Reimagining the C-suite for a digital-first world

Maskot via Getty Images

Since office buildings first emerged 300 years ago, the C-suite has been a physical manifestation of top-down authority. Executives have occupied the top floor of a company headquarters, with ornate boardrooms, ever-attentive assistants, and the best views. Information has flowed from the top down to workers who executed commands. The C-suite has been a not-so-subtle method of exerting control over a very specific way of working.

Not for much longer. The old top-down model doesn’t work in the world of remote, virtual, and distributed work. The new way of working is being built on organizational agility, flexibility, and transparency. And the change starts with the literal and figurative transformation of the C-suite.

The literal shift is the easiest to deliver. The pandemic has proven that we don’t need to rely on the physical office. Companies of all sizes and all industries have been successful working primarily remotely. And knowledge workers are not looking back. A recent Future Forum study found that only 12% want to return to full-time office work, while 72% favor a hybrid remote-office model. Offices won’t disappear—meeting in-person will always be important for building social connection—but they no longer will define how people work.

Like all enterprise tech platforms, Slack will benefit when companies undertake the digital transformation necessary to thrive in a world of remote work. But this trend is about much more than the pervasive use of tech in the workplace. It’s about a cultural shift away from an office-centric model. It’s about empowering employees with far greater flexibility in where they live and how they work. And it’s about tapping into broader talent pools, and giving diverse populations more equal access to opportunity.

The behavioral and cultural shifts will be more difficult. They demand decisive leadership. The C-suite itself must model distributed work, and model a more inclusive approach. This is an especially pivotal moment for historically underrepresented workers. Our research found that, in the U.S., Black, Asian, and Hispanic employees see even greater benefits from working away from the office than their white colleagues: Their sense of belonging at their organization was better working remotely than it was working in the office. Smart companies will seize this moment to fully embrace these employees and finally build teams that are representative of the world we live in.

It’s (past) time

The physical C-suite, and the idea of an office, is an artifact of the industrial age. Until the 19th century, people were generally paid for what they produced. With industrialization, it was no longer possible to compensate for their “piece work,” so workers started being paid for the hours they worked. The office emerged as a convenient way to control the hours employees worked, take attendance, and measure output.

The office has long been the central operating model for nearly every company. It’s the reason people work 9-to-5, endure long commutes, and pay a premium for real estate close to major employment hubs.

Slack on Slack: turning challenges into opportunities

The physical office was certainly the foundation of Slack’s operating model. Before the pandemic hit, headquarters was one building in San Francisco, with the C-suite on the top floor. Senior leaders had to be in San Francisco—except for regional leadership. Teams in Denver, Vancouver, London, Munich, and Pune felt like outsiders. Only about 3% of employees worked remotely.

This working model all changed in March, and we’ve used the last eight months to question assumptions about nearly every aspect of it. Why do we need a central physical headquarters? Why are employees expected to work 9-to-5? What changes do we need to make at the executive level to build the culture of belonging we want for all our employees?

We made the conscious decision to do away with our conventional San-Francisco based C-suite structure. Our first senior executive hired after the pandemic, our new Chief People Officer, is located in Chicago, with no plans to move. In fact, she and our CEO have never met face-to-face.

This is much more than a symbolic change. It forces our leadership team to work differently, adopting a more asynchronous rhythm. It also sends a clear message to employees around the world that they too can reach the top ranks of the company without having to think about relocating.

We’ve also put into place the concrete policies that allow the entire company to work more flexibly. We made decisive changes to our remote work policy, giving most employees the option to work remotely on a permanent basis. And we proclaimed that our physical headquarters would be replaced with a digital-first center of gravity. Instead of our San Francisco building, Slack itself is now our headquarters.

Moving to a digital-first center of truth has allowed our C-suite to build a more human, empathetic relationship with employees. Instead of being locked away in a boardroom, our executives are more visible and accessible. Written updates in Slack channels enable employees to ask questions and engage in casual dialogue. And virtual all-hands meetings bring employees into their homes, offering a glimpse of the kids, pets, and foibles that constitute real life.

Leveraging digital as our new headquarters, information is more evenly distributed, giving employees access to more context and the ability to make decisions more freely. And, most importantly, employees are empowered by a newfound belief that they are operating on a more level playing field. Teams in Denver no longer feel like outsiders; employees in Dublin aren’t limited to jobs in Dublin. Those in Vancouver with career advancement aspirations no longer have to think about moving to SF.

Modeling decentralized work

At its best, executive leadership is about more than making tough decisions and setting strategic direction. It’s about personifying the culture and values that allow an organization to thrive over the long term. The executives who emerge as true leaders through this pandemic will be those who embody a new way of working. For the C-suite, this requires delivering on four big priorities:

1. Deliberately decentralize the very power you have amassed.
A company that aspires to create a successful hybrid working model must have a distributed executive team. If you’re heavily concentrated in a specific geography, encourage migration out, promote remote, and hire outside of your headquarters city.

2. Use digital channels as the source of truth.
Without a physical office as the center of truth, the information and knowledge that is the lifeblood of your organization must move through digital channels. This opens the door to a new way of working, including asynchronous work that enables collaboration from people working more flexible hours. Find early adopters to champion new ways of working and celebrate their work.

3. Model authenticity and inclusiveness.
Open up to the fact that we’re all now in each other’s homes—bringing our whole selves to work—and model the enterprise you want to be. Executive groups that mirror diverse populations and show their authentic selves at home can reinforce inclusive, not just diverse, organizations—lowering the risk for employees from diverse backgrounds to also bring their whole selves to work.

4. Be vulnerable and embrace experimentation.
The C-suite is accustomed to displaying confidence, certainty, and command. That’s precisely the wrong posture for this time of change and uncertainty. Be open with your team that you don’t have all the answers. Accept the need for trial and error to find solutions that are right for your organization.Acknowledge that it’s hard work, and that you’re deep in the trenches with them.

The reimaginging of the C-suite is the beginning of a new hybrid remote-office operating model. It will take more work to unlock opportunity for more diverse, more distributed teams. Time and attention toward everything from meeting processes to promotions will be required.

Leaders who lean in and embrace this change have the opportunity to transform their organizations for the better. This is a massive opportunity to tap into more distributed talent around the globe, to level the playing field for employees from diverse backgrounds, and to dramatically improve engagement in your company’s mission. It’s all up to you.

Brian Elliott leads the Future Forum, a new consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in a people-centric and digital-first world.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board