Maybe great minds do think alike

The role of the workplace executive must change dramatically to deal with the new challenge of a workforce that is no longer centered in, or anywhere near, a corporate facility. I trace the evolution of that role from "director of work" to "director of remote work experience" and beyond.

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James P. Ware, PhD., Managing Editor, Work&Place

Mark Twain is reported to have once said, “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

There are many “rhymes” running throughout the history of the workplace; one that I have followed for many years is the challenge of engaging and coordinating a distributed and highly mobile workforce. Even before effective remote technologies made a worker’s location almost irrelevant, organizations were struggling to connect employees with each other to form productive distributed teams and to measure and monitor the performance of people who were rarely in the same place two days in a row.

In the research we at Work&Place and our predecessor firm Occupiers Journal have carried out over the past decade we have repeatedly called for organizations to focus on the workforce experience, not just on the many different physical workplaces those workers make use of.

Paul Carder, one of our co-founders, long ago called for the establishment of a “Director of Work” – a position that would integrate work design, technology, performance management, and human resources – in order to create a productive work environment that would both meet organizational needs and engage the workforce.

As Paul said in his post (Where should the ‘Director of Work’ fit into large organisations?) way back in 2012:

The Director of Work may sit in the line management area, under the Chief Operating Officer (COO), or under the HR area perhaps. But either way, the role would bring together the issues of ‘when, where, and how to work’, looking at the vision for how the organisation should work most effectively, reviewing options, and setting policy for when these options may be most appropriate.
The Director of Work would then also set a programme of training for line managers, to make sure that they have full understanding of all the options for when, where and how to work. And, the role would manage the human and organisational risks of getting this wrong – stress, illness, inefficiency, morale, staff turnover, or just plain old boredom.

Six years after Paul crafted that futuristic vision of a better way of supporting distributed work and distributed workers, I had the privilege of attending the Future Offices Summer conference in San Francisco in August 2018. That conference was organized by IQPC and chaired by Tracy Hawkins, the Global Head of Real Estate and Workplace (REW) for Twitter.

I had several opportunities to speak personally with Ms. Hawkins; I came away impressed that she was as focused on the employee experience in the workplace as she was on real estate and workplace design. Offices, after all, are nothing more than places for people to engage with work activities and each other in pursuit of creating value for customers and the organization as a whole.

My post-conference blog post (The future of offices and the urban environment) included this story that Tracy shared briefly at the conference and then in more detail with me several weeks later:

But Tracy went well beyond the concept of a journey to share a very personal story about a Twitter employee who suffered and eventually passed away from a virulent form of cancer. Her name was Lucy Mosley, and while she was struggling with her disease the London Twitter employees all learned to knit so they could create a blanket for her, so she would know how much they loved her and that they were rooting for her.
Lucy felt so much warmth and support from her fellow employees when she received the blanket that she tweeted “keeping cozy with my @TwitterUK blanket #LoveWhereYouWork #Family”.[i]
When Lucy passed away, the Twitter UK employees asked Tracy and the REW team to find a way to commemorate her in a positive and uplifting way in the new office they were about to move to. Tracy, who had never met Lucy, decided the best way to get to know her would be to go through her Twitter feed to understand what sort of a person she was, and the tweet ending #LoveWhereYouWork just jumped right out.
The REW team got to work creating a #LoveWhereYouWork neon sign that was proudly displayed in the heart of the office space known as the Commons – where the employees would meet to eat, have company meetings, and host important events. Those in the know knew it was a tribute to Lucy, but they could also own it as a team since it summed up Twitter’s culture so well.

Fast forward to 2021: the pandemic we are currently inching our way out of has clearly made “remote” work the “new normal” for literally millions of workers on every continent around the globe. And that reality has upended workplace design, workplace strategy, workforce management, and commercial real estate like no other discontinuity in our lifetime.

Now Ms. Hawkins is once again in the news, in a March 23, 2021, San Francisco Chronicle article, “Tech’s hottest job title in 2012? ‘Head of remote work’. Tracy Hawkins is now Twitter’s Vice President of Real Estate & Workplace and Remote Experience (emphasis added).

This expansion of Ms. Hawkins’ role is important and newsworthy for two reasons. First of course is the recognition, spelled out in the article, that remote work is here to stay and that it requires different kinds of attention and support than corporate facilities generally do. The second reason the expanded role is notable is that organizations are finally beginning to recognize how critical the experience of remote workers is to their success.

Note that I have been putting “remote” in quote marks because in this new highly distributed world, the concept of “remote” doesn’t make any sense when there is no longer a central corporate office to be remote from. I predict that in the next few months we will see a new term emerging to capture our new reality; “distributed work” is much more accurate than “remote work”.

To quote Tracy Hawkins once again (in the Chronicle article):

“As we increase our remote workforce, how do we keep them connected, how do we make sure they don’t feel like second-class citizens?” she said. “We want to ensure a sense of equal participation, equal access to speak up in meetings, being part of everything.”
Behaviors and etiquette might change. Even when Twitter reopens its office (it hasn’t given a timetable for that), meetings might still occur by videoconferencing to create a level playing field, she said.
Even vocabulary could change.
“Words matter, so we will think of how to refer to folks not in an office,” Hawkins said. “Calling them ‘remote’ doesn’t play into that feeling of equality.”

Stay tuned; we are living through a massive whirlwind that is upending almost everything we think we know about work and how to manage both work and workers.

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