Work from home is here to stay: Companies must adjust to succeed says ServiceNow's Chief Customer and Partner Officer

Hybrid working environments are the new normal for knowledge workers and companies must adapt.

ServiceNow's Chief Customer and Partner Officer on how to build a hybrid workplace that works

Despite Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman saying he wants workers back in their New York City offices this fall, and Bank of America chief Brian Moynihan saying he expects vaccinated workers to return to the office after Labor Day, many organizations around the world are working to reimagine the office environment and indeed the entire workplace experience. And with good reason.

Research has shown that many workers want and expect remote work to continue after the Covid-19 pandemic ends. A March 2021 survey of remote workers done by Caprelo, a work relocation company, found that 87% said being able to work remotely would be a part of their future employment decisions. Likewise, an April 2021 report published by the global staffing company Robert Half found that as many as a third of workers may quit if they were asked to return to the office full-time. The number of employees likely to leave their job if remote work is taken off the table is even higher among working parents. An April 2021 survey of over 1,100 working parents conducted by FlexJobs found that 62% of respondents said they "would quit their current job if they can't continue remote work."

ServiceNow has been going through a transformation itself and helping its customers do the same. I recently spoke with Lara Caimi, Chief Customer and Partner Officer at ServiceNow, to talk about these issues and the future of the office. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for readability.

No one wants to play office anymore

Bill Detwiler: All right, so at a ServiceNow's Knowledge 2021 event, I had a chance, with a lot of other media and analysts, to speak with Bill McDermott [President and CEO of ServiceNow]. And I got a great quote from him, that I love, when I asked about this new normal of sort of work from anywhere, and the rise in a hybrid and remote working environments, which was, "No one wants to play office anymore." And I thought that was just a great quote because it embodies what I've heard from numerous executives and it was also blunt and to the point.

I'd love with you to start there because I know you just took over a very large organization and are doing it completely remotely. But also, from your perspective, what are you hearing from ServiceNow customers around how they're designing kind of this new normal?

Lara Caimi, Chief Customer and Partner Officer at ServiceNow

Lara Caimi, Chief Customer and Partner Officer at ServiceNow

Image: ServiceNow

Lara Caimi: Yeah. Well, I also love that soundbite from Bill. Leave it to Bill. He will always be direct and blunt and memorable, for sure. Yeah, I mean, I think it's absolutely true. There's no question that the world changed dramatically. And what's so interesting is because of the nature of this global pandemic, we went through this change that ultimately, anybody that would have been talking about change management, like before the pandemic, would have said, "Never possible. Never possible."

And we absorbed so much change all at once globally, and it lasted for a significant amount of time, right? They talk about it takes at least four months of something to build habits. Well, we've been in this thing now for a year and a half. We're still in our homes, and I'm here in mine. It's dramatically changed the way our work and lives operate, and I think it's definitely here to stay.

I completely agree with Bill. We shouldn't have been playing office before, and certainly no one wants to play it now. What I think the reality is, hybrid is the new normal, and it's really all about flexibility and choice, right? And it's not just a shift in like location policy, which is I think what a lot of people focus on, and that's a huge part of it, but it is much broader of how we're going to make sure that we drive this in a healthy way going forward. That it is truly, we're allowing folks to be empowered in a new way that is much more appealing and that I think is going to drive significant productivity.

I think it's a super exciting time to be leading an organization, frankly. And yes, I took over an organization where I still haven't met in-person, as their boss, the people that work for me. And yet, we've defined a strategy, we've come together as a team, we've got a healthy and productive organization, we're delivering on our numbers. In all of this, we're sort of managing to do remotely.

I think it'll be interesting. And honestly, and of course, let's be very blunt, I think the world is still very hybrid because it's in very different places. You mentioned Knowledge '21, I've spent a bunch of time talking to partners and customers globally. And it was amazing how different, given the state of the pandemic in different countries, people are in very different situations. And so this is going to kind of take a while to get to something that is normal, and it's going to look different in different places. And it'll still be, I think, a little bit up and down. But the idea of moving to something that is a little bit more flexible, that does have choice, that does have options, right?

We were talking before we started this about the excitement of actually having a business dinner. I think it'll create sort of a new set of dimensions that are going to be really healthy for folks.

SEE: Working from home: The future of business is remote (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Working from home: How to get remote right (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

How to build a hybrid workplace that works for employees and employers

Bill Detwiler: Let's dive down on that a little bit, because you mentioned you taking over this organization. How do companies build an environment that's flexible as people go back into the office and they want to have those in-person experiences, but then again, they also don't want to give up some of the flexibility that they've had with not having a commute, either from your own perspective in how you've had to do it over this last year, and everybody has had to do it? Or going forward, how do companies sort of build an office experience that really does meet the needs of the organization and what workers expect now?

Lara Caimi: Yep, yep. For sure. Let me start with the real basics behind this, which of course we've all learned is health and safety, right, of our people; and so it really starts with that. We know that the pandemic, there's going to be evolutions, we've already seen ups and downs of opening and closing across companies, there's different vaccine rates, et cetera.

Being able to get folks back safely when they're ready, make sure that they have the appropriate testing protocols in place, that they have the PP&E and rules and distancing required. All of that is an important change that we never had to deal with before, right?

A little plug for ServiceNow, we have a return-to-work product that actually we've had huge success during the pandemic getting this out there in the hands of companies like Uber, like Bank United. I mean, just a ton of companies that are using this to make sure that they have that sort of health and safety protocols in place, remotely, easy for employees to use, to make sure that that part is taken care of. That's sort of number one, that's basics.

But what you're asking about is, are the more interesting things, which is how do you think about this, right? How do you lead through it? And obviously, I think that there's a piece of this, which is absolutely on policy, right, making a decision on what you're doing as a company. And at ServiceNow, we've decided, look, it's 100% full choice until September, right, until Labor Day. But after that, it will be a much more flexible world.

And of course, there are some functions that are going to need different amounts of guidance, right? There are some functions that absolutely kind of need to be in-person to... I mean, retail workers, right? They're in stores. They have to be there, so of course there are some functions, even in a corporate world, that need to be in-person. And we also have a decent early in career population. And so for certain early-in-career population, it's going to be important to kind of come together and learn how to do your job, learn how to work for the first time in your life.

I think there will always be some of that, but I think for the majority of knowledge workers, certainly in my organization, that's a customer-facing organization, it's going to be about employee choice and flexibility. And so there's org policies that support that, there's there's manager training, there's kind of culture, all of these things we can get into, and then the role of the workplace. How do we change actually our physical footprint and make sure that we're enabling hybrid work and collaborative work and the work in-person that needs to be done in the most effective way?

I think there's a lot of dimensions of how we have to think about that and the way we have to enable leaders to lead in what is frankly a different world than the way they lead pre-COVID. We have to think about that whole system.

SEE: COVID vaccination policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Shifting from an in-person work culture to a hybrid work culture

Bill Detwiler: Yeah, let's talk about those cultural aspects. I mean, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Because again, you have personal experience with this, but then you also talked to a variety of customers like you talked about. There's the safety aspect of it, which you talked about. There's the technical aspect of it, which we're all familiar with, Zoom meetings and working out of Slack channels or whatever your collaboration and office productivity suite is of choice, right? There's that part of it. And that seems to be... It's not great. I think we're all maybe a little tired of video conferences, to some extent, but that's a solved issue. You've got automation systems and things that are handling workflows and new ways to digitize processes that might have been done in-person before.

But I think the more interesting, as you talked about, is that cultural aspect and that shift in management style or the tools that managers use or that organizations use, leaders of large B use, that they use to convey a mission and to build culture and to make sure that people feel connected. Can you speak to that a little bit? I mean, what has worked for you or what have you seen from your customers that's working for them to build that, to manage in a new way with this sort of increasingly hybrid workforce?

Lara Caimi: Yeah. Yeah, I think there's a bunch of aspects of this, and I think it is a really interesting one that we're continuing to learn about and evolve, frankly, and from each other. That's why I love talking to customers and partners about their experiences here. And I'm sure in your job, Bill, it's the same. It's like these stories of what different people are seeing. It can really create a rich tapestry of learnings.

And so one of the things that I'm hearing people talk about is how, especially for certain organizations that had a pretty in-person culture but maybe had some remote work, which ServiceNow was kind of in that camp. We had about, I don't know what it was, 20-ish percent kind of remote work. Well, it created a little bit of the sort of haves and have-nots in that a lot of the people with the strongest voices, the people that were sort of promoted into the leadership positions that continued to rise in the organization tended to be a little bit around that in-person orbit.

servicenow-knowledge-2021-media-q-and-a-screenshot.jpg

Q&A with ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott & Chief Product Officer CJ Desai

What I've heard companies talk about, customers talk about, is how amazing it's been actually in the pandemic that there's this sort of sense of this digital world being the great equalizer and making us realize how much talent we have out there on our teams. It's equalizing voices. You've got equal size of your little tiles on the screen, and more people are speaking up who maybe weren't in the room were quieter before. And they're seeing actually folks maybe in remote locations or in a satellite location getting promoted into leadership roles during the pandemic that would have never really had that opportunity before.

And so I do think there's sort of acknowledging some of those wonderful elements of this democratization of your talent and equalizer of your talent in this. What are the takeaways that we should take from that, which is, there will always be a sense of like folks that are in a hybrid world, right, that are kind of in the room, and some that are remote. But how do you make sure that you create a culture and sort of operating norms that say, look, when we talk about business, we talk about the meeting, we're going to be doing it on the tiles, and actually even in the room. Some of us are going to show up with our individual tiles, right. We may all be muted, but you'll be able to see my individual screen because I'll have my screen up and I'll show up as a tile so you don't have to just look at the big room if you're remote. You see all of us, right. We show up in that same sort of democratized tile, and we're only going to allow conversations about this meeting to happen in this meeting.

When we're outside taking a bathroom break or grabbing a snack or whatever, we're going to talk about other things to sort of make sure that we don't create the haves and have-nots in the rooms. It's little things like that, that I hear people doing that I think you're going to be great changes that will continue the culture of this.

The other thing I think is people are being really-

Bill Detwiler: Oh, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Lara Caimi: No, I think the other thing is just being really thought... I mean, one of the things, honestly, is companies are realizing like, "Wow, we were spending a lot of money on internal T&E and it's kind of nice to have that extra OPEX to spend in a different way." And do we need to do all of that in the future? And what are those really critical things that we need to be in the room together for? Where do we really need those white-boarding sessions, getting that creative juices flowing? When do we really need that, those moments of connection and intimacy to build team and spend time together physically?

There's great uses for being in-person. But also the two-a-day meetings with everybody in-person talking about way too many topics that everybody dreaded, that take a whole week out of, including travel, out of someone's life, do we need to do that? I've noticed our board meetings are shorter and it's like, why were they so long before? We're actually hitting at the points, but we're doing it in a much more concise way and allowing for the topics of conversations that need to be talked about... It's a very mark Twain to me. It's like, if I had more time, I'd write a shorter letter.

It's actually forced us to be more thoughtful with people's time. And boy, I hope that continues. I hope we continue to be strategic and thoughtful about how we use in-person, how we do that in a time-effective way. And we're actually remote is completely acceptable and perhaps better because we don't have to waste a week of our lives traveling. We don't have to commute for one and a half hours each way, which was my commute and I'm very happy not to do that, et cetera.

Trust is critical in a hybrid work environment

Bill Detwiler: And I was going to say right there that that was one of the bits of feedback that some of the folks that I managed always told me, that we're always remote. They said that was the one thing over and over that we tried to work on was making sure that they didn't feel left out, that they didn't miss out on those water cooler, those hallway, those spontaneous interactions that had to do with business and weren't just, "Hey, what did you watch last night? Or what are you doing over the weekend?" But those spontaneous meetings that could have a lot of effect on kind of strategy or just building connections, or "Oh, let's try this instead," that they felt like they didn't miss that out.

I think that's a really important point, and I'd love to hear your take on how do you keep from falling back into those old habits? Because I love what you're saying and I hope more executives take it to heart, but I'm also starting to see a little bit of some data coming in that people are saying, "Well, yes, we expect to be all back in the office by X," or "We expect to be... "

I'm starting to see some folks that maybe weren't as forward thinking maybe as you're talking about, or aren't as open to those kinds of new interactions or making those necessary changes to going back to the old way of more command and control, of being in the office so I can watch and make sure that tasks are being completed so that I can make sure I have butts in the seats. I used to be an adjunct professor and that's what we used to call it, right, is just getting people in the room, which is totally not a measure of the effectiveness of the learning for me when I was doing that or the work that's being done. How have you guarded against that and how are you seeing other companies be successful in guarding against?

Lara Caimi: Yeah, I mean, I think it's all about leadership, Bill. I mean, it's about saying, as a leadership team, having those hard conversations, which is like, "What do we really believe and what do we think the future looks like? What is the talent market going to demand of us, frankly, and what's the best thing? What lessons have we learned that actually challenged some of our core assumptions about how work can be done?"

And for me, what we've absolutely proven is we can trust our employees. They're getting their work done. We don't need to be there and assume that like when the cat's away, the mouse plays, whatever nonsense. People are doing the right thing. If you have a purpose and you're inspiring your people and you are making a difference and you're communicating that effectively, people are going to work hard and make that happen. And they don't need to be there counting butts in seats to make that happen.

To me, that's very old fashioned thinking. And so it's about aligning as a leadership team and kind of having those hard conversations. There's folks in our own leadership team, who when we sort of plotted where we thought we'd end up were in different places. And we had to have a real conversation of like, well why do you think that, what assumptions do you have, et cetera, and what are our first principles about this? And so I think it starts with that, which starts with the leadership tone.

And then I think you have to be really honest about listening to your employees and looking at the marketplace. There's no question, right, millennials... Even, frankly, old people like me at this stage, people want flexibility, right? They want to be trusted. They want to be empowered. They want to have agency over how they spend their days and how they can be their most productive selves.

And so I just think that supply and demand is going to play a bit of a role here. We know in our industries in tech, it's not like... There's a war for talent, let's be very, very clear, and so we're going to have to listen to what the talent wants. And frankly, for us as a ServiceNow, we are empowering the future of work. If we're not leading that with what we're doing internally with our own policies, how can we possibly be pitching this to our customers? We know what the data says. We know what our customers are telling us, and we need to lead the way there. There's a lot about that.

And then I think once you agree as a management team, once you align and say, "Look, this is the way we need to be," that that revision to the norm is absolutely dangerous, right, which is why I think you have to be really purposeful about this stuff. You have to think about not just your real estate footprint and the official location policy for employees, but you have to think about, "Okay, what are our workplace policies? What are our norms that we want to put in place? What are the reminders that we want to put in our conference rooms about how we're going to interact? What are the leadership trainings that we want to encourage people to take to continue to support remote teams?"

And for me personally, it's also about modeling. I'm not going to be the first person back in the office. I actually don't want people to feel like they need to be there because I'm there five days a week. I'm quite thoughtful about what I'm saying, and I really want those folks who don't feel comfortable, who are much more productive at home, whatever, to feel like that's an okay choice, right?

Bill Detwiler: And I think that's so important as a leader to realize the outsize impact that your actions have on others and especially your team members.

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team's mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Hybrid work models can improve diversity and inclusion in tech

Bill Detwiler: The last thing I'd love to touch base on real quick, because I know you've got to run, is something that I've talked about with a lot of execs is that this new move to remote work and change in... You kind of talked about the workforce and being able to attract top talent. I know Bill as well. And so I think one of the things I've heard from folks is this really helps open up their recruiting pools, the people they're targeting for hiring to underserved populations, whether that is because they weren't able to live in a specific area, they weren't able to move, they weren't already there. And I'd love to get your take on that as we kind of wrap things up.

Lara Caimi: Absolutely. You've definitely hit on sort of a passion topic of mine, for sure, which is we need more diversity inclusion belonging in tech. We need more women, we need more people of color, we need more underrepresented populations. Because frankly, there is a tremendous amount of we're all growing fast. We need to be able to attract and retain the very best talent, and those are humans from all walks of life, right, that live in all sorts of different places.

I think we've all seen the data. We know that diverse teams function better. They make better decisions. They represent their customers better. All of those things that lead us to be more healthier organizations. Diversity drives all of that. And so I think this is absolutely a sort of very positive externality of this kind of awakening that the world has come through with this hybrid work is like, "Wow, I don't need to just hire people in San Francisco or in the Bay Area. I can look for talent all over."

And where are those populations that frankly don't want to move here? They don't want to leave their communities, they don't want to leave their families, they don't want to leave their support structures, so we can go to them. We can let them work where they want to work, and we can have a much richer, more diverse workforce by doing that consciously.

And so we're driving a lot of that at ServiceNow, really trying to be conscious about it. I'm trying to be my own creative BHAG goal in my own organization to be a leader for the company in this. And I think these things are absolutely positively correlated. We keep driving hybrid work. We keep creating better experiences for those folks who aren't at headquarters, whatever the notion of headquarters ends up being, and we will be able to attract and retain a different, and frankly, healthier and better population of employees.

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By Bill Detwiler

Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the ...