Remote Work Skeptics Are Forgetting Their Most Valuable Asset: Their Customers. Here's Why. While there's a widely-held belief that three days a week in the office is the magic number, with a number of large companies adopting it, it's a fundamentally flawed approach. Instead, what leaders need to focus on is how hybrid work arrangements will serve customer needs.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
While there's a widely-held belief that three days a week in the office is the magic number, with a number of large companies adopting it, it's a fundamentally flawed approach. Instead, what leaders need to focus on is how hybrid work arrangements will serve customer needs.
A Columbia Business School study reviews a text analysis of earnings call transcripts of S&P 500 companies to show that company executives talk about customers 10 times more often than employees – a number that has grown over the last 15 years. Additionally, when companies discuss employees, executives are more likely to correlate them to risk factors and consumers to growth opportunities.
Ironically, executives fail to put this focus into action when figuring out their return to office and hybrid work policy. For example, a survey of 1,300 knowledge workers found that only 28% said their company is making it worthwhile to commute to the office. No wonder: while there's a widely-held belief that three days a week in the office is the magic number — with a number of large companies adopting it — it's a fundamentally flawed approach.
Instead, what leaders need to focus on is how hybrid work arrangements will serve customer needs. It might be that three, four, five, two, one, or no days in the office works best for your customers. But the key is to prioritize customer needs in creating a successful hybrid work plan and business leaders need to build their strategies around this focus.
As a globally-renowned expert in the future of work who helped 22 organizations figure out their hybrid and remote work policies, I can tell you confidently that this is the biggest mistake companies make in hybrid work. Namely, they fail to "start with why" and don't work from the end goal back to the policies required to make it happen for the sake of customer success.
Debunking the myth of the three-day work week
The assumption that having employees in the office for three days a week is the optimal solution for hybrid work is misguided. This one-size-fits-all approach fails to consider the unique needs of the customers.
The three-day work week emerged as a popular solution amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic. As companies experimented with hybrid work models, this arrangement appeared to strike a balance between the benefits of remote work and the need for in-person collaboration. However, the adoption of this model by numerous organizations has led to the misconception that it's universally applicable.
The effectiveness of a three-day work week varies significantly across industries and roles. For instance, in sectors like software development or creative services, a greater degree of remote work might be feasible without any loss in productivity or sacrifice of customer needs. On the other hand, industries or functions that rely heavily on in-person interactions, such as sales, may require more on-site presence to maintain customer service quality. A tailored hybrid work strategy takes these industry and role-specific considerations into account, ensuring that the work arrangement aligns with the inherent demands of the sector.
Instead, leaders should adopt a more agile approach, one that prioritizes customer needs and adapts to the ever-evolving business landscape.
Understanding your customers
The first step in crafting a customer-centric hybrid work plan is to gain a deep understanding of your customers' expectations and preferences. This involves examining customer feedback, conducting market research and engaging in open dialogue with your clients. By understanding their needs and preferences, you can tailor your hybrid work arrangements to better serve them.
For instance, a company providing technical support services may discover that their customers highly value prompt responses to their inquiries. In this case, adopting a hybrid work model that ensures adequate staffing during peak hours, regardless of employee location, would be critical in meeting customer needs.
Indeed, one of my clients who does provide such services found that it was more helpful to have staff working remotely most of the work week. That's because most employees were much more willing to work non-standard hours when they worked remotely. Thus, the company was better able to provide customer support during a longer time period with faster responses by having shifts during non-standard working hours. Still, customer service staff came into the office one day a week, to make sure there was someone available for the rare occasions when customers came to the office in person.
It's not surprising, right? My own LinkedIn survey found that 80% of respondents worked more non-standard hours in remote work, compared to in the office, as staff are more willing to work longer and less standard hours if they don't have to waste time commuting to the office.
Aligning hybrid work with customer expectations
Once you've identified your customers' needs, it's essential to align your hybrid work arrangements accordingly. This might mean rethinking your assumptions about the optimal balance of remote and in-office work for various roles.
Consider a B2B professional services organization that has long relied on face-to-face meetings and events to build relationships with clients. With the rise of remote work, many of their clients might now prefer virtual meetings, necessitating a shift in the sales team's approach. In this case, a hybrid work model that offers greater flexibility in how and where employees work could better cater to changing customer preferences.
That was the case for one of my clients, a law firm. Their leadership initially assumed that, as the pandemic wound down, their clients would want to shift back to in-person meetings. But I strongly encouraged them to actually survey their clients rather than act on their assumptions. And what the law firm found was that plenty of clients preferred videoconference meetings for most interactions. That's because it was quicker, more convenient, and cheaper to set those up than to have in-person meetings. Sure, in-person meetings were still king for more intense and nuanced discussions, but clients preferred most day-to-day meetings to happen by video conference.
A customer-focused hybrid work plan should include mechanisms for measuring success and adapting as needed. Regularly assess the effectiveness of your hybrid work model in meeting customer needs through customer satisfaction surveys, feedback sessions, and other metrics. Use this data to make informed decisions on adjustments to your strategy.
For instance, if customer feedback suggests that response times have increased since the implementation of your hybrid work model, consider adjusting staffing levels or redistributing tasks to better serve your clients. Consider an example shared with me by the Chief Human Resource Officer of a rural healthcare system with several hospitals in a Midwestern state. While they have many workers on a hybrid and even fully remote modality, they encountered an issue with the case management department and utilization review, who were working remotely. They had to bring them back into the office as they realized the importance of having them work alongside the hospitalists for their in-patients. It was crucial for ensuring proper discharge planning and smooth transition care, which they found couldn't be achieved as well remotely. This is an example of how they couldn't make hybrid work satisfy their patients and changed the location of staff to prioritize patient needs.
Cognitive biases: The hidden barrier to customer-centric hybrid work plans
Cognitive biases, which are dangerous judgment errors that cause bad decision-making in everything from our work life to our relationships, often undermine effective hybrid work arrangements. One cognitive bias that can impede the shift towards a customer-centric hybrid work plan is the status quo bias. This bias refers to the tendency to prefer the current state of affairs over any changes, even when the potential benefits of the change outweigh the risks. In the context of hybrid work, the status quo bias may lead leaders to cling to traditional in-office work arrangements or to adopt the popular three-day work week without considering whether these options genuinely serve their customers' needs.
To overcome the status quo bias, business leaders should critically evaluate their existing work arrangements, seeking objective data and feedback to determine if the current model effectively meets customer expectations. By doing so, they can make more informed decisions about the optimal hybrid work model for their organization.
Another cognitive bias that can hinder the development of a customer-centric hybrid work plan is confirmation bias. This bias refers to the tendency to search for, interpret and remember information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or assumptions. In the context of hybrid work, confirmation bias may lead leaders to focus solely on evidence that supports their views about the ideal work arrangement, while ignoring or dismissing information that contradicts those beliefs about what customers actually need.
To counteract confirmation bias, business leaders should actively seek diverse perspectives and opinions, both within and outside their organization. By engaging in open dialogue with employees, customers, and industry experts, leaders can gather a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of the factors that impact hybrid work success. This enables them to design a work model that genuinely prioritizes customer needs, rather than simply conforming to their pre-existing beliefs.
By recognizing and addressing the influence of cognitive biases in shaping hybrid work decisions, business leaders can develop more customer-centric strategies that genuinely serve the needs of their clients. This awareness, combined with a commitment to continuous improvement and transparent communication, paves the way for a successful and adaptive hybrid work environment.
The key to a successful hybrid work plan lies in prioritizing customer needs above all else. By debunking the myth of the three-day work week and adopting a more agile approach, business leaders can create tailored strategies that truly cater to the unique needs of their industries, teams and customers.
Understanding your customers' expectations and preferences, aligning hybrid work arrangements with those needs, and empowering your team to deliver exceptional service are vital steps in designing a customer-centric hybrid work plan. Transparent communication and a commitment to continuous improvement through measuring success and adapting as needed further solidify your organization's ability to navigate the complexities of hybrid work.
Ultimately, by placing customer needs at the forefront of your hybrid work strategy, you can foster a thriving work environment that supports both employee satisfaction and customer success. By embracing this customer-centric approach, business leaders can ensure their organizations remain agile, adaptive, and prosperous in the ever-changing landscape of the modern workplace.