Davos 2022 - Earn my commute! Accenture CEO Julie Sweet on the 'omni-connected' employee factor in the return to the office debate

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 25, 2022
The debate about returning workforces to the office needs to move on from being a question about physical space and into a more omni-connected mode of thinking, according to new Accenture research.

Julie Sweet

The debate around the future of work in the Vaccine Economy continues to rumble on, but of late there’s been a lot more noise from certain employers and legislators about the need to get workforces back into the physical office.

As noted last year, the tech sector’s spent a heck of a lot of money on building big shiny castles in the sky and all that costly real estate has been standing empty in the main for over two years now, so it was only a matter of time before patience ran out in certain quarters at the sight of all the vacant desks. The argument from such 'get back to the office!' advocates is that it’s only in such offices that employees will deliver their optimal performance.

Leaving aside the highly dubious nature of such a sweeping claim, Accenture published some interesting research this week that perhaps adds another layer to the debate. Its ‘Organizational culture: From always connected to omni-connected’ report finds that only 1 in 6 people feels strongly connected at work anyway, but on-site workers claim to be the least connected of all.

The study is based on a survey of 5,000 workers  across skill levels, as well as 1,100 C-level executives from ten industry sectors across 12 countries - Australia, Brazil,  Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Singapore,  Sweden, UK, and US.  This found that people who work on-site, in comparison with those who work in hybrid or remote workplaces, feel the least connected. 

Some 42% of on-site respondents said they feel “not connected” versus 36% who are hybrid working and 22% who remain fully-remote. The report notes: 

While in-person time is vital, physical proximity that lacks leadership support, flexibility, technology or sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily translate into people feeling deeper connections to their work and to each other.

A large part of the problem, according to Accenture, is that corporate leaders are over-estimating the connectedness of their people by 2x. The report warns:

Unfortunately, too many conversations about organizational culture are still anchored to space and place. Omni-connected experiences that result in a heightened sense of personal—and measurable business—impact truly thrive though vibrant, human relationships

Omin-what and omni-why? 

So, what is an omni-connected experience? First off, and most importantly, it’s not ‘always on’ and 24/7 connectivity! The four key principles pitched by Accenture are:

  1. Instill modern leadership - lead with empathy, transparency and trustworthiness.
  2. Grow a thriving culture - nurture cultural norms that prioritize purpose, authenticity and psychological safety.
  3. Enable the agile organization - take flexibility further and scale new ways of working.
  4. Empower people through technology - provide access to a robust foundation and the ability to experiment.

And if business leaders still can't relate to any of those, there’s a fiscal spin on this as well, with Accenture claiming that omni-connected companies can look forward to a 7.4% revenue growth premium per annum. Meanwhile over 90% of omni-connected employees reckon they can be more productive which benefits the organizational bottom line.

In addition, as organizations around the world wrestle with a talent management crisis in the shape of the so-called Great Resignation, Accenture pitches that being omni-connected will account for 59% of an employee’s intention to stay with an employer. The report adds that employees who enjoy omni-connected experiences are 29% more likely to have a deeper level of trust toward their organization and teams.

Earn my commute!

At this week’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet told delegates that the debate around the return to the office has evolved, citing a recent company meeting of 800 execs where the topic, in its usual back to/not back to the office form, wasn’t raised at all:

What we found is the most important thing is how people feel, whether they're in the office or not. We have a leadership essential about caring for people, personally and professionally. So the first thing I would say is, we need to move away from talking about being in the office or not being in the office and really focus on people. The research we released would tell you that only one in six employees really feel connected and the scores were not better for those who are returning to the workplace. That should be a lesson that it's not about spaces and places, but how you are connecting.

In fact the scores for people who are coming into an office indicate less connection, she pointed out:

Now that was very controversial because everyone said, 'That's not what we're hearing'.'vBut this is research that's not anecdotal and it's persistent.

What Accenture is encouraging its clients to think about is a concept that the company has branded as ‘earn the commute’.  Sweet explained:

My guess is for those companies who are thinking about when they bring people back, [the question is] is there a purpose? Have they earned the commute?

Sweet was backed up in her thesis by Ruth Porat, CFO at Alphabet, who argued:

I actually think that ‘I'm going to earn the commute’ is the right way to think about it. When we look at return to office, the key word we're using is experimentation, because we think it's too early to know, after two years of something that's never been done before, what people really want. We're experimenting with what's the structure of the week. We’re experimenting on how we use space. Space has to be about bringing people together and collaborating, so we have walls that move and you can convene in different ways. And we're integrating Google workspace and technology.

As well as this necessary experimentation, it’s important to be purposeful, she added:

It's about being deliberate about how you lead. It's not about being in the office to just to be in the office. It's about being there for a purpose. I do think it's too early to judge, but we do need to experiment. High on that list is making sure we continue to focus on wellness, because it is continuing to be a real tax on all of our people, in particular as they're thinking about how do they manage their children. So focusing on wellness and wellness benefits is key

My take

This was a much more nuanced conversation than the ‘all or nothing’ tantrums currently being thrown by certain other business leaders and politicians around the world. To return or not to return to the office is an argument that’s not going to be won or lost by anyone anytime soon.

The case for a hybrid form of working has been well-rehearsed and remains compelling. Clearly there are times when face-to-face, in-person contact is going to be useful; equally there’s plenty of evidence from the past two years that remote working is entirely feasible for many people.

I like the shift from ‘hybrid working’ to ‘omni-connected’. Bringing omni-channel thinking to the question of work is a useful notion, as is the idea of employers having to “earn the commute” from their employees, even if it is one that will stick in the craw of the usual unreconstructed suspects.

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