This article first appeared in Virgin Unite.  To view the article click here

It was the fourth speech I had given in a month on the topic of the “Future of Work”. I was sharing stories about what we can all expect as our workforce changes due to technology and more millennials entering and leading our workplaces.

During this particular speech I picked up on a theme – a common audience response. Enthusiastic note taking would commence when I came to the part about what we need to be doing, as leaders, to manage the changes that were coming.

It was at this moment I stopped to take a sip of water and worryingly thought to myself, “these people are really listening to me, I hope what I am saying is right”! I knew that the trends we were expecting were accurate, but that doesn’t mean what we think will result from these trends will actually happen.

What if what we think will happen is not right at all? If that’s the case, we need to prepare for a different result and I need to prepare my audience for different outcomes. I immediately felt that I couldn’t keep giving this speech until I knew for sure – and there was only one way for me to really know.

Back to my hotel room I went, and the next day #projectfow was launched – also known as “Project Future of Work”. We decided we were going to be guinea pigs in our own industry and transport ourselves into the future to see what happens. This meant allowing people the flexibility to work how best suits them.

We couldn’t go completely remote, as some people really like the routine and structure of coming to a workplace, but I knew for certain that most said they wanted freedom and that is what the future of work studies were telling us – and so therefore that is what I needed to create.

I started the implementation. We upgraded all of our technology and provided everyone with laptops, iPad and iPhones. We moved out of our traditional office and rented a quarter of the amount of desks in a co-working space, we implemented slack channels for us to keep in touch and communicate easily, set up a zoom account for team meetings, and set specific times of the week where it was compulsory for everyone to come to the office and meet in person. We even started a weekly newsletter called the “Water Cooler” where we shared what everyone was doing on the weekend, info typically shared in person around the water cooler.

I was excited. Yes, there was some initial expense to this, but if this new world of work was successful we would reduce our current expenses by over $7,000 per month and be seen as an employer of choice for millennials. We would be living what the futurists were predicting, getting an edge, and both the business and our people would benefit.

I will admit that when I announced this internal experiment there was mixed emotions from my team. Some were so excited they were already out the door on their way to the beach, others were holding on to their chairs and their picture frames for dear life (they were all millennials by the way).

Not everyone was keen, but that was ok, I planned to make this cater for everyone’s needs. This was never about going extreme one way, but rather allowing for people to choose the best way to work for them, which is why we still kept premises. If I had to bet whether this project was going to be a success, initially I would have confidently said yes, but it didn’t take long for my confidence to waiver.

Not long after we launched #projectfow I spent a week in Silicon Valley visiting small and large tech businesses. I quickly noticed a common theme – many had tried what I had just launched, and many had reversed it very quickly. This didn’t knock me too much, because in our preparation for the change we had considered these potential pitfalls and put a number of connection initiatives in place. The team were getting more perks than ever before, plus I thought everyone was as keen to be guinea pigs as I was.

However, for us, it didn’t work. Over six months we experienced a damaging impact on morale, shared learning, culture and traditions. Eventually, we decided to move everyone back into our office and focus on what we learnt and on re-engaging with the things that were lost. So what did we learn? We underestimated the physical collaboration, learning and mentoring that happens in a physical office. We also didn’t realise how much we rely on physical and energy cues to connect with how someone is feeling. We usually notice if someone is struggling or having a challenging time in their life when we see them face-to-face.

In this instance, I feel that the project being driven by management, rather than our people, contributed to the failure. I don’t believe that Generation Y has considerably altered our workforce, but that we do need to be prepared for the Z’s and the generation after them –they have really grown up in a different world to us X’s and Boomers. We need to allow them to lead workplaces into the future.

A key learning for us was that our experiment was put on a team of people who really didn’t need the change in the first place. So was it a fail?  Well yes, however that is not to say it couldn’t work. If workplaces are planning on “moving with the times” they need to be very well prepared – particularly established businesses that are used to having face-to-face collaboration.

My lesson for now? Don’t think so much about what we can do to update our workplaces, but rather, what can we do to allow our people the freedom to be agile with their needs and drive the change.

Author: Sel Watts
Sel, the Founder of wattsnext Group, is a visionary and inspiring business leader. With a deep passion for small to medium business (SMB), Sel brings gutsy honesty and commercial realism to the table. A true entrepreneur, Sel is committed to disrupting the way business owners utilise HR and increase performance and engagement. She is also curious about technology and the future of work, using her business as an experimental lab of forward-thinking methodologies to help her clients achieve peak performance. Sel is also the Co-Founder of multiple businesses and spends time coaching other business owners, keeping it real with her vast tactical experience of growing businesses. She also has a pretty interesting life story which you can check out at her personal website

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