Redefining Work: The Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

by Ryan Collison

Ryan Collison is President and CEO of Mitsubishi HC Capital America, a specialty finance company providing commercial financing to businesses and entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries.

To make a return-to-office plan successful, Ryan Collison, president and CEO, Mitsubishi HC Capital America, says companies need to realize that the model is about productivity and culture, not just logistics.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching impact, from public health challenges to emotional stress to labor issues. It has also given business leaders a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine the way we work.

The disruption in most workplaces at the start of the pandemic was significant. Many companies carefully navigated the move of hundreds or thousands of employees to working from home – in a matter of weeks or, sometimes, days. Doing the unthinkable suddenly became mandatory, and doable.

Now, as economies continue to adjust to a world with COVID-19, and particularly in light of the emergence of new variants, we should exercise that same care when considering return-to-office plans. If we are intentional and thoughtful about how and why we are coming back to the office, the choice of a return-to-office model can become an important step forward for businesses.

Beyond logistics

To make a return-to-office plan successful, companies need to realize that the model is about productivity and culture, not just logistics. In determining who, where, when and how to return to the office, it’s important to focus on these key points.

  • Prioritize safety. First and foremost, employees should feel safe in the office environment. Personal safety and the safety of loved ones is of paramount importance to everyone. If they don’t feel safe, or if they feel they are putting extended family at risk, productivity and culture will likely suffer. If they do feel safe, effective and efficient work can take place. Employees – and the business – can focus on what needs to be done instead of being distracted with questions of safety.
  • Understand the reasons for returning. Instead of trying to get everyone back to the office as quickly as possible, take time to ask, “Why are we coming back, really?” We’ve just spent months undertaking an experiment of unprecedented scale, and we have plenty to learn from the results of that experiment. Analyze how well the company handled everything from day-to-day work to more specialized activities such as training, strategic planning and problem solving. How many of those activities worked just fine remotely, how many were just “ok” and how many really suffered? The honest answers may be surprising. Going through this process can be advantageous even for retail and other enterprises where in-person business is the norm. They may find ways to increase productivity, differentiate themselves in the market, improve employee engagement or create new revenue streams.
  • Consider culture. Often a maligned, misunderstood, and overused term, corporate culture is essential to understand and incorporate into return-to-office planning. Referring to the shared beliefs, values, and behaviors that guide how a company’s employees and management interact, corporate culture has impacts on every aspect of an individual’s work environment. To drive success, regardless of their operating models, companies must grapple with, and be intentional about, maintaining and disseminating their corporate culture.

    The biggest challenge is that culture requires constant attention, and is perishable if left unattended. It is much more difficult to tell how a remote working environment affects culture than it is to evaluate how well day-to-day work is getting done. This is one area where leaders may have to rely on their instincts when deciding how well they are maintaining the culture remotely.

    For example, despite plenty of technology and good-faith efforts to replicate the office experience, it seems certain that remote work makes it more difficult to learn the organization’s behavioral norms, to develop a network, and to find a mentor and nurture that relationship – especially for new or less-experienced employees. As a result, a return-to-office model will most likely need to include an element of time together for the “greater good.” Not every employee will understand their individual role in nurturing a culture, or realize the intangible value they provide to others at the company. But if the overall model allows them to realize most of the work-from-home benefits, they will appreciate it as a mutually beneficial compromise.

  • Blend centralized and decentralized decision-making. Larger companies with offices in multiple locations must decide which return-to-office decisions to make at the corporate level and which to make locally. At Mitsubishi HC Capital America, we’ve learned that setting the overall parameters at the headquarters level, while allowing for regional preferences within those parameters, allows us to maintain a consistent corporate vision with better local ownership.

The Experiment Continues

For us, with all of these considerations, we’ve arrived at a hybrid return-to-office model. We are clear in our findings from this big experiment that employees report a substantial net benefit in working from home, despite some challenges and downsides. Our goal is to retain as much of that benefit as possible while addressing the limitations we have identified. In our case, that means a couple of days per week in the office to start, with the rest of the time remaining as work-from-home. Our promise to employees is that we will be as intentional as possible with the time we have together, with the goal to focus on the things that we believe derive the most benefit from being together.

We know that a mix of remote and office work will call for new skills, and we’re working hard on identifying the skills employees will need to flourish in a flexible environment. We also will continue to evaluate the balance between office and home, and look for opportunities to adjust. In short, the experiment continues.

If it turns out everything returns to “normal” in a few years, so be it. But these last two years have been an incredible learning experience, and based on our evaluation of what we’ve learned, we are convinced that our employees and our company can enjoy the benefits of a flexible hybrid working environment. That may not be the conclusion of every company, but one thing is certain: This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine the way we work.

About the Author: Ryan Collison is president and CEO of Mitsubishi HC Capital America, a specialty finance company providing commercial financing to businesses and entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries.

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