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Why workplaces need to match technology with work goals

In an interview with Mint, Harvard Business School's Tsedal Neeley talks about the changing nature of work

Tsedal Neeley, the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School
Tsedal Neeley, the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School

What will be the future of work? Will we be back in our cubicles or continue to work from home in the post-pandemic world? We asked Tsedal Neeley about the changing nature of work. She’s the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, an expert on virtual work, and the author of the recently released Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere.

Edited excerpts from a Zoom interview:

How can we get the hybrid workplace to work?

There’s no such thing as one size fits all. This is what makes it complicated. Organizations have to start by surveying employees to understand preferences, anonymously. I emphasize anonymously because you want them to know the truth. You don’t want people to give you information based on what they think you want, because as much as firms are anxious about what the hybrid workplace will look like, employees are nervous about job security, which is why the anonymity is important.

Then you have to look at what Mike Tushman and others, who coined the term “critical task”, define as the core work that the organization has to do really, really well. We need to understand what that is, and see to what extent can we have a fluid and flexible workforce, where some people are working from home or outside of home.

Not everyone will necessarily be in the house, they could be in other locations. Once you’re clear about the critical tasks, you want to ensure you look at all the job functions and make an honest assessment on whether those jobs can be executed without being on site.

Historical arguments about what can and cannot be done remotely have been debunked in the past 13-14 months. We know that productivity is not an issue. It’s things like bonding, connection, innovation, culture, control, that’s worrying to companies. So being honest about the job functions, the roles and how we create an environment where everyone can thrive is important.

'Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere' is Neeley's latest book.
'Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere' is Neeley's latest book.

You’ve spoken about a chief remote officer. What is this role?

This is someone who is part of the C-suite, who is now thinking about an entire workforce, anywhere from structure, systems, processes, even things like compensation, so thinking at the policy level as well as about how will we implement these hybrid scenarios. The important thing here too is that the umbrella policies have to be centralized. They cannot be left up to individual managers.

You mention digital tools, and rich versus lean media...

It’s important to understand that we need to match our technology to our work goals. Rather than going for digital tools we favour, based on our preferences, we need to think what are the best tools for what I’m trying to achieve.

First, you’ve to ask, what kind of “social presence” do I need to achieve in this communication? Social presence has two parts, intimacy and immediacy. Do I need to vote to achieve intimacy in this conversation, sharing good news, sharing bad news, sharing big changes that we need to make? Some kind of visible or visual media then becomes important. On the other hand, what if we need to convey a sense of urgency? What are the tools we need to use? This is what social presence is about. How present do I need to be?

The second is about lean versus rich media. Lean media are those that do not convey a variety of emotional expressions. They don’t convey context. They don’t convey non-verbal body language cues. Rich media like videoconferencing do. The gold standard many talk about when it comes to rich media is the in-person one. If you think about a continuum, lean is on one end, rich is on the other. And there’s no such thing as lean is bad, rich is good. The question is, what do I need for this? Sometimes lean, like email, is exactly what we need to send, and it’s sufficient.

The third important component is synchronous versus asynchronous communication, meaning live versus delayed mode of communication. So if we want people to process complex information, we want to send this through some form of lean and asynchronous media, so that people have the opportunity to absorb and internalize whatever they’re learning. The important thing here is that we need to use and mix the mix of digital tools that are available to us, not just to communicate, but to achieve our work goals. Tech exhaustion should not exist if we are matching the right things in the right ways.

Can zoom fatigue really be addressed?

When we schedule edge-to-edge meetings that are videoconferencing, tech exhaustion will happen. We need to use more asynchronous media, we need to have shorter meetings, we need to build in transitions between meetings. So a lot of identifying the right media for the task, shorter meetings, and ensuring that we are integrating work throughout our communication experiences will eliminate it.

Aparna Piramal Raje is the author of Working Out of the Box.

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