Designing a digital-first workplace means putting employee needs first

FGF 2021-Bret Taylor-Antonio Neri-Daniel Alegre
President and COO of Salesforce Bret Taylor, President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Antonio Neri, and President and COO of Activision Blizzard Daniel Alegre.
Courtesy of Bret Taylor, Antonio Neri, Daniel Alegre

As parts of the world continue to reopen and employees consider the transition back to the office, corporate leadership is grappling with a complex question: How can we create the ideal digital-first workplace? 

Companies quickly adapted to fully remote work in the face of COVID-19, and for many, the transition has yielded positive results. At last week’s Fortune Global Forum virtual conference, moderator and Fortune Senior Editor Beth Kowitt noted that many believe that employee attitudes and productivity have improved since the pandemic. 

These changes stem from a larger cultural shift in business: Leaders are increasingly prioritizing the preferences and needs of employees. 

Leagh Turner, president and COO of Ceridian, described it as “an inversion in the relationship between employer and employee,” with employees having more power than ever before. Refusing to acknowledge this puts companies at the risk of losing their people, she added.

Ceridian recently released the Dayforce Wallet, which gives employees real-time access to earned wages and thus more opportunity for financial wellness and success. She emphasized that organizations must focus on tangible solutions like this one.

Turner noted that remote work is expected to be three times as prevalent post-COVID. With that in mind, collaboration, connectivity, and innovation have become buzzwords in discussions about the future. Companies are redesigning offices with these themes in mind, and employee feedback has guided decision-making. 

Daniel Alegre, president and COO of Activision Blizzard, said that before the pandemic, the company had a fairly general approach to employee well-being. However, focusing on and accommodating specific employee needs, such as better access to daycare or medical services, has become an imperative.

“We’re learning our way through it and we’re listening to what our employees are asking for,” said Alegre.

When it comes to returning to the office, many companies are giving employees the option to remain remote or follow a hybrid model. Such flexibility presents the challenge of ensuring equity in the workplace—and making sure that those who choose to work from home aren’t left out of in-office conversations that translate into promotions and other growth opportunities.

Companies must reject the old paradigm that face time is what leads to advancement because, as Turner said, fairness and equality in the organization is no longer tied to who’s at the water cooler, who’s closest to whom, who’s friends with whom. We now have this great equalizer, which is distance and connection to technology.” 

Turner isn’t the only one who sees distance as a potential benefit. Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud said that flexible work actually can be more productive, but it’s about more than just access to the right technology. 

Sud pointed out that giving employees equal access to promotions and leadership development means being intentional about facilitating mentorship and feedback sessions, processes that were simpler when everyone was in the same space. She hopes that women can be clear beneficiaries of such processes and broader equity and inclusion goals.

The challenge of maintaining equity comes hand-in-hand with another: the lack of infrastructure for connectivity. The pandemic brought a sense of urgency to addressing this need because as Antonio Neri, president and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise put it, “if you’re not connected, you’re not participating.”

“To me, connectivity is no different from water and electricity,” Neri added. “It’s an essential service that everybody has to be able to get to, so we have a lot of work to be done there.”

As heightened connectivity and flexible work conditions promote ease and convenience for employees, employers are left with yet another question to consider: How to maintain and fortify the fabric of company culture despite remote and hybrid participation.

Turner called it “an opportunity for a stairstep of change.” She said that it’s incumbent upon companies to seize this opportunity for greater inclusivity, equity, and globalization, and noted that the pandemic has allowed Ceridian to hire people in places they never would’ve imagined possible. 

Alegre added to her point, noting that the digital environment of today fosters a more democratic approach to leadership, and that being able to provide that level of connection and inclusion is a huge opportunity for all.

Though there’s certainly a lot that goes into designing a digital-first workplace, some employers are choosing to look on the bright side rather than be overwhelmed.

As Salesforce president and COO Bret Taylor said, “It’s kind of fun to have the whole world reimagine white-collar work. I mean, who would’ve thought three years ago that we’d be doing this right now, and as someone who’s been in the tech industry for a long time, it’s pretty fun to start from a blank sheet of paper and reimagine our cultures.”

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