Remote Work's Defining Moment

Leaders must keep today’s revolution in how we work from becoming isolating and divisive, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

We’ve reached a defining moment, one that will shape our future. We know what that feels like—we’ve had these moments before.

When I was 10 years old, I stood at the window on a cold, rainy day as a truck pulled up in front of our house. Two men appeared at our door and carried all our furniture away. My dad had gone bankrupt, and everything was repossessed. And I can still remember how embarrassed I felt as a young teenager by my dad’s rusty, 30-year-old car that I didn’t want my classmates to see. Then there was going to the grocery store and not wanting anyone to be behind us in line as we paid with food stamps.

Painful at the time, but pivotal over time.

My colleague Mark Arian reached out to me this week to share another pivotal experience, from his early life. He was 11 years old when his mother was diagnosed with bone cancer and had to have her jaw removed and replaced with a mechanical device. Despite being in terrible pain, his mother refused to take painkillers so she could be fully present for Mark and his two siblings. Just before Mark’s 12th birthday, his mother died.

“Looking back now, I am filled with incredible pride for what she did,” Mark, who heads our global Consulting business, told me. “I am reminded every day of her courage and sheer determination. She continues to inspire me, both as a parent of six children and as a leader.”

All of us can think back to our own tough times. We all shared March and April 2020—the widespread fear and despair, the pain and suffering that followed. And yet, what if we could have projected what the world would be like today?

At times in our lives, we’ve all said, “If only I knew then what I know now, I would have … [fill in the blank].” In today’s defining moment, though, we do have that opportunity to anticipate what the world will look like tomorrow.

It starts by accurately perceiving the reality of today. All around us, we can feel the tremors. There are fault lines underfoot—fragmentation everywhere.

It’s called remote work.

There is cataclysmic change in the workspace, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve gone from subways and freeways to home office bedrooms and kitchen-table desks. Liberating, yes—but also isolating.

Full time, part time, back to the office, hybrid, or something in between. Whatever becomes the norm, we need to be careful that we don’t become like the proverbial frog in the well, as Jill Wiltfong, Korn Ferry’s CMO, discussed with me this week. She mentioned the age-old parable—and a cautionary tale for this moment in time. As the well-known story goes, the frog believes his well is all that exists—until one day a sea turtle tells him of the vast ocean. Only then does the frog realize how limited his world has been.

That could be the same for us if we allow ourselves to become increasingly fragmented—even to the point of being fractured.

In this, our defining moment, what used to be organic—with places to go, people to see, small talk in the hallways—must now become inorganic. As Darren Bolton, the head of Korn Ferry’s creative/Lab team, shared with me this week, talking about nothing is actually something. Here are some thoughts: 

·        In-person relationships. “There were a lot of not-so-dry eyes in the place, including mine. People were over the moon just to see each other for the first time in 18 months—and there were new people who had never met their colleagues in person before.” With these words, Mike Franzino, who heads our firm’s Global Financial Services practice, described for me a recent outdoors get-together for colleagues at a restaurant—with twice as many people showing up than expected. Far more than merely a social occasion, it was a rare chance to reestablish relationships and rekindle connections in person. There was a lot of sharing of personal details—weddings and births, deaths, and losses—the kind of information that doesn’t get discussed in virtual meetings. As Mike told me this week, “You can have all the Zooms you want, but when you see someone and look them in the eye and speak to them, it’s something really special.” Or, as another colleague, Xenia von Schröder, a member of our marketing team based in Germany, told me, “I can tell you about my favorite Italian restaurant—how it smells, what the food tastes like, what the atmosphere feels like. But until you’re there in person, you won’t really know.” Bottom line: there is no substitute for being there.

·        Our ties that bind. People want to become part of something bigger than themselves. With a strong sense of purpose—an overarching “why”—they are more likely to be aligned with the mission and values of the organization. All the arrows will point in the same direction. But the truth is, when that purpose is lacking, disconnection happens. After all, people are the activators of purpose and the ultimate connectors within an organization. Purpose makes all the difference. And where does that come from? Us—our experiences, the casual conversations, the happenstance connections, the accidental meetings. It’s never about the org charts or necessarily even about the products and processes. People make organizations. These are the ties that bind us together.

·        Polar opposites. In these days of transition, we’re caught in a world of contrasts. Grit vs. grace. Perform vs. transform. Speed vs. significance. Critique vs. create. Execute vs. engage. Individuation vs. inclusion. It’s a paradoxical dynamic, shared with me the other day by Kevin Cashman, our global leader of CEO & executive development. Amid the push and pull of so many opposites, it’s easy to get caught up in our own separate ecosystems. When that happens, we disconnect from the greater whole known as the enterprise—and then it almost doesn’t matter where we’re working, because it all feels the same. In this remote world, it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen. It starts with becoming more self-aware. Only then can we be intentional about where and how we expand our thinking—mastering the balancing act between what appear to be polar opposites, but actually complete us.

·        How we’re wired. As we go through this period of transformative change, we can find peace of mind—literally. While human brains are adaptable and malleable (a very good thing!), they’re also hardwired in two key areas that serve us well right now. The first is being adaptive to change. As Amelia Haynes, a research associate in our Korn Ferry Institute, told me this week, “Our brains are built to learn new patterns really quickly—that’s what we’re biologically preconditioned to do.” Thanks to that capacity, we can break out of old habits and the rut we’ve been stuck in—a workspace of fragmentation, disconnection, a lot of Zoom, and individual ecosystems. The brain is also hyper-wired for connecting with others. As Amelia emphatically added, “We want and need other people—it’s a fundamental need and crucial to the survival of our species!”

Flash forward—six months, a year, two years. What do we foresee? We don’t need to be prescient. Indeed, the answer lies in this defining moment.