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

Updated: May 31

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.