they are legally entitled to resulting in unrested employees who were nervous now that there were no boundaries.  What we feared would happen was nothing as we expected.

So what about these other changes I was speaking about. What if what we think will happen is not right at all. If that’s the case we need to prepare for a different result and I need to prepare my audience for different outcomes. I immediately felt that I couldn’t keep giving this popular speech until I knew for sure and there was only one way for me to really know.

Back to my hotel room I went and the next day wattsnext #projectfow was launched…or Project Future of Work.  We decided we were going to be guinea pigs in our own industry and transport ourselves into the future and see what happens.  This meant allowing people the flexibility to work how best suits them.  We couldn’t go completely remote as some people really like the routine and structure of coming to a workplace, but I knew for certain that most said they wanted freedom and that is what the future of work studies were telling us and that is what I needed to create.

So I started the implementation.  We upgraded all of our technology and provided everyone with laptops, ipads and iphones.  We moved out of our traditional office and rented a quarter of the amount of desks in a co-working space, we implemented slack channels for us to keep in touch and communicate easily, set up a zoom account for team meetings and we set specific times of the week where it was compulsory for everyone to come to the office and meet in person.  We even started a weekly newsletter called the ‘Water Cooler’ where we shared what everyone was doing on the weekend, info typically shared in person around the water cooler.

I was excited. Yes there was some initial expense to this but if this new world of work was successful we would reduce our current expenses by over $7,000 per month and be seen as an employer of choice for millennials.  We would be living what the futurists were saying, getting an edge, and the business and our people would all benefit.

I will admit that when I announced this internal experiment there was mixed emotions from my team.  Some were so excited they were already out the door on their way to the beach, others were holding on to their chairs and their picture frames for dear life (they were all millennials by the way)!  Not everyone was keen but that was ok, I planned to make this cater for everyone’s needs.  This was never about going extreme one way but rather allowing for people to choose the best way to work for them, which is why we still kept premises.

If I had to bet whether this project was going to be a success, initially I would have confidently said yes, but it didn’t take long for my confidence to waiver.  Not long after we launched #projectfow and into the groove I spent a week in Silicon Valley visiting small and large tech businesses.  I quickly noticed a common theme.  They had tried what I had just launched and reversed it very quickly. We know the story of Yahoo reversing their work from home policy (although this has softened now).  A well known fast growth tech success who had recently moved into much larger premises in alignment with their growth but also to give people more space, quickly shut down two floors because they noticed a large drop in collaboration and culture with everyone spread too far apart.  Others had minimal people allowed to work from home due to the importance of being together as a team for learning, connection and growth.

This didn’t knock me too much because in our preparation for the change we had considered these potential pitfalls and put a number of connection initiatives in place. The team were getting more perks than ever before plus I thought everyone was as keen to be guinea pigs as I was!

However it didn’t work!  Over 6 months we experienced a damaging impact on morale, shared learning, culture and traditions.  Now whilst we all knew this was an experiment and it could either be a success or a failure, there was still an impact that affected the business results as well as the team.  After 6 months of this we moved everyone back into our office and focused on what we learnt and re-engaging the things that were lost.

So what did we learn?   We underestimated the physical collaboration and learning and mentoring that happens in a physical office.  We also did not realise how much we rely on physical and energy cues to connect and know how someone is feeling.  We easily can notice if someone is struggling or having a challenging time in their life when we see them face to face.  Some people were having issues with the project but also other non work related stresses that we were not aware of.

I also feel that the project being driven by us rather than our people contributed to the failure.  I don’t believe that Generation Y has considerably altered our workforce but we do need to be prepared for the Z’s and the generation after them because they have really grown up in a different world to us X’s and Boomers.  We need to allow them to lead our workplaces into the future.  Give them the power to create their workplace. Our experiment was put on a team of people who really didn’t need the change in the first place.  Yes, in our instance we were doing it for the purpose of being able to advise our clients better,  however even though everyone knew it was an experiment it didn’t lessen the impact.

So was it a fail?  Yes however that is not to say it couldn’t work and it isn’t to say I regret it either. However if workplaces are planning on ‘moving with the times’ they need to be very well prepared – particularly established businesses that are used to so much face to face collaboration.

Do not think so much about what we can do to update our workplaces but rather allow our people the freedom to let it be agile with their needs and drive the change from bottom up.