In this work from anywhere age, CEOs and senior managers are facing a fresh and urgent challenge to prevent their organizations from splintering. If they fail to get this right executing strategy will become an even more hit-and-miss exercise.
Here I look at the effect of the WFA shift on employees and what CEOs are doing to ensure that their business’s strategy is enacted consistently.
Employee Engagement Nosedive
The evidence is clear that WFA has damaged employee engagement. One study by Gallup of U.S. workers found a significant decline in employee engagement since the beginning of the pandemic, which now sits at 32 percent “engaged”. “Actively disengaged” has risen from 14 to 18 per cent. Just as alarming are those who are indifferent, which sits at 50 percent.
Jim Harter, chief workplace researcher at Gallup and author of the new report, states: “There’s a growing disconnect between employee [and] employer. You could almost equate it to employees becoming a little bit more like gig workers.”
A survey of over 1,500 staff across Australia and Singapore by StollzNow Research reinforces this, finding that in Singapore 47 percent of employees and 40 percent of management became “less engaged” by “working from home.”
There’s no point in denying it – there’s a problem. Without improved engagement, gaps will continue to open, and widen. And without engagement, you cannot execute strategy. So, what exactly is going wrong here?
Monica is an Account Executive for a large, international, U.S. company that provides a customer relationship management platform for its clients. She joined the company during lockdown in 2021 and reported that “starting a new job in lockdown was terrible.” She met her boss for the first time three months after starting. WFA, she says, impacted her ability to engage and learn because you “also learn by observing and being around others.”
As a single woman in her 30s and living alone, WFA affected her physical and mental health. She recently went for a job interview for another business. She was offered “complete flexibility” and the ability to work from anywhere as an enticement. “It was the last thing I wanted,” she said.
As far as executing strategy is concerned, Monica reports that with WFA, “management will struggle with any new initiative. People are focused on doing just their current jobs.” She adds, “being in the office facilitates connections. It creates a buzz.”
Another side of the story comes from Jane, who is 40, married, and has a five-year-old daughter. She’s Sales Manager heading up a small group of sales representatives in a large media company. She appreciates the flexibility and work-life balance offered by WFA but can also see its negative impacts. “Leaving it to individuals to attend the office at times of their choosing doesn’t work,” she reports. “Staff would attend and most of the office would be empty. That doesn’t help with engagement.”
On the question of executing strategy, she thinks that this is a big issue as she has noticed a disconnection between people. She also notes that mixing with other staff “generates energy.” Her opinion is that WFA “impairs innovation.”
Solving the WFA-Execution Issue
Here are a few initiatives that leaders are employing to improve strategy execution in a WFA world.
Touchpoint days. Dan heads up a mid-sized advertising agency. He has decided to mandate three days a week when all staff must attend the office – Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. He’d like more full-time attendance but recognizes that the current arrangement suits some employees, like Jane, and doesn’t want “to push things too much.” Dan has implemented this to ensure that there’s a crossover between staff and to create touchpoints. He reports that “it’s still a work in progress, but so far people are fine with the new arrangement – it’s working.”
Strategy ownership. Christine is CEO of a law firm that had 100 per cent of staff working in the office before Covid-19. The pandemic has changed her approach to “strategy ownership.” Previously a small team of half a dozen senior partners would do all the strategic thinking and design. Christine has realized from the WFA experience that this won’t do going forward. Covid-19 has forced her to “appreciate that the firm needs more tentacles in the marketplace to keep ahead of strategic changes. Involving more people in the strategy process improves ownership and boosts execution.”
Increased rigor. Michele heads up a cosmetics manufacturer – a household name.To achieve better alignment between her staff and the company and to improve the chances of consistent strategy execution, she’s introduced greater “rigor.” This comes with “key mechanisms.” They include better tracking (reviewing and setting milestone dates to monitor program rollouts); focused meetings (mapping when in-person meetings must be held to keep initiatives on track); pivotal interaction (determining the occasions when the senior leadership team must meet with staff to keep them engaged with the organization). “Achieving effective strategy execution in the WFA world is a real challenge,” Michele says. “It requires greater rigor. Otherwise staff drift.”
Timely recognition. Paul, the CEO of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, has a different balancing act as some staff must attend full-time. These include operators, supervisors, warehouse, and laboratory staff. Paul notes that “in the WFA world people can be overlooked and taken for granted. This leads to disengagement and decreases the chances of executing strategy consistently.” Paul’s push has been to change the business culture to become more “appreciative.” At a basic level this means simply recognizing “when people do a good job or go the extra mile. A simple ‘thank you’ will do in most cases,” he says. “Without that you get quiet quitting. Disengagement will follow if employees feel they’re being taken for granted.”
Executing strategy has become an even bigger challenge post-pandemic as workplaces have been fragmented by WFA – and this issue may only worsen. Unless you face the problem, your organization’s performance will slide. It’s an issue you simply cannot ignore.
Author – Graham Kenny