How Working from Home Will Forever Change Office Culture

Work culture expert and author Jody Thompson offers advice on managing a remote workforce.

How Working from Home Will Forever Change Office Culture
Change management expert Jody Thompson worked at home before the pandemic, and is helping clients manage their remote workforce more effectively now.

Suddenly, office managers everywhere are realizing what workforce expert Jody Thompson has been preaching for years: work is not somewhere you go; it’s something you do. 

Thompson, a Minneapolis-based author, speaker, and consultant, is the co-creator of a management system called Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). She developed it while working in change management for Best Buy, an early adopter of the autonomous work culture back in 2004.

“Best Buy was attempting to crack the code on the work/life balance conundrum,” says Thompson, who co-authored the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. “People had been doing the same thing for decades and we realized: people don’t want flexibility; what people want is complete control over their time.”

After leaving Best Buy, Thompson founded CultureRx to help businesses around the world—from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to retail consultancy JL Buchanan in Minneapolis—shift their mindset and their office culture. JL Buchanan’s downtown office could offer a glimpse at how Thompson believes more companies will need to think about work in the aftermath of Covid-19. 

“No one has an assigned seat. It’s peaceful, serene, and people aren’t interrupting each other,” Thompson says of the JL Buchanan space. “If employees are there, they’re there for a reason. The office is just a tool.”

The coronavirus pandemic will force professional companies to re-think what it means to show up, well beyond the time the stay-at-home orders are lifted, Thompson says. 

“We are going to view the world in a different way. We’ll be a lot more reflective about sitting in rush hour traffic for an hour every day,” she says, “or doing time sitting in cubes.” 

A shift in work culture could result in a reduced real estate footprint for some companies, Thompson forecasts. 
Indeed, the commercial real estate industry is bracing for that potential change. 

“We are in the middle of the largest test of home-working in history and corporates are adopting, refining and testing policies, processes and infrastructure to make it work,” global firm JLL said in its COVID-19: Global Real Estate Implications report released in March. “Large multinationals who recently, and publicly, announced the scaling back of home-working practices now indicate a desire to embrace widespread use of this practice until the outbreak passes. Looking beyond 2020, we anticipate that demand for remote working and investment in collaboration-technologies to grow, which could fast-track the more widespread adoption of these practices.”

However, JLL said businesses have already been trending towards denser and better utilized space, which is likely to offset the impact of the pandemic. “Rising employment in relevant sectors will more than outweigh any impact on demand from home-working,” JLL concluded.

But for now, as companies settle into remote work for at least the next few weeks—and likely longer, for some higher-risk employees—Thompson says the biggest mistake managers can make is trying to apply office rules for people working from home. 

“HR is thinking: how do we manage a mobile work force. People are not used to working out of the office all the time; and they don’t know how to prove they’re working,” Thompson says. “They’ve changed location but haven’t changed their mindset. Instead, they should be focusing on measurable results.”

Thompson suggests a shift in mindset that starts with these steps: 

  • Change the language. Don’t label employees “work from home” or “teleworker”—you don’t label them in the office, Thompson points out.  “People are working. How do you know that? When you talk to them, you talk about the actual work.”

  • Ask what employees need from you right now. “When you ask that question, people take a step back. They’re used to being told what to do and it boxes people in.”

  • ​Communicate the goals. “If you are in a ROWE, not physically seeing people in the office during ‘standard business hours’ is not a sign of low engagement, insubordination, or lack of responsibility. Rather, if individuals and teams are clear on the results, then they can choose the most effective and efficient means to achieve measurable outcomes. Let your employees know what is needed and when so they can work efficiently and effectively.

  • Hold people accountable, regularly. “Performance conversations are not isolated events that should only occur once or twice a year. In a ROWE, open communication about goals and performance intrinsically happens weekly or monthly, as employees and teams become more efficient and find new and better ways of working together."

  • View your employees as your trusted partners. “Your employees are being compensated in exchange for achieving the measurable results that both parties agree to. The vast majority of employees want to be as successful as they can in their job, and will have the best chance of success if results and communications are clear. It’s also quite clarifying: if the results are not being met, are they really the right person for the job?”

The sudden and essential need to work from home has forced companies to get comfortable with new technology, Thompson says. “People felt uncomfortable video chatting; now they see how powerful technology can be—you can connect how you want to connect. I hope it makes managers realize we don’t have to control employees the way we used to.”

But allowing a partial shift—like working from home two days a week—is not the answer, she says. “I hope we don’t get more regimented after this. We need to move away from permission granting and work together as competent adults to get the job done.” 

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