Alison Ettridge Jan 7 20 min read

Balancing the Dynamics of a Distributed Workforce

As we enter 2021, many companies are considering a new operating model that uses a distributed workforce. But distributed working is much more than location planning says our CEO Alison Ettridge. Alison spoke to Jack Hayball of Digiworkz on the topic as part of their Future of Work podcast series for a FTSE100 organisation. We share some of the highlights here.

JH: Workplaces and workspace are being re-configured. What are the most critical considerations when it comes to planning for a long-term distributed workforce?


AE: My first question would be why have you decided to have a distributed workforce? If you’ve already decided that you’re already discarding a lot of the options. At the moment a lot of decisions about a distributed workforce are being driven by the CFO and real estate and based on cost savings.  If I could give one piece of advice now it would be to join the dots. Join the dots between skills, cost, talent attraction and also impact on diversity, inclusion and corporate social responsibility.  Don’t look through a single lens when planning your workforce for the future.

JH: What data points should be considered? Internal, external or the two?


AE: The world is awash with data. It’s the insights you draw from it that matter. We draw data from 32,000 different data sources covering more than 500 cities in over 50 countries. There is a massive amount of external data available and we believe it’s incredibly valuable when making these decisions. Our team works closely with our clients to help them understand what the data is telling us and how it should be used to inform decisions.


But decisions can’t be made without an eye on the internal data, so it has to be a combination of the two. And the decision that is made will be different from organisation to organisation and from country to country. You can’t make global broad-brush decisions on something as complex as a distributed workforce.


JH: How has the pandemic affected locational planning? What types of factors should business leaders consider as they decide how to re-purpose real estate?


AE: There are two main areas to consider and you need to weight these factors according to what’s important to your organisation. They are workplace and workforce. Workplace is looking at risk, economic impact, economic health of country or city, factors like broadband, infrastructure, and transportation links. All this comes before considering the ergonomics of the working space itself.


Then there is workforce which is the availability of skills you need now and in the future.

Not just who and where, but the supply to demand ratio of skills. Hot spots and not spots for skills will have an impact on how much you have to pay. Pair salary data and competition for skills with the cost of commercial real estate in your shortlisted locations to give you an overall cost of talent per seat.  Who are you are competing with for talent? Will a location impact on your time to hire or availability to grow the business? Both of these allow you to calculate the cost of lost productivity days if you can’t hire the talent you need. We use our tool, ISAAC to calculate the cost of an empty seat over time which offers another angle to decision-making. 


Returning to my initial point about weighting these factors, which are the bits that are most important to you as an organisation? Is this about driving down cost? How we repurpose real estate? Meeting social responsibility goals? You’ll need to apply a weighting to each of the elements in order to make a data-informed decision.


JH: How well do organisations understand the skills they have a need for now and in the future?


AE: Businesses that have been through, or that are going through transformation in some form, have absolutely got the handle on skills and understand that skills and skills availability are going to drive the success of their transformation programmes. Organisations in technology typically have a pretty good idea of the skills they need now, and in the future, because hard skills are easier to define and you know what technology you’re going to put in place.


We are engaging with more and more organisations that are looking at developing their own skills taxonomy. I can think of two leading players who have recently looked externally and realised they need to build their own taxonomy because there is nothing out there that helps them understand their capability gap from a skill rather than a role point of view. By engaging with us as sector early adopter we can build their taxonomies and then apply this to the data available – this is a big plus for many of our clients.

The organisations doing this have a very strategic TA Director, CHRO, or have already built a business-led talent intelligence team. Verizon is a good example where they have a really strategic view through Lyndon Llanes, who heads up talent Intelligence and people analytics. Philips, Stryker, AWS and Amazon all have talent intelligence teams and think skills first. To hear more from some of the industry’s leading lights, tune into The Talent Intelligence Podcast, which we sponsor. We feature a new guest each month and these people are really leading the way on talent intelligence.

JH: Companies spend a lot on workplaces to foster collaboration and innovation. If we start to have a more distributed workforce how does that affect innovation and how can we plan for that?


AE: I don’t think that organisations are going to end up decreasing real estate footprint, but I think the space will change and will be driven around collaboration. Instead of 30% communal space and 70% desk space I think we’ll see a flip so innovation should fare well. 


Innovation done well is a process and teams have been working in an agile manner in the tech world remotely for years. At Stratigens we continue to develop the platform and our roadmap in an agile way. The way we work has been enhanced as we come together to collaborate then we find space to think it through before we regroup. We are following a process, but that process isn’t led by where we are. Blue sky thinking needs blue sky and that’s a sweeping statement, but innovation needs space.


Right at the beginning of the pandemic, what we were hearing from our clients who are generally big global corporates was ‘oh my goodness, if we could have paid for this level of entrepreneurial spirit, combined purpose and innovation before the pandemic, we would have done’. That was because people were united around a common theme. That sense of purpose was driving innovation. Where they were was kind of irrelevant.

JH: Have you seen any innovative solutions or decision-making models that your clients have been adopting? Any best practice you can share? Or is it still too early to say?


AE: I think it’s still too early to say. I know of one large retail business where it was decided that 30% of the workforce would be working at HQ every day on rotation to show support for store workers. However, in reality, that 30% spent all day on Zoom calls to the other 70%. Decision making is still very much in the moment. The pandemic means that people have been looking through a cost lens and a safety lens with people working from wherever they feel safest.


Interestingly, the Leesman Index produced data a couple of weeks ago that showed that employees with low engagement levels would almost exclusively want to work from home the majority of the time. Whereas employees with high engagement levels want to be in the office two to three days a week with flexibility built in. Leadership, office environment and culture all have significant impact on engagement levels, and we haven’t yet identified an alternative way to drive the same engagement.

JH: Are there any assumptions people are making about the distributed workforce based on the past 6 months, which may not hold up long-term? For me, productivity-level springs to mind.


AE: At the moment I feel we’re making massive assumptions about home working conditions globally. A young employee working from a crowded multi-generational household is different to a manager in a big house with separate working space and superfast broadband. I can think of a pharmaceutical business in France where collaboration over coffee in Paris was a very real part of their working day. In Singapore the nine to five routine is still honoured. These factors all have cultural implications.

JH: Are some locations inherently better suited to remote working? Or is it more about factors like personal set-up, family circumstance, demographic and mindset?

AE: Some locations are inherently better suited to remote working. Those with decent broadband, a strong number of coworking spaces, good transport links, reasonable house prices at a level where it is affordable to have a separate working space. It’s relatively easy to compare locations whether cities or not and this has to be the starting point for any organisation.


But it’s also important to look at personal situations and the role. Break down a role into tasks and understand at a task level which tasks are better suited to which environment. This will help an organisation to see the shape of its design at a functional level. Overlaying this with data from Stratigens shows where you need to be whether that is physical or remote. Then overlaying this again with the internal view of personal circumstances, mindset, leadership and demographics is that final layer of data required to make informed decisions.

JH: The talent intelligence function is starting to have more impact across the business. Is the rise of remote working and the distributed workforce the time for it to come to the fore?


AE: Yes, if it is done properly. There is a wide-ranging description of what TI is in the marketplace right now. It ranges from knowing who else is competing for the same skills as you and how much they pay which is at a very tactical level, to a more strategic view. That is looking around the next corner to see what’s coming and how to react to it. At this level I don’t think TI sits in one function.

Where TI, as we see it, has most value is where there is a really close tie to the business and it’s not just driven by TA. That’s not because TA is not capable of it, it’s because their KPIs drive them to think very tactically. The power of talent intelligence to inform really big strategic decisions is huge – so yes, the time is now.


JH: As organisations adopt a much more distributed model, with fixed office, remote, hybrid, flexible and virtual working models, how does Stratigens help leaders to model workforce decisions?


AE: The skills market has changed dramatically. If you want to understand your skills supply proactively, you need to understand your capability gap and how to address the gap. This needs to be a continuous process, this is not a one-off project and it’s not just looking at the locations you need to be in.


Stratigens helps you understand where the skills are that you are trying to attract and who else is hiring them. It saves you cost on time to hire, cost to hire, and prevents organisations from wasting money on wrong locations or poor decisions. More importantly, it brings this together all in one place.  It joins the dots.


If you want to proactively manage your skills supply and understand your capability gap and how to fill it. If you want to understand how to build your workforce and workplaces now and, in the future. If you want to look through the lens of diversity to see how those decisions will impact on your targets, you need to speak to Stratigens.


JH: Do organisations now have a stronger appreciation of remote working on different people, demographics, personas and family situations? Are they showing more of a duty of care and more interest in people’s personal characteristics when they think about planning work?


AE: Definitely. Whether or not that continues I don’t know but I hope it will and I suspect it will. We had this dream of workforce and workplace- at the end of 2019 we thought the trend was three to five years out. But the reality is now, it’s now just two years out because business leaders’ perceptions have changed because they were forced to change. I am not sure we will ever go back. and I don’t think employees and future talent will let us go back. Things are changing rapidly, and what will stick will be really interesting to look at over the next two years.


For more information

Alison spoke to future of work accelerator, Digiworkz, as part of a future of work podcast series.

To find out more about Stratigens and to book a demo, visit the Stratigens website here.

To learn more about Digiworkz, visit the Digiworkz website here.