More data is needed to define our new normal for work

ZDNet's Larry Dignan and Steve Ranger and TechRepublic's Bill Detwiler discuss how digital transformation, office layouts, and employee loyalty will all be impacted after the pandemic.

TechRepublic's Karen Roby and Bill Detwiler discuss the "new normal" for offices with ZDNet's Larry Dignan and Steve Ranger. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Larry Dignan: I think the new normal is going to be a little bit more of a hybrid situation where it's part work in the office, part work from home, but I see it more skewed toward remote work, largely because we've gone to this open-office floor plan everywhere, and that's no longer viable. I don't think we're all running back to the office as fast as people hope, largely because all those floor plans need to be altered. That requires more investment, it requires more partitions or however they're going to do it. All you need to do is look at the reports and call centers out of South Korea. In some of those research reports, they show how coronavirus travels, and I see it as a major challenge. And I don't think companies are really into rushing back workers per se.

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And meanwhile, workers are also going to be skeptical because if you have to take mass transit, how do you feel about that? And then the other thing is just your kids, like what's the school situation look like, because the schools are going to be on a hybrid situation, in best case. I think that's the new normal. And then over time, we're going to see whether work winds up being more remote, whether it be 50/50 or what that looks like. But I think everybody from the companies to the workers, all knowledge workers, basically, I think they're all questioning this run-back-to-the-office plan. I just think it's going to be a lot more complicated than we think.

Karen Roby: Bill, we were talking earlier just about what this means from an IT standpoint and how IT teams have really had to step up to make sure this can be taken care of. And now what does that mean going back to the office or not? What are your thoughts there?

Bill Detwiler: I think people have to plan for the emergency measures that they put into place to enable people who traditionally, maybe didn't work at home or to allow more people to work at home, being used for another six months, maybe another year and maybe for the foreseeable future, maybe permanently as, like Larry says, businesses decide, we can maintain productivity, maybe even increase productivity in some areas by allowing people to work remotely. And we can reduce our overhead costs when it comes to facilities, when it comes to corporate real estate. And maybe they simply just can't prepare the offices physically to enable social distancing. I think, as an IT leader, you have to look at your infrastructure. You have to look at the hardware, you have to look at your software, you have to look at your processes and just plan for working remotely.

Now, whether you have the right kind of laptops, the right kind of mobile devices and phones, do you have the right kind of plans. ... And Karen, I know you had an incident just last week. We were supposed to film this last week and we couldn't because your internet went down. And so that's a problem, an IT problem that, if it were to happen in an office setting, you would have someone maybe on-site who could diagnose that problem, working with the ISP. When it happens at home, you essentially now have hundreds or thousands of locations that you have to deal with. So you need to have contingency plans for that and work with your employees and your departments to have contingency plans. I think that is really something that leaders have to start grappling with now and looking at how they make those emergency measures a little more permanent.

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Karen Roby: Steve there in the UK, I know the government is setting out some regulations or what they anticipate or expect offices to look like, and it will be very different for workers there. How do you feel like it's going there?

Steve Ranger: I think the assumption that we all work in an office and we work in an office every day is something that's probably been fading over the last decade, maybe a bit longer, but what's happened now is absolutely going to change that forever. I think the assumption that we all go to an office is pretty much over, I think. So what kind of employee is going to have to work with, is that kind of fluidity of, well, maybe we will have some people in the office, but there's going to be a lot more room around them. There might be some kind of plastic sheeting between desks in the short term, who knows? Marks on the floor where you can kind of talk to each other, routes around the office and doors that you don't need to touch all that kind of stuff.

I think short term, there's going to be some real tactical stuff around, how do we get some people in an office, then there's going to be the longer-term stuff around, how do we bring more people into the office to keep them safe and keep them happy? Safe is one bit, but happy is the other bit. People have to be happy to step back into an office. But I think, and this is all stuff that Bill was talking about in terms of the technology as well. But I think longer term, you have to think much broader than that. You think, well, maybe there are some people who will always work from home henceforth and maybe only come in once every couple of weeks, maybe some people will work closer to home in some kind of coworking spaces in their local town rather than traveling to the big city or something like that.

I also think there'll be the technology thing, because right now we're all spending a lot of time on Zoom calls or whatever other kind of like video conferencing we're using. And I think we're all kind of getting to the point where we see the limitations of this. I think there is an opportunity for new types of collaboration, new types of technology to make that better. Now I have no idea what those things are. Some people have been touting VR and AR: I'm not convinced on that one myself, but definitely, I think what the kind of situation we found ourselves in now has given us kind of an insight into how these technologies work and how they don't work and what we need them to do better. But it's also made us think, well, absolutely that older model of just going to an office every day, that has changed, and I don't think that's going to come back.

Larry Dignan: The other thing I would just throw in is I think we just need a lot more data to figure out what that new normal looks like. We've seen the studies that say productivity didn't really fall a whole lot. You know, there are so many other things like you're going to have to invest in dashboards to sort of manage who's in the building, who's not. Taking temperatures. We've seen a lot of vendors kind of rush to this market, ServiceNow, Salesforce, they're all coming out with platforms to sort of manage shifts, compile COVID-19 results, all that kind of stuff. But I just think we need more data.

For instance, one data point that I haven't seen anywhere, but I'm dying to know about is the HR sort of things. Working remotely has required the HR departments do different things, but how many complaints have gone away? How many coaching [meetings] between employees have had to go away? How many of those incidents don't exist anymore because we're not in an office together packed in an open floor plan?

I would love to see that data, along with productivity, along with real estate costs, along with the IT spend to keep people remote versus outfitting a new office or a new office layout for this. I just think there's a lot of data that's outstanding, which is why I think we're, not to mention testing and all the other crap we don't really have. I think we're sort of pondering the future with maybe 20% of the data we need at this point. I think that's why it's going to take a little longer than possible. And the other management thing that plays into IT that I think's going to be interesting is, how do you work out infrastructure, who pays for what, who pays for that office chair? If you have ergonomic issues, is that your problem or the company's? I think there's a lot of loose ends to tie up with remote work versus in-the-office work. And I think that's probably what executive teams all over the place are trying to figure out right now.

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Bill Detwiler: And, you know, adding to what Larry and Steve just said, there are people making decisions now based on philosophical or their own belief systems, their own biases, their own feelings. So it is important to get that data that Larry's talking about along with measuring, because you have to measure the intangibles that you get maybe, or some people believe that you get from being in an office and within close proximity. I've heard lots of people talk about those break room chats, those hallway moments, those little bits of inspiration that come from collaboration Steve was talking about that you that are hard to quantify and are hard to get data around, like Larry was talking about. Does your company miss out on a multimillion dollar idea because two people weren't in physical proximity with each other, and they didn't have this brainstorming session that just sort of spontaneously happened?

Can we use technology? I mean, unless we're all on Zoom 24/7, we come down into our home offices or our kitchens or our living rooms and we flip on a camera and everyone that was normally in the office sees us for eight hours a day, nine hours a day, 10 hours, whatever it is, how do you have those kind of those spontaneous moments? And then how do you collect data on not getting those spontaneous moments? What are you losing? So I think it's a tough problem. And I see people on both ends of the spectrum.

I was listening to some people the other day talk about New York and they were actually asking one of the senators from New York, "Do you think Manhattan is going to come back?" All these companies are talking about keeping businesses, keeping people in the suburbs, having them work remotely. And you know, he was recounting the story with the business. He said, "Yeah, we think people are going to come back because we don't get these spontaneous moments. That's where the energy is." I'm watching this and thinking, you know, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And that's what everyone's trying to figure out right now, like for their business, their company, their workforce: Where are they?

Steve Ranger: I mean, it's interesting because when you think about it, most offices are not designed for that kind of serendipity right now. They're mostly cubicle farms where you just go in and you work and you never speak to anyone or they are these open plan ones where you might communicate with maybe two or three or four people who are nearby. Actually if I think about how you kind of like get that creativity back in when it's already kind of absent from the office. You kind of have to rethink it a bit and kind of rethink how you do the organizational thing, not just where people sit, if you actually think that that's the kind of the core essence of what your organization is about, is that kind of like that creativity.

If your organization is about just processing data through a kind of series of people, then that's a different problem you've got. But I absolutely buy that idea. And actually, I guess, how we're dealing with it right now is, you spend a lot more time on emails with people, phoning people up or having video conferencing. And it's just that bit more clumsy. It's just a bit more friction. So, how do you take that back? How do you get that friction back out again? I don't know, but I think it's kind of a tricky one for management to figure out.

Larry Dignan: The other interesting part of there is, say you miss those serendipity moments, how much has video conferencing opened up serendipity for other people? Let's just say this brainstorm thing that some team's on, that's a team of what, five people? We don't know what that associate editor, manager, whatever down the food chain, we don't know what they think. Where, on Zoom, you almost have more access to like a CEO or top exec now, because everybody's a little box on the screen. Where before I would have to get up, walk down the hall, find that office, pray they're not on an important call, knock on the door. Like, there's no way I'm doing that. So, I think it's, there's an inclusion aspect here, too, that needs to be figured out. But I just think we're lacking data across so many functions that we're all flying a little blind at this point.

Karen Roby: How much do you guys think that some of these bigger companies or tech companies or Twitter, for example, saying, indefinitely people can work from home and if that's what you're comfortable with, that's what you can do, and closing some offices. How much do you think that will set the tone for what businesses across this country you will decide to do? Will they look to them as an example?

Larry Dignan: I think they will, depending on industry, I think the biggest thing that we're still waiting to find out, and we don't really know this yet because the economies are just opening, it's how do sales teams do in a remote environment? So, let's just say all sales teams get this digital selling thing down, they get more analytical. That's going to be a key thing. Like right now, I think a CFO looks at it and goes, why am I paying this much for commercial real estate? We'll get to an ultimate decision when the CMO's at the table, when the sales leaders are there. I mean, what happens if the sales function realizes that they can sell digitally and remotely and do just as well, if not better? Then you get to take out all that travel and expense and all those drinks and all those crazy agency sort of meetings and then you get some real efficiency.

I think that's part of it, too. Right now, I think we have the financial data: OK, productivity didn't plunge, CFOs get to save a ton of money on real estate. And we need to bring in those other CXO functions to really get a good read of what the new normal looks like. But, rest assured, if you can drive revenue with remote workers and keep customers happy, then that's kind of a game changer and kind of made our decision for us.

Steve Ranger: I wonder how much of an issue company culture will be longer term because certainly, if you're working at home and you're just working with yourself and maybe a couple of other people, is it very much different to be working at a different company? I mean, will people feel less loyal to an organization if they're constantly in their own home, where they feel more mobile, they'll go off and work somewhere else. Because actually the company culture is really just you sitting at your desk at home. So, I think there's all sorts of wrinkles. We haven't the data. There's just not really enough time to understand how this stuff works. Maybe people will feel more loyal because the companies are treating them well in the last few months have said, yeah, work from home, do whatever you need to do, do it whenever you need to do it. You know? And maybe the ones that haven't been treated so well might be thinking, well, if I'm going to spend the next year or two working at home, it doesn't matter which company I'm working for, because I'm doing pretty much the same job wherever I am from the same place.

Larry Dignan: The talent recruiting is going to be a huge issue, too, which is another intangible. Say you're Twitter, and I'm pretty sure Twitter has most of the developers and engineers out in the Bay area. Well, that's an expensive club. They are high-dollar people, that you may be able to find someplace else. So now you shift all the work to remote. Well, why not hire an engineer in Nebraska or, Austin's expensive too, but you know, pick your location. So for talent recruiting, it gets way more interesting, both for the employee and the employer, and that needs to be sorted out, too. There's probably some benefits there also. So yeah, there's a lot being worked out still.

Bill Detwiler: And I think, too, it'll depend, like you said, Larry, on the industry, and we're talking here a lot about knowledge workers, office workers, but there are, if you look at retail, if you look at manufacturing, if you look at health care or you look at service industries that have to have people within certain physical areas, I think we're still trying to figure out what that looks like. I think you'll see changes over the next few years where technology is used to maybe make some of those jobs that we thought had to be based on a specific physical location, now they're not so much. So, you're going to see more contactless payment systems. You're probably going to see a rise for the foreseeable future in curbside pickups.

What does technology, what new technology, what new companies and innovations are going to come along to make that easier? Delivery services, we've seen massive increases in grocery deliveries and things like that for maybe people who didn't use them before. I think there's a lot of new technology that's going to come online, robotics and manufacturing. What are those jobs that can be done without having a person in a physical area that we now associate with that, that we don't necessarily have to do that? And then I think technology is going to play that key role. And we're just now starting to think about that. Now, are people still going to want to go to restaurants and pubs and go out and do things? Yes. But I do see that over the next sort of several years, five years, what it means to be sort of, your mall shopping experience may be different.

There may be a few people, but will you be able to walk into any store? Like what Amazon has done with our market, pick out clothes, pick out shoes, walk out and never see anybody? I mean, those are the things that I think COVID-19 is going to accelerate. Those changes that were already on the horizon. Now we have sort of an impetus to say, "Oh, that is good for these reasons." And then you have the knock-on effect of that. What does that do to the labor market? You know, that's a bigger conversation than sort of tech, but it will play a role in, where do those kind of people who used to work behind the counter, what do they do now? What does that mean for up-skilling and retraining and continuing education and being able to move people whose jobs may have been focused around, "Hey, I'm here to take your payments and answer questions and to punch buttons on a cash register or some other POS system and swipe a credit card." And now we don't need that anymore. What does that person do? Do they now become a knowledge worker, an office worker? They now do something else in the new kind of economy.

Karen Roby: Just kind of wrapping up here, do you all have any thoughts on, we're past the 60-day mark now since this is all started and moving teams home, do you feel like looking back that this has been an easier transition than you thought, or do you remember, 60 days ago thinking, oh my gosh, this is going to be a nightmare. Where do you feel like we are right now compared to how you felt two plus months ago?

Larry Dignan: I think companies have been shocked by how easy it has been to work remotely. And that's why I think it's going to be part of their equation going forward. I think the other big change is the companies that were moving toward digital models in the first place have just cleaned up in the pandemic. You look at Target, you look at Walmart, it's all the omni-channel stuff that's done really well. And you can go industry by industry. The dinosaurs were the ones that weren't digital. I think that's going to just reinforce that investment going forward. And I think it's just going to accelerate a lot of things that were going to happen anyway but may have taken five to 10 years, now it's taking five to 10 months.

Steve Ranger: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that kind of rapid acceleration into homeworking, that's all done. Everyone is kind of comfortable with that. And I think, actually, what I noticed from the teams I work with in my own teams is that you have new habits, and those new habits become ingrained, whether it's having a meeting at a particular time or doing things a particular way, which are different to how it was before. And I think the next step is to look at, OK, how do we transition to whatever is next, whether that's some kind of hybrid of working from home, working remotely, working different shifts, whatever? I think that's where people are starting to look now. And that's, as we just discussed, a pretty tricky question.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. I agree 100%. I mean, I think we have, my team has been surprised at how sort of easy it was to do this. Although we did work remotely before COVID-19. Building on exactly what Larry and Steve just said, I think after doing this for two months, three months, four months, six months, those patterns really do start to become more of the norm than the exception. And it may be tough, I think, not for everybody because some people really enjoyed going to the office, but it may be tough to sort of change those patterns back to say, oh, you used to have to, your commute was five minutes into the next room. You know what, it's going to be an hour and a half again, because you've got to get back in that car, back on that train, you've got to come back in and they're thinking, "Why do I have to do that?" I think it's going to be tough to take some of that away. I think people are going to see that as a negative to some degree. So, that thinking has to change a little bit.

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Karen Roby talks with TechRepublic and ZDNet editors Bill Detwiler, Steve Ranger, and Larry Dignan about the future of office work. 

Image: Mackenzie Burke
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