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The Chairman's Blog
The Old Workplace Is Gone. What's a Board to Do?
The Chairman's Blog

The Old Workplace Is Gone. What's a Board to Do?

by Jim Clifton and Chad Holliday

There are 125 million full-time employees in the United States. Of them, 56% tell Gallup they can do their office jobs remotely -- so, 70 million U.S. workers say they can work from home (WFH).

Of these, 30% say they don't want to come into the office anymore and prefer fully remote, 60% say they want a hybrid arrangement, and only 10% prefer to work fully on-site.

A new will of the world has emerged -- one that we couldn't have imagined the day before the pandemic.

Who knew we would all wake up the same morning in one global Zoom conversation? And so far, it sort of works.

What are you going to do about this new will as a board member? How you bring employees back to the office is closely connected to very large amounts of money that go beyond expensive office space.

You might say figuring out how to bring employees back is a job for the CEO and management team, not the board. We see this as a major strategic decision that should be implemented by the management team but probed and tested by the board.

A board member's job is to ask the right questions to support the CEO in making the final decision. For example: Have we lost mission-critical people to other companies because of our WFH policies? Why? Do our customers have a preference regarding our WFH approach, or do they just care about the results?

Another critical question: How have we developed our managers to be effective in a WFH or hybrid environment? Right now, managers don't know what to do and are accumulating dangerous levels of stress and subsequent burnout (real mental health issues).

According to Gallup's recent U.S. panel research, managers are more miserable at work than their employees. Your team leaders have likely never been taught how to manage a much less attached worker.

Right now, managers don't know what to do and are accumulating dangerous levels of stress and subsequent burnout (real mental health issues).

Worldwide productivity is on the line, especially because your customer connections run through your workplace. The money players in your company are the customer-facing teams. As goes the quality of those relationships, so goes sales, profit and stock price. The simplest way to say it is that your employees know all your customers. Therein lies the new risk.

The risk the board and CEO need to consider is a potential customer retention problem, which will eventually affect stock price far more directly than employee retention.

Respected CEOs are all over the place about how to bring employees back. "Come back to normal or you are fired." Others are saying, "You don't have to ever come back -- fully remote is fine." There remains an unanswered question in every board room -- will giving approval to hybrid and remote employees cause overall productivity to go up or down? That is the question.

Gallup's answer: If you get it right, productivity can soar.

Have you received this call, "Hey boss, great news -- the family and I are going to sell our home in the city and move to the lake house. So cool, my office will be in the boat house." Then they always say this, "It won't hurt my productivity at all -- I am more productive out here than in the office."

Your senior executives are moving to the hills, too. Dear CEO, "Mavis and the kids love the environment so much at our Montana place, we are going to live out there much of the year now."

CEO says, "Have you gone nuts? We need you here in customer sessions."

When Gallup asked the 70 million U.S. employees why they'd rather not come in anymore, their first response is "the commute." Their next answer is it "helps my wellbeing" and the third is "it works better for my family."

Worldwide productivity is on the line.

Has your board discussed if you even need people in tall buildings in big cities anymore?

The appeal of working in shiny steel buildings with enchanting lobby water sounds won't bring employees in anymore. Eventually, this will crush commercial real estate as well as supporting retail shops and cafes.

What if the shift to WFH crushes GDP per capita, America's ultimate performance measurement? All because Zoom doesn't work as well for customer retention and buildouts. So, deal-making can no longer ride on relationships and ideas quite like before.

Have you ever noticed that humor doesn't come across Zoom? Does it make you wonder what else isn't coming across -- like trust and caring?

On the other hand, GDP per capita -- the sum of all the stuff we make and sell each other -- has largely been in deceleration for 50 years. So, it isn't like, "We have to get back to what works." We would argue, along with other experts, that America has needed transformational workplace change for 50 years.

Doesn't it seem that our American management system was already broken if 90% of our 70 million office workers say they don't want to come back to the office full time? Whether it's, "I want out and I am never coming back to that rat race again" or, "I am dropping off the grid -- forever."

A new will of the world has emerged -- one that we couldn't have imagined the day before the pandemic.

The board and CEO need to know the big potential risks. Productivity, customer retention, wellbeing (mental health) and fast declining relationships that bind the place together with employees and customers -- could now all be at high risk.

Here is how to restart your workplace.

Call your board and CEO together and commit to hybrid. Do that or nobody with any talent will ever work for your firm again. It is your biggest current decision and has extraordinary implications for growth, profit and stock price.

Establish on-site days as Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday. This is a promise employees make to each other, not a promise they make to management. We need to know which days we are all in together so we can collaborate. We also need to know when we can celebrate successes, meet new colleagues and tell each other customer stories.

Not all employees will be hybrid, of course. Ten percent (10%) of your total office and executive workers want to be on-site Monday through Friday. That's great. In addition, managers need to know which employees will be fully remote so they can be reviewed and coached differently.

Require a recently discovered silver bullet: The manager must now hold one meaningful conversation per week with each employee -- 15 to 30 minutes, usually about goals, customers and wellbeing. This prevents employees from morphing into gig workers. Gallup finds this leadership habit magically develops rich, high-performance relationships.

And lastly, aim every workplace decision at the customer relationship, which is hard-wired to your employee relationships.

Do these four things well, and a new hybrid workplace will work better than your old one.


Jim Clifton is Chairman of Gallup. Chad Holliday is the former chair of DuPont, Bank of America, and Shell.

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