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Re-Designing WFH to Thrive - With Lessons from My Time at Cisco

Updated: May 31, 2021

Thank goodness for summer, we say. After months of juggling work and family in a pandemic lockdown, we’ve had enough. WFH (working from home) is not turning out to be the El Dorado it’s lauded to be.

Still, don't despair just yet. WFH will continue to feature prominently for knowledge workers, but getting it right desperately needs a reset in thinking, organization-wide.

mother working from home
WFH - not all it's depicted to be.

When I joined Cisco in 2007, remote work was already accepted although WFH was not sanctioned. The 2008 financial crash changed everything as we swapped flights for video-conferencing. Findings from an internal WFH survey a year later sealed it for the company: better productivity, real estate savings, less carbon footprint, staff satisfaction, etc.

Encouraged, Cisco openly advocated WFH, equipping us with tools to deliver from anywhere. This mode of functioning grew into a company-wide culture and cascaded unconditionally through the ranks. The flexibility of tech-enabled WFH was unbelievably liberating, even as it made good business sense.

It spoiled me for daily office commute and the 9to5 grind, especially after I became a solopreneur consultant and coach. Collaborating with clients across borders was second nature to me. When surgery limited my movements for months, the ability to serve clients from home became a lifesaver.

What I didn’t expect was how it would also save my sanity in COVID. While others stressed, I thrived. But I had over a decade to practice and hone my WFH rhythm. Compared to today’s escalated and hurried circumstances, my experience was a walk in the park.

The Trough of Disillusionment

It took a global pandemic to prove how difficult the switch to WFH can be, in spite of the headway made in digital connectivity and communication tools.

Prior to COVID, only 2.9% of employees worked mainly from home globally. Yet, an estimated 24-34% of jobs across America and Western Europe fall into roles that “can plausibly be performed from home” (ILO Policy Brief, April 2020).

In a few short months, about 70% of employees have become home-based. A Qualtrics survey reported over 40% of them felt a decline in their mental wellbeing since. 60% of SMB leaders surveyed noticed employee productivity had suffered. An earlier survey showed 70% of these bosses were working longer hours themselves, risking a burnout.

In coaching, leaders, particularly women, tell me they feel literally drained.

I’m stuck in Zoom meetings 5-6 hours a day talking in circles … I’m juggling my kids’ schooling and trying to be “there” for my team as well.

200+ of my sales people are dispersed in different sites, and since I’m not able to go and see them, it’s hard to know how they are really doing.

New to the company, it’s been difficult for me to get to know my team and read my boss’s signals… I think I’m going to lose my job but don’t know what to do.

Recreating the same mode of functioning by swapping a physical office for a cyber

one may seem logical but the mixed experiences tell a different tale.

Under COVID’s forced hand, remote work was hastily embraced without thoughtful measures. Although many discovered certain advantages, they quickly waned under intensive uncertainties, economic pressures and household realities. Add physical isolation under an alarming atmosphere and it would be easy to lay the blame on COVID altogether.

But is that the real reason, or is there something we choose not to see?

Working Women Have It Tougher
Source: 2019 Cigna 360 Well-being Survey

A Reset in Thinking

The pandemic was no doubt the trigger for necessary change, but workplace disengagement was spiraling long before.

In a 2017 Gallup study, only an average 15% of global full-time employees were reported to be engaged. Western Europeans and East Asians were worse off at 10% and 6% respectively. 88% of women workers worldwide felt stressed. WFH, tagged on clumsily to this festering problem was never going to cut it.

So rather than the wrong solution, perhaps it’s the wrong problem we’re tackling. Are we solving for getting the same kind of work done before the pandemic, or do we want healthy knowledge workers who thrive in finding new purpose and solutions for a different normal?

Cigna Well and Beyond: The Sandwich Generation
Source: 2019 Cigna 360 Well-being Survey

I argue the latter since more of the same is doing very little good. However, if putting employee wellbeing at the heart of operational strategy is the loftier goal we aspire to, a full reset in thinking is needed from organizational leadership.

It’s got less to do with an obsession of tools and more to do with new constructs and skills. Don’t get me wrong. Being equipped with nifty tools to facilitate work is so important. Nowhere did I appreciate this more than at Cisco. Some smart companies are going even further by subsidizing home office re-dos and ergonomic furniture. But these are easy fixes in the broader scheme of things.

Harder to do is a mindset shift to break attitudes and behavior we inherited from a mechanical production organization. Here are three constructs I observed to be fundamental, learning from my time at Cisco. My painless transition happened because they were practiced and brought to life through organization-wide attitude, aptitude and action.

1. Management Centered on Values and Value

In the old days, managers would walk the aisles of an open office to check on workers. Being physically present with noses buried behind a typewriter was enough to show diligence. Working late was a sign of dedication.

Old open office history
From the Electronic Engineering Journal: vintage photograph of a mid-20th century open office

We’ve come a long way since. Yet, for many people managers, in-person presence is still proof that someone is “working”. Without that, they feel lost.

Now imagine a different way of management. The situation of three colleagues in gatekeeping roles back then in Cisco illustrated how totally possible this is. One served her boss in Paris from a seaside town, a 5-hour train ride away. Another settled in Glasgow after getting married, supporting a dispersed team across several countries. The third, working out of Paris, reported to a boss in Johannesburg. I myself, had carte blanche to work several time zones away for two weeks when I had to unexpectedly care for a loved one in hospital.

It was managing by trusting the individual, respecting her life choices, confidence in the feasibility of the function being carried out independently and focusing on delivered quality rather superficial appearances and role seniority.

As knowledge workers, our value comes from stimulating thought, gathering meaning and acting to build on them. Who we are and our ability to process information are as important as what we know and how we produce to deliver. So it’s pointless to ascertain somebody’s performance as though we were still in the industrial age.

2. Culture of Self-Empowerment and Accountability

It’s also near impossible to decipher and control the value derived from the host of non-linear activities that make up our workday. For instance, how do we measure if cigarette breaks or water-cooler chats add value? Yet they do, because up to 75% of acquired knowledge comes from informal social interactions.

At Cisco, I was never instructed to show up or report on what I do. If I had played hooky, no one would have missed me. Yet, I never skipped a day’s work, and often did too much because I had the flexibility to decide what mattered, and doing it gave me purpose. I wasn’t unique in this.

We managed ourselves by observing, mimicking and mirroring experienced colleagues, learning to empower ourselves to push where we could and to cull back when needed. In return, we "pledged" self-accountability. We were answerable to our bosses, not for our time, but for the decisions made and the value we agreed to create with them for the company, and for ourselves.

Sometimes this blurred lines and we end up over-compensating in behavior, like accepting meeting requests at 11pm. To counter it, many of us grew the habit of artful calendar management to help set firm boundaries and get comfortable about saying "no".

I've since learnt to "shut off" and schedule different tasks to break from back-to-back meetings: exercise, family care, writing, testing a new app, online networking or connecting with a friend. Instead of splitting my day into work-time and me-time, I fuse them to diversify and strike a healthy balance throughout. If I work on weekends or holidays, it’s by choice, at my own pace and rhythm.

3. “Leadership” Behavior

Our bigger challenge yet was avoiding the out of sight, out of mind syndrome. Staying visibly accessible and relevant to stakeholders who couldn’t see us was crucial to getting results and advancing professionally. How else would our initiatives be given space to materialize or recognized?

We definitely had to develop leadership instincts with impactful communication skills. This meant “listening”, as much to what was going on, as to the silence of things left unsaid. We worked harder at being curious and “showing up” actively to voice our views than passive attendance. Here, we never complained about over-communicating because we understood it was our lifeline.

We learnt to second-guess others’ needs and reactions to heighten the chance for fruitful discussions and made the extra mile at times to collaborate or help outside our scope. It was about respecting gate-keepers and people’s agenda, looking to see where we can add value in productive or creative ways.

As a result, I became more assertive and decisive, learning to be effective in tabling and chairing discussions, showing up as a source of positive rather than negative energy. I formed invaluable relationships that endured. My learning curve was incredibly steep and fast but rich.

It sounds like a lot of effort but for the rewards of flexible autonomy and self-development, it was well worth the load to many of us. Once we were given unconditional permission to thrive, not just strive, anything else was just a reinforcement of these positive values, including WFH and the access to state-of-the-art devices.

Sure, it was a different time in a different context, but the point is Cisco's organizational leadership, culture and behavior freed us from fear of reprimand, inappropriate pressure, and negative energy. It paved the way for a thriving WFH practice.

How Will Your Organization Do "Different"?

How will you reset to make way for new constructs of organizational leadership, culture and behavior to help your teams thrive, working from anywhere?

Creating a new work order won’t happen overnight but people are game for a change. For example, in an IFOP May survey of over 1000 French employees, over 80% believed workforce wellbeing is a top concern - a jump from 56% two years ago. The surprising good news was 70% were optimistic about their future and that of their employer.

Perhaps resilience in facing up to reality plus cautious optimism is serving up a perfect window to get started on doing “different” better. Want some ideas to start? Let’s talk.

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