The 100th edition of Head Office takes me to one of the best designed home-offices I have toured so far. I am looking, through my camera, at the top floor of a family home in Portland, Oregon, in the US. It is a dark and cold winter morning outside, but well-lit and warm indoors. The space has the two most common work-settings in any C-suite: a large desk for private work, with a bookshelf behind and plants next to it. Facing the desk is the second setting: sofas and a coffee table, ideal for socialization. And then there is one more setting, overlooked in workspaces—a space for quiet contemplation, in the form of an Eames armchair and footstool, a modern design classic.
This is the home-office of 60-year-old Punit Renjen, the global CEO of Deloitte. It is one of the big four professional service firms, encompassing accounting, audit, consulting services. Deloitte recorded over $50 billion in revenues for the financial year ending May 2021, and has a headcount of 350,000 professionals, spread across 150 countries.
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Renjen begins the virtual tour by explaining the design logic of the space. On the bookshelf is a Saregama Carvaan radio, which plays Indian music. Next to his desk is a poster of the Bollywood classic, Mother India. “It reminds me constantly as to where I’m from,” says the Haryana-born Renjen, who emigrated to the US in the 1980s on a Rotary Foundation scholarship, to study management at a university in Oregon, and stayed on ever since. He joined Deloitte as a junior consultant over three decades ago, became a partner in the 1990s, and was appointed as its global CEO in 2015, part of a growing cohort of successful Indian-origin leaders heading multinationals.
Renjen’s home-office is more personalized than most such spaces. An extensive collage of family photos lines the staircase leading up to the home office. The most frequent occupants of the sofa are his wife and his dog, he says. Treasured possessions include his “pride and joy”, a clay eagle made by his son as a child. The Eames chair is a favourite spot for reading.
The home was first occupied by the Renjen family 25 years ago. The top floor was remodelled into a workspace over two decades ago, when Renjen started using it mainly on weekends and evenings. Since the pandemic, this has been his primary workspace; he effectively works out of a purpose-built C-suite at home.
It offers him a view of the Oregon zoo, he says, and “complete privacy”. A restorative combination in itself, but perhaps what the home-office really offers, is the space to bring his whole self to work, as the zeitgeist expression goes. His attire is also telling. Older CEOs mostly prefer business formal when speaking with media, but Renjen wears a casual black fleece. His virtual persona is not rehearsed either—he is earnest, even passionate, and often leans into the camera to emphasize a point. This is clearly a space where he feels comfortable being himself.
“We have a hybrid policy. And our view is very simple. We encourage people to do their best work, wherever they can do their best work. We’re an outcome-oriented organization. And if you do your best work at home remotely, you can work remotely. If there are client expectations to be on client sites, it depends on the regulations in each country,” he says.
WHAT MATTERS THE MOST
Renjen’s professional passions are two of my favourite subjects, mental health and corporate purpose. He brings them up unprompted.
“Mental health has been a real issue. More than 80% of our 350,000 professionals are Gen Zs and millennials. In our last global millennial survey, 48% of Gen Zs and 44% of millennials reported being anxious or stressed all or most of the time. I want that to sink in. That was before the pandemic, before these closures, the health issues, work from home, lockdowns, job losses,” he says, adding that Deloitte is leading a global consortium of companies to create a “comprehensive and powerful alliance around mental health”. There are societal, human and economic benefits of taking workplace mental health seriously, he explains.
The rhetoric sounds great, but how does one eliminate workplace stress in a client-facing business? “You cannot eliminate stress, but you can mitigate stress,” he says, in “strategic and tangible ways”. This includes communicating regularly with senior leadership about mental health issues to acknowledge its seriousness, and instituting policies such as not sending emails over the weekend, which Renjen says he is doing.
The biggest testimony is the role of mental health in his own professional life. Renjen decided to take a sabbatical just when he was being considered for partnership. “I was working every weekend, I was totally burnt out, I put on a lot of weight.” At his father’s suggestion, he requested the firm for a sabbatical for a few months, during which he “travelled, went back to India to visit family, played a lot of golf and met his future wife.”
He didn’t make partner that year, and “for many years after that I second-guessed myself whether I made the right decision or not. But in retrospect, looking back, it was the best decision I made. It gave me a chance to recharge,” he says. Small wonder then he chose to create a site for self-renewal in his home-office with the Eames chair.
THE BRAND LEGACY
If Renjen’s space is purpose-built, his vocabulary is about being purpose-led. Purpose comes up in conversation in every possible way.
In the context of resilience through the pandemic: “We grew at exceptional rates. Part of the reason is that we are a purpose-led organization. We serve our clients, create a tangible, measurable attribute of impact for them, we take care of our people, and we give back to the communities that we live and work in.”
In the context of what is important to younger members of the workforce: “They say they want to be associated with an organization that is purpose-led.”
In the context of his communication to his team: “I write two or three times a month, to all 15,000 partners across the globe. That message is called ‘Living Our Purpose’. I just sent out message number 219. It is a reminder that we are purpose-driven. Every message has a link to the core elements of what we are trying to do, from a values and strategy standpoint.”
In the context of one of his favourite books, the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?: “He talks about the three parts to purpose”, which include finding happiness in one’s career and in relationships, and living a life of integrity.
His commitment to this higher ideal is visible, but firms such as Deloitte are prone to accounting scandals and fraud, undermining this rhetoric, he admits. “We do 175,000 audits, give or take, every year. The others in the profession do similar numbers. When you have an organization that large, there are, from time to time, issues that come up. We’re not perfect. I realize that. But we are trying our level best, I assure you, to try and do the right thing. Not only because it is something that has been entrusted to us, but because it is good for our business. It impacts the most precious asset, our brand,” he says.
I log off with three conclusions. First, the importance of having a third work-setting, where one can renew oneself. Second, the benefits of operating from a space where one can be authentic. Finally, by showing us that he can run a global business wearing a fleece jumper from his home office, Renjen demystifies the cult of the CEO and the C-suite. Renjen works remotely, but he is not distant.
This demystification is what Head Office has tried to pursue for over 10 years.
The ideals and beliefs that drive Punit Renjen
ON LEGACY: I want to be able to look back at what I’ve done at Deloitte and have a sense of pride that I actually made a difference, that I didn’t drop the baton, that I kept the legacy of 176 years going.
ON ACCOMPLISHMENT: One of my favourite things to do nowadays is to read the obituary section in The New York Times. I really enjoy that because it gives me a sense of what somebody has achieved. It also gives me a sense of my own mortality.
ON HIRING YOUNG TALENT: If I want to hire and retain the very best individuals, I must have a credible response to their two big asks, around (Deloitte’s) purpose and around climate change.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.
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