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Cosmic Conference Closing Debate: To Remote, Or Not To Remote?

To wrap up the inaugural Cosmic Conference, the last session was in the format of a debate. There were 6 motions: Collaboration, Communication, Culture & Alignment, Compartmentalization, Personal Branding & Place. Panelists argued ‘for’ or ‘against’ co-location citing their justification and perspective.

To watch the full debate, visit our YouTube channel.

About the speakers

In this session, we flipped the microphone on the Cosmic Conference moderator, Marilyn Zakhour. Marilyn is the CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs. Previously Chief Marketing Officer of EMAAR, and Head of Dubai Opera, Marilyn holds an executive MBA from INSEAD. She has also spent 10 years in the startup world, building and running digital native companies.

Carmit Glik is the global General Manager and Europe Chief Executive Officer at Cogoport. Carmit has a track record of executing large-scale global projects and initiatives. She has established operations and new businesses in multiple countries, including China, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Recently, she moved her entire team to remote work and is excellent at redesigning and creating new business or processes that lead to better productivity, efficiency, costs savings, and increased net income.

Jose Santos is an Affiliated Professor of Practice in Global Management at INSEAD . After spending 20 years in the managerial world, Jo moved from Italy to INSEAD and devoted himself to scholarly work, a dream from his youth. Jo’s research and teaching focuses on the management of the multinational enterprise, particularly on the management of global integration and global innovation. In addition to his position at INSEAD, Jo has served as a visiting Scholar at MIT Sloan School of Management and as “Professor Catedratico Convidado” at UCP in Portugal.

Sonal Bahl is a Career Coach and Founder of SuperCharge, a Career Advisory firm. A former HR Director, she has served for almost two decades in HR leadership roles in leading firms like GE, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and others in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Sonal has lived and worked in Chile, Belgium, France, India, and Uruguay, screening over 250,000 resumes and conducting over 5000 interviews in 3 continents - she has helped recruit, build and evolve highly talented teams for large companies like GE & PwC, midsize family-owned firms, and startups.

Key Takeaways:

Motion 1: Collaboration

The office is where teamwork takes place. Complex discussions, decision making, creativity, and innovation cannot occur without co-location.

Carmit shared her viewpoint on this motion first, saying Collaboration is not about the location, it's about the people you collaborate with. In today’s world, there are so many ways to connect so location is less of an issue than it used to be in the past.”

“I find that when it comes to imagining new products, services, or the future of the company, there is value in being co-located,” said Marilyn. ”Collaboration tools have come a long way, but there are just some things that we cannot do virtually or on a screen”

Similarly, Jo believes that co-location is dependent on the nature of work or tasks at hand, “Co-location is not required if we are performing a play we have played before, doing routine work, or conducting structured work together. If we are performing a play we have never played before, if we are writing the script as we play the play, then co-location is absolutely required. Often when we work or study in virtual teams, there are points when people get together to structure the work and decide on how they will combine it. Teamwork doesn’t need to be fully co-located, but it is a process, and a team is a structure. In that process, there are moments for co-location and in-office work. The office is the commons; the shared place. It gives people a sense of community, being part of a collective that is different from their individual selves.”

Offering her perspective on why she is ‘against’ the motion, Sonal said “ Yes [co-location] makes your life easier, yes if I want to ‘high five’ my teams, but right now we cannot do that. Does that mean collaboration is lower? Not necessarily. I am part of a couple of masterminds, I found some colleagues on the internet and if 8 random strangers can collaborate, then it can definitely happen with co-workers who already know each other and have that social equity.”

Motion 2: Communication

The office is a physical enabler of communication. Water cooler moments, impromptu team sessions, town halls, cannot be recreated digitally.

When it comes to formal communication, Sonal agrees with this motion, “Yes - the office enables communication for the top-down approach, the town halls where one person speaks, everyone listens. But informal communication suffers when the impromptu conversations no longer exist,” she said.

For Carmit, it boils down to the team, people, and dynamics and she argues distributed settings require a consistent stream of the message delivered in a variety of ways. “I don’t think there is one size fits all. But one message will never pass in one town hall, you’ll need to say it fifteen times in different ways and manage that well with internal communication to get the message across. I think it can and should continue virtually.”

Sharing her perspective, Marilyn believes that this motion would be the one that technology can solve faster than others. “Because our communication occurs digitally, we can measure these things. I can tell if there are two members of our team who never talk to each other online, but I would have never known that before.”

“For people like me who have worked that way for many years, we have experienced features of time and space that we never thought about because it was always there. The advantage of this moment is that remote work should be a new source of insights on the advantages or benefits of being together in the same place.

“If what I want to say can be expressed or made explicit and in a language that people can understand, we don’t need to be co-located or even see or hear each other. But this has always been the case,” said Jo Santos. “The communication of implicit experience and tacit understanding or reality is what we should focus on...This kind of communication is often done with our feelings, our senses, the energy of our bodies, all that is part of something that makes us ‘be’ together.”

“Let us not diminish the relevance of random encounters. It is the source of all random encounters that cannot be simulated. It is not something that I initiate, it is something that circumstances make happen and tend to be moments that I would not expect to occur, where the communication was initiated by something that happens around us. Such as a window suddenly opening up. At that moment, something may happen that was unexpected, and we cannot simulate that through technology. It is not a matter of technology it is a matter of interaction with the physical world that we share.”

Motion 3: Culture & Alignment

The office makes a company’s culture explicit. The proportion of collective to individual space, where people sit, the interior design choices, etc. are all artifacts of a company’s culture and communicate it implicitly. By sharing a space we also become allies. We cannot recreate this when each person is sitting in a space of their choice.

Marilyn kick-started this motion, drawing on her experience and perspective as an architect. “Architecture communicates important events, culture, and history. It communicates so much in terms of convention and how we measure the world. The backdrop of my virtual calls are a set of celestial mirrors and they were the first thing I did to communicate that we are ‘cosmic’. As hard as I tried, I could not have communicated that with our virtual backgrounds. While remote, it is not easy to communicate what is implicit but space is one way to do that. Workspaces and offices tell you something about the company.”

Agreeing with the motion, Carmit says, “we cannot do everything virtually. It was easy for us to move into remote work because we have worked closely together for the last year and a half. We know each other and have the equity of our relationship and understanding…. Starting a company purely virtually is difficult. It is not impossible but is difficult to develop the same fulfillment, relationship, and attitude towards each other. There is so much you can only do after being together for a specified period of time. I think there will be severe challenges for companies starting remotely.”

Sonal drew on her experience in talent management adding, “First off, I think the new hire onboarding process will suffer, which is important to the culture because it starts with them.

Second, if you look at the Gallup and Spencer Stuart employee engagement pre-COVID, 20-30% of the working population is disengaged and I assume that number has skyrocketed. Having worked with other career coaches, we are bombarded with high performing talent, some people do not want to go back. The disengagement is being accentuated for the moment which is a big worry for companies.”

Jo relates this effect to shared time and place:The office tends to be an expression of certain beliefs and principles which come from the founder and leadership. That commonality, the shared style, aesthetics, and feeling not only gives us one: a sense of belonging to something beyond the individual, but also two: it gives us a common and shared sense of something odd for human beings which is ‘time’. If we are all together in a particular place, then we also have the same and common understanding of time. By having something that is controlled, constant, and shared, we can address what varies and changes. Change happens over time and that is a cultural understanding. Time is often one of the biggest issues in multinational companies. When we are in different contexts and cultures, time is not the same.”

Motion 4: Compartmentalization

The office allows employees to disconnect from what their at-home life looks like. Working mothers can legitimately ignore chores or their kids, colleagues can have the same status (desk, laptop, chair, etc.) no matter what their socio-economic status is. The office creates a stage for us to “perform” like actors in a play, irrespective of what awaits us at home.

“The average workweek is longer by about four hours for remote workers,” began Sonal. “I am pretty sure it is more than that in reality. The tough thing a lot of people are facing is the art of saying no. But this piles up, there is a domino effect. The time when you would be commuting, listening to a podcast, decompressing, or just zoning out, all of this no longer exists.”

Carmit offered her perspective on how compartmentalization impacts her role as a parent operating in remote work and learning settings. “As a working parent, I agree. I used to say that going to the office was a vacation because it discounted me from what I needed to do at home or the interactions at home. Currently, the kids are at home, if they were at school or elsewhere then it would not be an issue. However when they are at home, and you are meant to work normally, while simultaneously parenting, this is where it becomes super challenging.”

In Jo’s opinion, this compartmentalization may be the most important value of a structure like an office. “The myth that we have professional and personal lives that are separate is a myth; it is a false description of reality...The office is the space that assists me in separating a particular aspect of my life from another aspects of my life. The separation or balance between professional and personal life is a balance of spaces. Where I am is my way of balancing.”

Adding his views on how the office compartmentalizes time, Jo says, “The office also allows me to separate myself from me in the future and the past. When I am in the office, I can readily observe others that do things differently from me. The office is a source of variation, there is no difference in the future without variation. I can see a job I never thought about and think ‘I could try that’. It is difficult to do that in a dispersed setting...The office allows us to separate our past and future. It may be the most important role of the office.”

Echoing the notion that an office allows you to perform your personal and professional role on separate stages, Marilyn adds: “I am a great negotiator in the office, but at home, I cannot do this. In the office, some people are amazing colleagues that I would never be friends with outside of work. That idea of the stage, and the fact that you can express different sides of yourself or work to develop some aspects of yourself whether to be a better manager or person, can be beneficial to personal and professional life. The idea that you have a space of forgiveness, that when you walk into this space, you get to experiment with who you are again and try to be someone different. It is something to treasure.”

Motion 5: Personal branding

An office is a place for developing “hallway” reputation. By being physically present, an employee can demonstrate commitment, performance, the ability to rally and influence others.

Referencing the research on remote work conducted by Bloom at Stanford University, Jo remarks how fewer people who worked remotely were promoted when compared to those who were in the office. “If we are not together, how can our peers evaluate us? How can our bosses evaluate us? They only judge us based on our outputs and we become what we can do. In this remote work and digital work I am no longer me, I am the quality of the work I delivered or the things I can do. But I am not that, and I am me in a company. A company is a set of people, not tasks or products. This idea that I am me, and I can show who I am together with other people is part of our nature as human beings. If technology does change that, we are becoming inhumane.”

Agreeing with Jo, Carmit says, “If we are talking about personal branding, it is not just done in the office. It is on Social Media too. It has developed beyond the office walls or location. If you do not create that personal brand on social or virtual media, you do not exist much inside the office either. Today there is a kind of complementary balance between who you are in person and social media.” This is a brilliant opportunity for people who have been shy when it comes to their personal brand,” said Sonal. “only 0.5% of people on LinkedIn currently contribute to the platform. Now is a golden opportunity to stand out. By being vocal and having an opinion, they have been taken more seriously inside the organization because they found respect outside the organization. It is a golden opportunity for people to document their journey. Taking people through the learning of that process.” she continued.

Echoing what Sonal said, Marilyn adds “I think there are some aspects of your personal brand that you can actually develop better online because they are more controlled. With the articles you write, the opinions that you post, you now have more time to think about what you want to put in the world more meaningfully. Social media empowers you to do this deliberately.”

Motion 6: Place

Replicating the unique experience of walking into a space that has a history, prestige and a unique setting (e.g. NYT building, a historic bank, or a daily commute through a vibrant city) cannot be done in a remote world.

Location, location, location!” said Carmit. “It matters. We need to deal with our current reality for a long period of time and what comes after, will most likely be a hybrid model of a remote and co-located office. On one hand, we need to reinvent ourselves and deal with the situation and use many tools to make sure we are productive, connected, part of a team, and collaborating. I am not saying it is easy but we are forced to deal with; and it is possible.”

Sonal adds: "I had a client in Europe headhunted by a firm in the Middle East and after the first interview, he rescinded his candidacy because when he asked about the HQ, he got turned off by the fact that there was no office. It means something, there is legitimacy with a workplace. The location part of remote work has shown us social inequalities today. Work from home looks different. The disparity is clear between different people and remote work has accentuated this."

"A place is the combination of the past, the future to be, and the people and that is what makes it special and unique," said Jo. "Although time can substitute space. Place is something we need to look closer into. Professionals who spend the majority of their lives in one place or similar places including the same company or office may not be able to appreciate the role of place. But the nomads can tell others the importance of place," he continued.

The future of work is…

All four debaters shared varying perspectives on what they think the future of work is. Here is what each had to say:

“The future of work is WHAM! This is an acronym. W is for Women, meaning we need more women in the workplace, particularly in the middle to top layer. I am sure it’s going to happen. H is for Hybrid. A combination of workplace and also remote, but the choice has to be there. A is for Age: People are living longer, so we need to acknowledge that in our inclusion. And M is for Machine: Retail, airports, contactless entry, and machines are digital but we as people are bringing in more care, creativity, and effort.

For Carmit, the future of work is Inclusive. “I hope that the future of work will be blind to gender, race, or other discrimination and focus on the performance, delivery, and growth of the people.”

The future of work is, work.” said Jo. “Work is work. Is it always the same? No, it is ever-changing. I remember when I began working 50 years ago and work was so different to now. 20-30 years from now, no one will use the word digital. Yes, it is changing all the time but work is work, fun is fun. Some people are so passionate and love their work. I am fortunate to have been able to choose to do what I love. Most human beings that need to work cannot choose to do what they love and don’t have that privilege. Whatever work will be will be something that brings more happiness and fun to more people.”

Marilyn also agreed with Jo, adding that, “Our recency bias makes us think that no one has had to go through any of this before us. But I will also say that I am hopeful that the future of work is also more deliberate. The pandemic has given us an occasion to think about how we structure things, communicate, engage people, align everyone, build stories and myths to rally behind. I hope we maintain these as active lessons. We need to be more deliberate in the way we design these spaces so that those of us who have to work don’t hate our existence.”

Want to learn more?

Check out all other sessions from the Cosmic Conference 2020.

Session 1: Digital Transformation & COVID-19 - Watch the panel on our YouTube Channel or read the key insights here.

Session 2: How Remote Work Impacts the Top and Bottom Line of a Business. Watch the panel on our YouTube Channel or read the key insights here.

Session 3: Remote Work, Recruitment, Education & Entrepreneurship. Watch the panel on our YouTube Channel or read the key insights here.

Session 4: Workspaces of the Future: The impact of the remote work movement on commercial real estate in the UAE. Watch the panel on our YouTube Channel or read the key insights here.

Session 5: Company Culture, Employee Engagement & Wellness. Watch the panel on our YouTube Channel or read the key insights here.

Session 6: Cosmic Conference 2020 - Closing Debate: To Remote, Or Not To Remote? Watch the debate on our YouTube Channel or read the key insights here.


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