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How Board Directors Can Drive Innovation, Flexibility, and Performance: A Conversation With Work Strategist Cali Williams Yost

At CDF, our mission is to equip board directors, CEOs, and executives with the insights they need to guide their organizations in an increasingly uncertain future. So, we’re thrilled to share this exclusive article series, showcasing the wisdom of prominent business leaders from our CDF community. From adapting to changing market conditions to creating diverse and inclusive cultures that drive innovation, their real-life advice and insights will offer a fresh look at the managerial challenges facing organizations today.

How Board Directors Can Drive Innovation, Flexibility, and Performance

The pandemic forced companies worldwide to transform how they work, rapidly transitioning to remote environments and digital communication tools. But just three years later, many employers are instating a return to their pre-COVID policies.

Cali Williams Yost, a work futurist, the founder of Flex+Strategy Group, and a flexible work  strategist who wrote “What’s Your Company’s Emergency Remote Work Plan,” for HBR a month before COVID lockdowns began, knows from experience that flexibility supports operational resilience and sees this about-face trend as a mistake. “If you are bringing your workforce ‘back to the office’ to go ‘back’ to the way work was happening in February 2020, then that’s backward, unrealistic and doomed for failure,” she notes.

Instead, companies should take the opportunity to design new working norms, based on the values, mission, goals, and unique processes of the business. “If you are reintroducing more in-person interactions to a flexible work model that is currently primarily remote, then you’ve skipped some important steps. That includes defining, ‘Why are we in the office?’ but answering that question as part of a broader process of reimagining the way you will work next,” she adds. “We call this process high performance flexibility.”

Yost believes that board members can play a crucial role in this reimagination process, ultimately driving innovation, effectiveness, and business performance.

Yost shared her wisdom at CDF’s recent Directors Forum Annual Conference, and in the conversation below she offers some of those insights on how boards can lead their organizations into the future. 

CDF: Rather than mandating going back to “the way things used to be,” how can corporate leaders intentionally design work cultures that set their organizations and employees up for success in the future? 

Cali Yost: The goal is to redesign the flexible way work will happen now, as we emerge from COVID, while laying the foundation for work to continue to evolve as realities change next, because they will change.

That redesign entails building on the best of the lessons learned over the past three years about the way work can be done, adding back what’s missing from the way we worked before—that includes all the benefits of intentional, in person interactions—and defining how, when, and where work will happen best next.

But before you can redesign, you must be willing to reimagine work. You begin by asking, “What do we need to do?” as a company. What are our business priorities? What is our purpose as an organization? What are our values? What are the tasks and activities that support achieving those priorities, purpose and values?

THEN, once the “what” is defined, you determine “How, when and where do we do it best?” When you are “bringing your workforce back to the office” without engaging in that broader reimagining process, your focus is on the office. Whereas, when you lead with “What do we need to do?” and then “How, when and where do we do it best?” the focus is on performance and how the office is AN enabler of those business priorities, not THE enabler as it was in the traditional work model.

Unlike the 9-to-5, in the office 5 days a week, Monday-Friday traditional work model, one size will not fit all in the same organization when operating flexibly. As the recent Pew Research Center showed, 61% of jobs are not capable of being done remotely and require onsite presence; however, the reimagining process could look at optimizing time, the pace of work, or the processes used to schedule shifts, etc. in those jobs.

CDF: What are some key conversations corporate boards should be having, and questions they should be asking, in the coming months and years?

Yost: Whenever the board is talking to leadership about the priorities of the business, they need to ask: Are leaders and employees on the same page about how, when, and where those priorities will be executed most effectively?

Today, the answer to that question in most organizations is going to be no. That’s the impact of COVID. Pre-pandemic, everyone “agreed” that the traditional model was the operating framework within which people worked to achieve those goals, even though that model was already starting to disappear and more flexibility was happening, albeit randomly. That’s why doing the work to define the organization’s go-forward flexible operating model is a strategic imperative for the entire organization.

CDF: What is the biggest mistake you currently see board directors and leaders making? What are they missing or not seeing about the future of work?

Yost: There are four mistakes I’ve seen board directors and leaders making:

  • Directors pushing leaders who may recognize “going back” isn’t going to work but may not yet know how they want to execute a next-stage flexible work model to mandate a return to the office, instead of giving them the support to experiment.
  • Not realizing how their own personal context about where they believe work and performance happens best could be hampering their ability to lead employees in the process of reimagining the flexible way the business’s priorities can be executed next.
  • Thinking flexibility is solely the responsibility of the CHRO, and not expecting the entire C-Suite along with the business line leadership to jointly own the transformation and execution process.
  • Not understanding that an effective flexible work model supports and is critical to optimizing all aspects of ESG—the environment, social (diversity and inclusion, employee satisfaction and well-being), and governance (fairness in PROCESS).

CDF: How do you envision the future of work? Culturally, where will we be in 5 years?

Yost: My hope is that leaders and employees will be on the same page about how, when and where they execute the organization’s strategic priorities. That historic clash of work/performance contexts will be resolved because all levels finally agreed to meet in the middle and engage in the process of reimagining the way work will be done going forward.

After a period of assessing where they are and where they want to be, aligning leaders behind a shared vision of what’s next, training managers, teams, and employees in the skills they need to work effectively, experimenting with the new emerging flexible work model, scaling best practices and continuing to close gaps, the spark of performance and well-being that I’ve seen countless times, and still thrills me, has been unlocked.

Organizations can attract and retain a more diverse and inclusive global workforce that’s able to thrive. Technology and workspaces are optimized, with intention, to enable performance while working flexibly. People can flexibly fit their work and life together in a way that allows them to be their healthy, happy, and most productive best, on and off the job.

CDF: What are the most important traits, qualities, or markers that organizations need to thrive in an uncertain future? What can board leaders do to best inspire those traits?

Yost: The most important traits, qualities and markers required at all levels are an innovation mindset, a willingness to learn, a sense of psychological safety that supports experimentation, comfort with a period of ambiguity, and a future-facing orientation. Board leaders can inspire those traits by embracing them, looking for them in others and when they see them, and making sure they’re noted and rewarded.

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