CEO Coaching: Exactly Where and When Does the Work Get Done?

I’ve been talking with numerous CEOs about their expected future work environment, and they developed some clarity that I wanted to share, though they have chosen slightly different paths.

Most of those I speak with are attempting a hybrid model for their workplace. Some believe this will be permanent, some believe it’s temporary — that we won’t “snap back” to pre-COVID workplaces but we’ll eventually get there. Most CEOs I talk or work with would prefer to have everyone back in the office (many have offices around the country and internationally), but they realize this isn’t currently palatable and that they must compete for talent that’s now used to slippers and Zoom and possibly afternoon naps!

Some I’ve spoken with are pleased to shed office expense and, interestingly, to no longer look for specific skill sets in tight geography (e.g., “How many data scientists live in Fargo?). They can now look worldwide.

Virtually all CEOs are concerned about how to maintain their culture. I’ve worked with several on robust onboarding techniques, enhanced communication methods, and approaches for clarifying what it means to be a good teammate in a remote environment. Left alone, I guarantee that the wonderful culture you worked so hard to create will suffer the ills of entropy and devolve into something you don’t want!

So how do you decide which people or functions can flourish remotely, which will require coordination and collaboration, and which will need people to be together physically? I believe there are four “buckets” of work to consider, driven by two factors that will help you answer the questions “What does the business require?” balanced with “What do my coworkers want?”

Two factors you must consider are location and time. The location continuum has end points of: (a) the work can be done anywhere and (b) the work must be done in a specific location. The time continuum has end points of: (a) the work is asynchronous and can be done completely independently and (b) the work requires tight collaboration in the moment.

Here’s what the four “buckets” look like. …

Let’s call the first bucket “Team Sport.” It’s reserved for work that must be done collaboratively and in the same location. Some factory workers or a product development specialist might live in this bucket. Someone has to block while someone runs the ball, so to speak. They cannot be done asynchronously. People may want to work remotely, but if they’re a “Team Sport” player, they can’t. 

We’ll call the second bucket “Gas Station,” because the work must be done at a specific location but can be done at any time. Unless you have an electric vehicle, you must go to the gas station, but you can go at any time. There might be specific technology or equipment that requires you to show up to do the work. Perhaps the work is sequential (e.g., a production line) where a physical product is worked on and then handed off to another department. You could allow co-workers in this bucket to define their work hours. 

The third bucket is called “Zoom Club,” because the work is done at a specific time but from anywhere. Senior leadership meetings, live announcements, and decision-making meetings might fall into this bucket. It’s more about the task than a position in the firm. Might this work be best in the office? Perhaps, but you can also hire without geographic constraint if necessary. 

The fourth bucket is called “Island,” because the work can be done anywhere at any time. A copywriter or financial analyst might spend most of their time in this world. Are there benefits to working in a common space? I certainly believe so, but if this skill set resides only in a small town in Norway, you can still get them on the team!

Look at job functions and identify which bucket is the natural home for that job. If it’s “Team Sport,” then that job function (and the person performing it!) must be in the office. If it’s “Island,” it’s probably unnecessary that they be in the office full time — and you’ll have a larger hiring pool if you allow remote work. 

Every job function should have an identified home bucket, but you should also think hard about specific tasks from the perspective of location and time. 

Most of you have thought about this already, but consider whether the question (What does the business require?) is driving your thought process. The open question that most CEOs are still struggling with is, “Is the benefit of cross-pollination (i.e. water cooler conversations) large enough to require everyone to be back in the office?” Different leaders have different answers to that one. It’s a great conversation to have with your senior leadership team.

Finally, remember that we’re talking about people, not technology nodes. Once you determine who works where and at what time, you must decide how people will talk with one another and develop trust, as well as how you’ll measure success and stay focused on results. And don’t forget about how you’ll have fun!

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