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Why overcoming the climate crisis begins with reinventing how we work

At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, experts examined the relationship between the workplace and decarbonizing cities

Why overcoming the climate crisis begins with reinventing how we work

The Great Resignation is here. A record-shattering 4.3 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in August, as the total number of vacancies rose to more than 10 million. “Nobody wants to work anymore” the meme goes, but the truth is more complicated. Nobody wants to work for someone who doesn’t care about work/life balance during a never-ending pandemic—which is one reason why 40% of U.S. adults would rather quit than go back to the office full-time. It’s also why roughly two million women have left the workforce entirely, as childcare duties fall disproportionately on their shoulders.

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But it doesn’t have to be this way. Siemens, for example, announced last summer that hybrid remote work would be the “new normal” for all of its office workers—one of the first and still largest companies to do so. Embracing a flexible, video-first culture of collaboration has not only bolstered morale and recruitment, but also sparked a sea change in how it works with partners outside the firm—who, after all, are only a click away. By supporting its staff in working where they chose, how, and when, Siemens hopes to accelerate innovation in some of its toughest domains—such as decarbonizing cities—while providing a blueprint for others to do the same.

“We need to join forces to fight the climate crisis,” says Rainer Karcher, global director of IT sustainability for Siemens. “We need to stop thinking of ourselves as vendors and customers and start seeing eye-to-eye as partners striving for the same goals.” Doing so will require firms to reinvent themselves from the inside-out, placing workers’ needs at the center of organizations and building a new, more caring corporate culture around them. To help draft a roadmap, Karcher was joined by Logitech CIO Massimo Rapparini and Scott Wharton, vice president and general manager of Video Collaboration Group, in a wide-ranging conversation at this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival.

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

The first step, they all agreed, is promoting—not penalizing—video-first collaboration. Prior to the pandemic, remote attendees were condemned to tinny speakers and grainy cameras. Not anymore. Future hybrid meetings, Wharton argued, will be more akin to sporting events, switching between multiple feeds of participants, whiteboards, and graphics in real time. “The goal is to make the technology disappear,” he said. “We want to level the playing field so whether you’re in person or remote, there are no second-class citizens.”

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This will in turn require a reset of cultural norms—a reset well underway inside firms such as Siemens, where Karcher works regularly with more than 100 colleagues, many of whom he’s only met on screen and none he’s seen in person since the pandemic’s start. Surviving and thriving during that time has meant balancing the formal structure of cloud-based collaboration tools with flourishes of personal intimacy that have become a hallmark of the past 18 months. “Creating those touch points—sometimes it’s a question, sometimes it’s a fun situation—is now the key to creating strong connections,” Karcher said. “Which is quite different than the purely professional approach in the past.”

If such arrangements risk blurring the line between one’s personal and professional lives beyond all recognition, they also deliver benefits for all involved. Rapparini pointed out how workers, untethered from rush hour commutes, are relishing their relative freedom—or else voting with their feet, as employment statistics suggest. Meanwhile, firms leaning into hybrid and remote work have new pools of talent at their disposal. “Cutting geographic ties creates flexibility that’s good for both parties,” he said.

RETHINKING THE WORK DAY

Building more supportive, caring organizations in the wake of COVID will also require changing the tempo and rhythms of work. For example, companies have learned that workers are better served by small, asynchronous meetings stretched across time zones and calendars than hours of wall-to-wall Zoom. Meanwhile, traveling salesmen are a thing of the past—the future is brute force selling via video, no plane tickets required. “We’re already seeing a radical transformation in meetings, recruiting, and sales overall,” Wharton said.

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Ironically, these shifts have profound implications for Siemens’ sustainability efforts—and for any organization determined to shrink its own carbon footprint. While early pandemic lockdowns had the notable effect of slashing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 17% (at the expense of nearly 40% of global GDP), Karcher noted that data centers’ electricity consumption rose 35% during that time. “It’s just not as simple as staying home and declining to travel,” he said. Nor is it fair to exempt knowledge workers from appearing in person while manufacturing personnel continue to report to the job site. For that reason, Siemens is already testing virtual- and augmented-reality-guided maintenance to assist staff and further reduce the need to travel.

The mention of VR and AR sparked a brief discussion of “the metaverse”—the totalizing vision of a purely remote future promoted by Facebook and a handful of other organizations. The trio recoiled at the thought of wearing VR headsets for hours each day, with each member suggesting how the future of remote collaboration lies in other directions. As Rapparini wondered, How do we recreate serendipitous sidebar conversations?

In the end, all agreed on one thing: The best method for sparking creativity and collaboration in a world of remote-first work was to go for a walk. “Sometimes,” Karcher said, “it’s worth it just to have the sun on your face rather than sitting in a sticky conference room.”

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To watch the full panel, please click below.

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