The last year has redefined work so that it is now much more about “what you do” and much less about “where you go”, writes Wendy Mars, President of Cisco’s Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia region (EMEAR). As it becomes feasible for us to meet one another again, leaders are having to think about what the office is really for and how best to use the space.

While some businesses are preparing to return to the office full-time and others are letting people work from home indefinitely, most are looking at hybrid options. Employees want flexibility and choice. According to Cisco’s research, 87% of workers surveyed in EMEAR want the ability to decide whether they work in the office or at home – or even in coffee shops, co-working spaces, customers’ or suppliers’ sites, hotels and other hospitality environments that are rethinking their own business models in light of changing working practices.

A permanent move to a hybrid way of working is a monumental change for any business and how leaders manage that change is a defining moment.

Five topics that need to be on every leader’s mind

Exactly what the new way of working looks like will be different from one business to the next. Working this out will be a big undertaking, but an important one. Leaders and managers need to look at every team and every role to see what’s right for them, assessing the type of work they do and who they need to collaborate with. While each business will have its own model that best matches its needs, there are certain considerations that should be on every leadership team’s agenda right now.

Here are five thought-starters for the big conversations that are now underway.

  1. The leadership mindset has to change. 

The leadership style of 2019 is out of date in today’s environment.

Gone are the days when a manager could look out from a glass corner office and see their team getting on with their work. To succeed in this new environment, we need to rethink how we measure performance, how we motivate our teams, and how we plan work. We will need to focus much more on culture, purpose and wellbeing to help people better manage their time, their working relationships and their mental health.

  1. The company culture of the future is built on inclusion and trust.

After all the promises and commitments of 2020, remote working presents an opportunity to give real meaning to diversity and inclusion. Geography is no longer a barrier to hiring, opening up a whole world of talent. Remote-working technologies are increasingly focused on creating more equal and inclusive experiences. Real-time translation means you can join a meeting and speak your own language. Noise cancellation means no one needs to worry about their barking dog anymore.

With the right culture and technology in place, everyone can have an equal voice and remote attendees can participate as fully as in-person attendees. Remote working presents challenges, too. For example, our EMEAR research showed that one in six employees don’t feel trusted to do their job from home without extensive oversight.

With more people working remotely, leaders will need to let go of the notion that good management is time management and start to measure performance in results and outcomes, not hours. Employees will also have to adapt and make sure they earn their managers’ trust when they work away from the office and we all have to learn to respect each other’s time and mental health. This culture of ‘always on’ is simply not sustainable.

  1. The office still serves a purpose, but that purpose is changing.

Many people are saying they’ve felt more productive working at home. So, if your employees aren’t coming in to sit at a bank of desks and work through a to-do list from 9 to 5, what’s the office for?

Your people and teams will have different priorities and it will be important to listen to them and use their feedback and insights to design the best possible environment – whether that’s for team brainstorms, client meetings, innovation, socialising, or mental wellbeing. With 98% of future meetings expected to have at least one person dialling in, we need to give just as much thought to the out-of-office experience as the in-office one.

  1. Security needs to be top of mind.

Remote working at scale has opened up new opportunities for security threats. Your security architecture needs to be designed for this new IT environment. Traditional security approaches have assumed that anything inside the corporate network can be trusted but that’s no longer enough as employees work from anywhere, use their own devices to access the network, depend increasingly on cloud-based applications and collaborate with people wherever they are. A zero-trust model treats all resources as external and continuously verifies trust before granting only the required access. This makes it harder for attackers to collect what they need (e.g. user credentials, network access). Access now happens at all levels, so all types of access requests (workforce, workplace, workload) need to be secure.

  1. Data can help you keep your employees safe.

Even as some countries are lifting Covid-12 restrictions, your employees and visitors need to feel safe coming to your office. Facial recognition, contact tracing, no-touch devices, voice commands and social distancing alerts are all coming into play as businesses step up their health and safety.

The data provided will help you update working patterns and adapt your office capacity as needed, so you can respond quickly to changing regulations and address your employees’ concerns.

A defining moment for leaders

If all of that seems like a lot to achieve in the next 12 months, just think back to March 2020 and all the changes we managed to make, virtually overnight. Now we have the opportunity to build on everything we’ve learned since then as we plan for a new future.

This is a defining moment for leaders, let’s make it count.

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