Robin’s Rules of Order: New Models for the Workplace

By  |  September 16, 2021, 2:19 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


Now that we’ve bitten into the forbidden fruit of the work-from-home apple we have, as the biblical tale goes, seen each other naked.  And once you’ve seen the makeupless faces, the shoddy t-shirts, the adorable/annoying pets and kids, and that big reveal–the inside of a co-workers home–there’s no going back. Plucking people out of their natural habitat, gussying them up, and sticking them in a context-less office chair seems downright abnormal.

As we wrestle with how to return some sense of normalcy to the workplace, we’re not likely to forget all we’ve learned from our year and a half of working from anywhere. It’s time to apply a new set of metrics to how work is measured, how it’s compensated, and how much of it can be done remotely. And it’s also time to put a new set of metrics in place to allow workers to grow their careers while balancing their lives.

Historians will look back on this post-pandemic reconstruction as something as monumental as the Industrial Revolution.  That historic shift demanded that we leave our homes and head to factories and offices. The post-pandemic era will similarly demand a reassessment of work and how and where it’s done. Dawn Pratt, who runs Tech Up for Women and does corporate human resources training, told me that HR folks are pulling their hair out trying to come up with equitable, out-of-the-box solutions that make sense of work.

It’s time for new bold models. The major impetus for the change stems from technology.  Cloud-based applications, video conferencing, shared documents, and whiteboards are just a few of the technologies rendering those old gatherings in conference rooms as anachronistic as a two-martini lunch. (Though granted, plenty of big deals were signed during two-martini lunches.)

Right now, companies are fumbling. They give lip service to the concept of valuing what workers accomplish, not where they accomplish it. But they are struggling to make those words functional. Facebook and Google are both allowing employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future. Facebook is even encouraging workers to consider working from remote places, even other countries. In May, Google announced that some 60 percent of Googlers will spend a few days per week in the office, 20 percent will work in new office locations and another 20 percent will work from home under an expected future hybrid-work model.

Amazon has one of the most specific return to work policies, spelling out a hybrid arrangement even once workers come back in January 2022:

“Our new baseline will be three days a week in the office (with the specific days being determined by your leadership team), leaving you flexibility to work remotely up to two days a week.If you would like to work in the office less than three days a week and are still able to commute into your assigned office as needed, you can apply for an exception from your VP. If the exception is approved, you will be considered primarily a remote worker, and will have an agile workspace (not a dedicated one) that provides space to collaborate with your team. Separately, corporate employees (for whom working away from the office is an effective option) will have the choice to work up to four weeks per year fully remote from a domestic location (without the expectation that you will commute into an office during that time).”

Some companies like Virbela in the US and Chargebee in India have never had a physical office. According to Global Workplace Analytics, just 3.6% of the US workforce worked from home in 2018. Now, they report, “Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”  The data is followed by a list of companies that are touting “remote-first,” including Quora, Dropbox, Hubspot and Pinterest, along with quotes from their management on reasoning behind those decisions.

How do you get started on the re-invention? I’ve created a blueprint — let’s call it Robin’s Rules of Order.

Step 1:  Task analysis

Dissect your team’s workflow and responsibilities, identifying which tasks are best done alone, and which ones rely on group think.  And which group think activities will be more successful in person rather than virtually?

Step 2: Identify the Office’s Uniqueness.

If you’re going to ask an employee to leave home and come to the office,  what will they want to see in the office?  A gym?  A 3D printer?  A recording studio producing high-end audio and video? A daycare area? Maybe even a token foosball table?  The office needs to have benefits beyond the water cooler and the Keurig.

Step 3:  Step up your virtual meeting strategy. 

We’ve had nearly two years of remote meetings, but they can become more effective.  Engage the more silent members of the group with direct engagement.  “I haven’t heard much from Susan but I know when she speaks it’s important.”  “Sally, you’re the youngest member of the team, attuned to what’s happening with a new generation, what do you think we should do?”  And make meetings shorter — way shorter.

Step 4:  Identify talents you learned about your team members during pandemic

“John, did you paint that photo that hangs in your Zoom background?  Maybe we should think about putting those artistic skills to work for the team.”

Step 5: Set deliverable metrics.  

More than ever before work is more than just showing up. Specific tasks and timetables need to be established.

Step 6: Break down the silos.

For too long marketing, sales, engineering, and HR each had their own hierarchical fiefdoms, often unresponsive to group goals at large. Think less about having a meeting and more about who are the right people from across the organization to be there.

Step 7: Set the Stage

A good manager will cultivate a knack for involving the whole group and demanding attention. Cameras on with mobile phones out of reach are two basic rules that help. Articulate standards for other distractions like private chat channels, too. A meeting leader needs to have the same skills as a classroom teacher–a bit of showmanship and a talent for engaging the students.

Step 8: Assign New Roles.

Identify new talents and roles to meet the occasion–running spotlight features, Googling for more information about a topic you’re discussing, operating the whiteboard, monitoring chats, even providing a fun interlude. The rise of virtual work will mean new jobs and job functions. 

Step 9: Create a Path Forward.

Your teams need to keep their skills sharpened. Each employee should have an individual education plan as part of their job. Learning is part of the job description now, whether it’s attending a seminar, getting a degree, or getting micro-credentialed…

Step 9: Create a Scout Team.

It should investigate new technologies that your work-from-anywhere team can use, as they arise.  Innovation in remote work technology is rife. Don’t just rely on your IT department to innovate (but do consult with them). Streaming solutions, shared white boards, transcription, and analytics tools — all of these belong in the arsenal for work-from-anywhere productivity.

The brass tacks of the transition will be complicated. Benefits, tax implications, empty real-estate (I’ve written about this for Techonomy before) will all need to be reckoned with. It will fall to product managers and team leaders to write rules of engagement for their teams. And workers will generally choose where they want to work based on the culture that best suits their workstyles, at least in progressive and aware companies. Job titles, salaries, home-office stipends, performance tracking, and methods of managing will all require major overhauls. But the workplace that we all end up with is likely to be far more satisfying, and even more productive, than the one we left behind back in March 2020.

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