A Board Priority For 2021: Re-Envisioning the Future of Work

by John Rodi

The phrases “work from home” and “remote work” need to be retired.

© Vadym Pastukh/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Early last year, the idea that millions of Americans wouldn’t set foot in an office for months at a time would have been unimaginable. Now, many have started new jobs – never having stepped foot in the office or having met their co-workers, bosses or clients face to face.

The global health pandemic has forever changed the concept of “work.” Now, as the health risks begin to fade, directors need to understand how management is capitalizing on the digital innovations that empowered virtual work in 2020 for the longer term.

The phrases “work from home” and “remote work” need to be retired. Work is what needs to get done, not where it gets done. In this context, company management, boards and professionals must focus on “strategic work flexibility” – encompassing place, space and time – for a reimagined future of work that’s empowered by virtual technology and based on a new mindset.

No one size fits all: Across industries and businesses, company cultures vary and disruptive forces demand different responses. The stakes are high. Cultivating an engaged, innovative workforce that builds lasting relationships with customers and clients requires a strategic focus on the future of work.

With that in mind, directors should focus on optimizing a flexible work environment, culture and tone at the top, as well as talent development.

First, work flexibility should not be considered a perk, but looked at strategically: how do people do their best work? Throughout the pandemic, employee productivity has, if anything, increased, according to a global flexible working survey by Mercer. Going back to a pre-pandemic office mindset is a non-starter. The mindset must, therefore, shift to a discussion about how a company optimizes work flexibility because we’ve also learned there are particular areas that benefit from in-person interaction.

For example, we’ve found it’s relatively easy to maintain existing relationships in a virtual environment, but far more difficult to create new relationships. Is management scrutinizing cycles—sales, projects, and career milestones—to help understand key moments where forging in-person connections matter most and assessing whether a company is properly leveraging those in-person meetings.

Second, how does leadership sustain a firm’s culture in a more virtual environment? If people opt to work virtually, the mechanisms that bind them to the firm and each other must adapt. Likewise, if people feel flexible work is not truly an option, people may work where they are less productive.

For both issues, strong leadership and tone at the top is essential. Decisions on work flexibility must be supported – in communications and actions – from the top. That said, if culture flowed from in-person interactions, leaders must review how those interactions are being recreated in a digital world and think creatively. At KPMG, we are using Virtual Audit Rooms, for example, to bring teams together – specifically to bring back the informality of an office environment, including quick conversations to solve challenges.

Third, directors must focus on people development – how will management build and maintain a robust talent pipeline in this largely virtual, flexible workplace? Effectively onboarding people and ensuring they become part of a team will likely require entirely new approaches. Likewise, training has often been in person and hands on. How do we support training, especially as companies move towards a model focused on continuous learning and development?

The competition for talent has always been a very strong strategic imperative for embracing flexibility in the workplace. As people and management embrace work flexibility, companies will be able to attract, retain and motivate a diverse, knowledgeable workforce.

As mentioned above, answers to these questions will vary by industry and business. But for all businesses, meeting the challenges and opportunities of work flexibility will require a sharp focus on the company’s culture, leadership and people development strategies in that context. Change always brings risks, but businesses have a window of opportunity to reimagine a future of work that boosts productivity, better engages their people, nurtures workforce well-being and can drive sustainable growth for the long term.

John Rodi is a KPMG US Audit Partner and Leader of the Board Leadership Center.