In 2011 we shut down our offices at the Digital Workplace Group (DWG) because it felt like a waste of space. Only a handful of the then 50-person team came to the offices, instead working at client sites or in cafes or at home.
As CEO, I was nervous but we never looked back.
Not only did we not lose anything in terms of culture and productivity, but we actually became closer and more intimate as a company working across 10 countries. Gone was the "elusive HQ" that excluded some and included others — we were all equally together, but online. You can read more about that experience in "Why no office is better than some office."
A Flexible Approach to Work
We have often changed how we work at DWG over the years because it was pragmatic and empowering for all of us.
So when I recently chose to change my own work pattern, I communicated that over Yammer to the team of 80 people now across even more countries. I said essentially, "I am working new hours, but just ignore me."
This — in my mind — trivial communication provoked quite an outpouring across DWG in ways that I found inspiring. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from my own CEO experience in a world of work where aping the CEO is endemic.
Working a More Fluid Week
Some background: as CEO I have always said we require "digital presence" but not "physical presence" during people's "normal working day," but not evenings or weekends or holidays.
But DWG is now 14 years old and I have now worked for myself for 31 years. Over the decades I have changed my working patterns from 'before kids' to 'kids growing up' to now 'kids left home.'
And I am now changing how I work again.
I decided to explain to my colleagues how my own work pattern is changing and what I do and don't expect from the DWG team.
I shared this openly and the reactions I got were fascinating — and illuminating for other organizations where the working habits of leaders influence or even dictate how others work.
What suits me increasingly now is to work when I want. My historical pattern to rarely work evenings or weekends has morphed into a more fluid week. Trips to visit my 94-year-old mum or coffees with our daughters pop up in "normal hours." Sometimes I find myself working while walking our dog Hector, jotting notes in Evernote if insights hit me.
This also means sometimes I choose to spend a few hours working at weekends or later in the evening. And I like that. However I was conscious that as CEO I can set patterns that others feel (wrongly) they need to match.
The End of CEO Aping
The central point I made on Yammer:
"Just because I am working like this, others MUST NOT change how they work in consequence. If I communicate via Yammer or email or LinkedIn or Twitter in the evening or weekends then you MUST NOT change by replying etc. In the unlikely event that a communication is urgent I will EXPLICITLY say so — assume everything I do can be IGNORED till you are working again when you want."
I included the caveat that colleagues may choose to reply because it suits them, but that is 100 percent their choice.
"AS CEO I will not 'think you are great' because you CHOOSE to reply — or that you are 'not great' because you CHOOSE not to reply."
For me this way of working marks a new stage of maturity, where the CEO can work as she or he wishes without others feeling they need to match that habit. The days of what I call "CEO Aping" — where employees simply try to match what the CEO does — need to end.
A Resonant Message
Here are some of the unexpected replies I received ...
Shim: "Just wanted to respond reflecting on what I've seen in other organisations where the leaders set the tone of working patterns, creating an unspoken expectation that others follow suit. So good to see a very explicit message from you about your own preferences for working, and the implications (or non-implications!) on others.
"We were joking on our call today with that I've got a reputation (that I've been happy to perpetuate!) for not being coherent before 10:30am; (I want) the ability to work around my own natural rhythm (a previous manager made a point of not talking to me before the glaze had gone from my eyes!).
"So it's good to see a post / conversation about how others fit their work around their own rhythms. It's what other organisations who talk about flexible working still manage to get wrong."
Ellen: "Great to see this made explicit. I wonder how many leaders dare to think this, let alone write it out loud :-)"
Louise: "A great reassurance especially for the newer colleagues in DWG."
Fanny: "Good post Paul. I like to work late too sometimes but it is good to make clear that a reply is not required unless urgent."
Brian: "I agree about unspoken expectations and appreciate the clarity around this. This is the first organisation I have worked in where there is no sense of pressure to fall in line with others' patterns or negative thoughts if people take time out for home/family."
What I find liberating as CEO is that I can work where and when I want — and it is irrelevant to my colleagues.
This is freedom in work. And it brings out the best in me, and hopefully in my colleagues as well.