Engineering Leadership

Coronavirus has forced the world to experiment with Work from Home (WFH) and Remote work at scale. Many people who would otherwise choose to work from an office have been thrust into WFH while simultaneously becoming home schooling teachers. Due to this forced change, a heated debate has been raging between the advantages of WFH/Remote vs. working in an office/Face-to-Face (F2F). This debate is not new.

For the first time WFH is the default. In other words, months ago the assumption was that people work in an office and met F2F for sales kickoffs/QBRs/offsites/etc. and the question was, “What are the benefits and risks of WFH and remote? Can we do this event remotely and will it results in reduced output?”. However, as nearly everyone is now WFH, the question is, “What are the benefits of meeting F2F? Is there an efficiency gain from meeting in person, can any productivity gain be quantified and does it justify the costs and health risks?”.

As the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic recedes, many managers will be tempted to assume F2F is better and will assume that CFOs will by default approve new budget for travel. Yet, it’s reasonable to assume that disciplined CFOs will look at the output achieved during the pandemic and ask “What am I buying with this new travel spend? What tangible benefits will be achieve? Is this worth the additional expense?”.

Can you quantify the efficiency gains, increased output, or other benefits from meeting Face-to-Face (F2F)? Do these benefits justify an increase in spend?

Never before has the assumption that F2F results in higher output been tested at scale. As a disciplined manager, we must set aside our assumptions and prejudices between remote and F2F work. Let others engage in religious debates that presume that one is right and the other is wrong.

If we are pragmatic then it’s safe to start from a position that there are benefits to each model and neither is ipso facto better than the other.

The pandemic has forced organizations to make complex processes work remotely when previously it was thought that these processes and events required people to work F2F. In technology companies, we have been forced to make sales kickoffs, Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs), quarterly planning and other offsites work remotely. In other words, some questions to ask are, “Did we deliver the same output from our sales kickoff, QBR, quarterly planning and other offsites as we did with our previous in person events?”. Remove feelings from your thought process and approach the question objectively.

“Did we deliver the same output from our sales kickoff, QBR, quarterly planning and other offsites as we did with our previous in person events?”.

Many companies have successfully executed a remote sales kickoff, QBR and quarterly planning in Q2 2020. So, what are the benefits of increasing travel spend? Will sales growth be higher? Will planning F2F result in better product development? Perhaps most interesting is that many organizations have gone remote with no loss in revenue, efficiency, or output. So why do we spend substantial amounts of money to force hundreds or thousands of employees to travel to a central location?

Two obvious costs of F2F meetings are the direct travel costs and the lost productivity due to travel. Travel costs are a direct, tangible and quantifiable expense. Lost productivity is also relatively easy to measure. For example, a 3-day offsite from Tuesday to Thursday, results in lost productivity on Monday and Friday (travel days). Using a back of the napkin calculation, we can determine that an employee who travels to an offsite each quarter is offline for 8 days per year (2 travel days per quarter x 4 quarters).  There are 250 to 260 working days per year on average, so those 8 days of travel represent a loss of approx. 3% of the employees work days. So, if we’re obtaining the same output from meeting remote as F2F, but increasing direct travel expenses and losing 3% of a person’s working days times the number of offsites attended, then what are we gaining from meeting in person?

So, the question to ask now is, “What are the benefits of meeting F2F? What am I buying with this travel budget? Can we quantify the benefits of face-to-face interaction? Can we deliver a material improvement in output by meeting in person? If there is an increase in output, then is the improvement in large enough to justify the expense?”

Perhaps, meeting in person is about social interaction and not work. Clearly, we all feel there is a benefit to knowing our co-workings, to socializing, to getting to know each other. This has value, but how much are we willing to pay for feeling that we work better even if there’s no objective fact to back up our feelings.

What is the value of social interaction at work and how much are we willing to pay for it?

As we move past the first wave of the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume that many companies will avoid the extreme positions of returning to the prior status quo of all F2F meetings while also avoiding the new status quo of all remote meetings. Perhaps, the ideal balance between the raw efficiency of remote and the human / social needs served by F2F will result in some type of split such as alternating remote and F2F events.

Choosing an operating model is about the overall output of the organization which must also factor in employee satisfaction. Ultimately, each organization must ask itself what are the differences in output between remote and F2F? Which differences can be quantified and which are intangible? And what are the cost implications of remote vs. F2F events? Ceteris paribus, corporations will choose the most efficient means of production to satisfy a market opportunity. Which you choose for your business will have an impact on output, costs, profitability, and employee satisfaction.

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