I have never been so excited to be boarding a plane. Last week I made my first international trip since Covid and it was an eye-opener in many ways. Landing down in Geneva in under two hours highlighted how small the world was pre-pandemic and how my own perceptions of distance (and time) had changed.
I visited the global HQ of leading consumer goods company in Lausanne and had ten meetings over two days – each of which was with a person of different nationality. Whilst their office capacity had risen from 10% to just 20% (I’m assured nothing to do with the return of the office coffee cart), it made me think about ‘return to work’ strategy, globality and the nature of international headquarters. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote about hiring during Covid-19 – now it is time to think about retention post-Covid-19.
After all, life has changed so much since pre-Covid. Personally, sure, but also in the corporate and HR sphere. With refreshed models of working come entirely new considerations for leaders, around talent, onboarding and relocation strategies. For businesses with large international headquarters specifically, there’s much to think about.
“After all, life has changed so much since pre-Covid. Personally, sure, but also in the corporate and HR sphere. With refreshed models of working come entirely new considerations for leaders, around talent, onboarding and relocation strategies. For businesses with large international headquarters specifically, there’s much to think about.”
As has been widely discussed, there are a few different approaches businesses can take. Calling everyone back to the office on a permanent basis is one option. While few major corporations have announced this as an official policy, leaders in the banking and financial services sectors have expressed the desire for employees to eventually return to consistent in-person working. Google has also announced that it will “end voluntary work-from-home” based on local conditions.
On the other side of the coin, some businesses have said that remote working is here to stay for those who want. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said that employees able and wanting to work from home would be able to do so “forever”. Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that a similar approach could be taken at Facebook. In a blog post, the founder said that he guesses as much as 50% of his company’s 45,000-person workforce could be working entirely remotely in the next five to 10 years.
The most common strategy will likely fall somewhere in the middle. Drawing on another Silicon Valley example, Apple has formally announced that it wants employees back at their desks for at least Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of every week. “The truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other,” Tim Cook wrote in an email to staff. “Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.”
Whichever strategy is taken, businesses must think carefully about how their policies impact long-term and short-term talent strategies.
In the short-term, companies need to consider if their working models are going to impact retention. I can say with certainty from a lot of recent interviews that increasingly many senior executives are simply not willing to commute into the office five days a week, and will take their skills elsewhere if asked to do so. Too rigid an approach, and businesses could be faced with a mass exodus of employees – which presents a major hiring opportunity for others with a more flexible approach to pick up unsettled talent.
Indeed, there are reports of Apple employees who are dissatisfied with their company’s inflexible approach – and while the tech giant can afford to lose employees looking for more freedom, not all businesses can.
On the other hand, hiring and onboarding remotely bring significant challenges. Especially for new starters and more junior graduate intakes, the value of overhearing conversations between more seasoned colleagues in the office cannot go understated. Finding ways to replicate the watercooler chats, and fostering a strong sense of company culture, will be critical.
Moreover, the average office is not built for hybrid working. While the transition to 100% remote working during the pandemic required a significant overhaul of technology systems, hybrid working requires just as much thought… how is best host a conference call with half the attendees in the same room and half at home?
Longer term, businesses with large international headquarters will be thinking carefully about their talent strategies. For years we’ve seen a growing hesitancy among candidates to relocate a short distance for a role – why bother? – and Covid has unsurprisingly sped up this trend as most roles won’t require full office attendance, at least in the short-term. After eighteen months of reevaluation, fewer and fewer people are willing to uproot their lives, and often their families, and move country – unless it is a different continent and therefore ‘worth it’. Companies must factor this into their hiring strategies, consider tax implications and focus on developing a company culture that people are drawn to and that’s worth relocating to be a part of.
Excitingly, remote working brings significant opportunities for businesses. Embracing flexible working structures allows for companies to hire outside their core location, reaching a larger (and potentially better) talent pool. Facebook, for example, has said that it will “aggressively” start hiring remote employees – particularly for senior-level personnel who don’t need as much in-person training or career development. By looking away from the tech and metropolitan centres, companies can reach a broader-based, and more diverse, talent pool.
As remote working becomes a permanent element of a company’s talent structure, strong technology leadership will be more crucial than ever. Not only to keep the company operational, but to protect against cyberattacks and data breaches. Tax teams will also have a critical role to play to shape remote work policy and ensure compliance with international tax laws.
“Whichever approach businesses take, the winning companies will be those that embrace change and understand that attitudes around work may have changed forever”
Whichever approach businesses take, the winning companies will be those that embrace change and understand that attitudes around work may have changed forever. Fostering a strong company culture and making the office a desirable place to be will be vital for those encouraging in-person working, while trust and technology must be priorities for any organisation forging ahead with hybrid or remote models.
While I’m sure we will all be on fewer international business trips in the years ahead – a very good thing, from a sustainability standpoint – I did relish the opportunity to return physically to the international business scene. I just wonder if we will ever see those major global headquarters reach full capacity again, regardless of the office coffee cart.
What are your thoughts? There appear to be many differing opinions…