As every company scrambles to redefine the way it will approach work as the world inches back towards safety, it’s clear there is no singular “right approach.” All at once, companies are sharing their future of work strategies, heralding why their vision is best, and how it will become their competitive advantage. As of right now, however, it’s just talk. Our global population has never simultaneously experienced a more monumental shift in the way we work and live for a sustained period of time than over this past year, and we are all about to shake things up again as the world becomes healthier by attempting to create “the new normal”. As a result, the only thing we can say with any certaintainty at this point is that the world as we worked and lived in it prior to March 2020 will never again be exactly as it was.
I’ve spent the past year collaborating with leaders from other companies, researching “future of work” strategies and engaging with our people to understand their shifting needs and desires. While an incredibly interesting thought exercise, and arguably one of the most challenging problems to solve in my career, I’ll sum up my philosophy of how to approach the future of work the same way I approach implementing an effective people strategy.
Step One: Identify what is optimal for the business and its customers.
Step Two: Work tirelessly to ensure that that business strategy maps to what is going to motivate, inspire and create the optimal experience for the people in your company who have to execute it.
This is not rocket science. It is, however, critically important. I have observed so many companies start this process by asking their employees what they want as the starting point. It’s very well intentioned; most companies want to ensure they are treating their people well, and meeting their needs. That said, we still have to balance that desire with running a viable business. Ultimately, it’s making sure you weave the needs of the business seamlessly into a great employee experience. It’s harder than it sounds. If you can do it well, however, your business, your people and your customers all stand to win.
One commonality most of us have all shared over the past year is that everyone has had challenges to navigate. Some people have had to manage their jobs with children in remote school. Others have powered through mental health challenges. Still others have felt like they are working harder than they ever have as they are never more than a few feet away from their computer. And yet, with over a year of remote work under our (now non-existent!) belts, we’ve adapted. People that have historically thrived in an office have now found new ways of balancing their work and personal lives by working at home. And many of them don’t want to lose that flexibility.
So here’s the thing. There is no one size fits all approach that is going to make everyone happy. Some people are waiting with baited breath for the doors to their office to swing open for their return. Others have embraced the benefits of working from home, and have no desire to go back. The vast majority, I’ve found, want the best of all worlds. Essentially, I can be productive from anywhere, so please grant me the flexibility to do that.
At Rapid7, we are leaning into that flexibility. For most of our roles, we have stopped short of saying, “you can work wherever you want in the world permanently.” Absolutely, for some roles that level of autonomy works and those people are incredibly valued within our organization. For many roles, we believe that a more flexible model combining in office with remote work will serve our employees, the company, and our customers best.
To that end, let me share a few reasons why I’m looking forward to having people physically back together. Again, not in the every single day, 8am-6pm model of the past, but in a sustainable, flexible, and supportive way that meets all of our needs.
- RELATIONSHIPS. I can’t even begin to fathom how much less productive we would have been if this pandemic had occurred five or ten years ago. Technology certainly helped so many of us stay connected and move forward. And yet, no amount of virtual happy hours will ever truly be able to replace genuine human interaction. I both celebrate and empathize with all of the new people we’ve hired over the last year, and how much more difficult getting grounded and understanding how to add impact has been for them without the benefit of physically meeting anyone and establishing those casual networking relationships that happen organically in the halls. We’ve leaned into supporting them as best we can, and they have more than risen to the occasion. However, I’m guessing they would have felt even better prepared to succeed if they had had the benefit of actually meeting and forging relationships with a broad range of people both inside their teams and beyond. Personally, I know I would not have been able to operate nearly as well over the past year if I hadn’t invested the time building relationships in the years prior. Zoom and other virtual technologies are absolutely a game changer, but they offer additional means of productivity, not true relationship building. Think of all the magic that occurs when you share a lunch outing with colleagues, or catch a person in the hall and say, “hey, do you have five minutes to whiteboard this with me?” Consider all of the impromptu conversations that take place in the halls, elevators, etc. Those interactions are wonderful because they don’t require formal meetings. I know I am seriously missing the amazing ideas and partnerships that come as a result of these moments. Human connection, no matter what role you play in a company, matters.
- OPPORTUNITY. Of course you can be productive and add impact by being a permanently remote worker. We have hired and invested in a growing number of permanently remote people as the company has scaled for specific roles and/or with unique experiences, and they are truly valued and respected. That said, there is something to being visible beyond a screen. If you aspire to learn, grow and develop, part of that equation includes knowing people, building trust, and having them take risks on you. Building relationships aids in the ability to be known by more people. That in turn leads to the potential for increased opportunities. Each of us, regardless of where we work, need to lean in, do the work, and also put ourselves in a position where those we work with are able to really get to know us, our interests, and our aspirations in the process. Again, this is not to suggest at all that you cannot have a vibrant, incredible career working remotely. I’m just highlighting a realistic dynamic that existed prior to the pandemic, and is likely to continue.
- DEVELOPING OTHERS. Yes, there are seasoned leaders who are fantastic at managing teams across the globe, and can do so with finesse and skill. However, not every manager has the experience or perspective to fit this category just yet. Especially as a new manager, managing people remotely can pose an incremental challenge if you don’t have the above relationships and opportunity elements nailed. I’m fortunate that I have some really seasoned people working for me, and we had healthy relationships prior to being separated. Even with that dynamic, we’ve had to work hard to maintain it over the past year, and it’s not been easy. We are often too transactional with each other, and have to remind ourselves to embrace our humanity sometimes. I’m fairly confident if I were much earlier in my career and trying to manage people remotely, I would definitely not have offered them the best leadership and management I could, because we would have been missing that solid foundation as a starting place. Said differently, it’s not just about what works best for me as an individual, and as a manager. It’s also important I consider what the people I am responsible for need from me to be successful as well.
- SEPARATION. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to feels like they are working more hours over the last year. Why?! We are never away from our technology. Even if we’ve managed to carve in more flexible time during our days to help a child with homework or walk our dog during lunch, we are never more than a few steps away from email, Slack or our computers.
- COMMUNITY. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has been a hot topic in recent years. At the same time, companies are working hard to diversify their workforces in terms of its mix of people, while also creating a sense of parity among people AND nurturing a sense of belonging. That is a grandiose challenge for any organization, but will be further complicated with new working models. And it’s absolutely the right problem to be solving. Even with the most flexible new “work of the future” models, there is risk of people “not in the room” feeling left out, overlooked, etc. However, by carefully crafting experiences where people can gather, we can optimize that feeling of inclusion and belonging through collaboration and human connection. Again, this does not need to be all day every day, but I think back to one of the critical elements that has allowed each of the companies I’ve worked for to “scale with soul” this is one piece I never want to see go away.
If I think back on what has allowed me to have a truly extraordinary career (by my own standards - which doesn’t mean it’s yours!) all of those ideas I shared above played a significant role in allowing me to thrive and build that. So while I am very excited about “the new world” and the increased flexibility so many will find as we recalibrate our work and personal lives, I can’t imagine not having an office (including ALL of our incredible global offices!) to draw me back in. I can’t wait to get back on the playing field with “my tribe.” I can’t wait to build new relationships with all the people who have joined (including two acquired companies!) since last March. And mostly, I can’t wait to hit the barista bar on our fourth floor. My coffee doesn’t even come close.