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With flexible working conditions expected to become more common, the limited time when employees are in the office together will be crucial to customer focus and value creation 

Working from home during the pandemic may have permanently altered how companies operate for the better; greater flexibility, more independence and losing the stress of the daily commute are just a handful of benefits employees have reported. Plus, a majority prefer it: about two-thirds of workers want flexible working arrangements to stay once coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions end.  

There have also been benefits to businesses: organisations that transition to flexible working operations can save money on office space, as well as expand their hiring pool beyond their geographic area. Research has also found working from home has resulted in as much as a 13 per cent increase in productivity, allaying fears employees would get less done. There are obviously circumstances where all this is not the case, but many of the negative effects people anticipated haven’t materialised. 

On the other hand, there are also some clear negatives: the collapse of boundaries between work and home, many people lacking the space for a comfortable home office setup, and managers finding it harder to support their employees are just a few of the challenges people are still struggling with. 

But what should be of greatest concern is the lack of opportunities for non-structured interactions that can lead to information sharing and creative ideas. If flexible working arrangements become the norm going forward, the limited time in the office could become more valuable than ever before. This is particularly true if we look at it through the lens of customer value creation.  

Customer-centricity 

Most managers will agree that being customer-centric (i.e. putting customers’ needs at the centre of decision-making) is important in creating customer and financial value. Two core ideas have emerged in marketing about the ways in which companies can be customer-centric: a market-driven and a market-driving approach. Both will benefit significantly from making the most of our time in the office. 

Being market-driven involves responding to customers’ expressed needs efficiently and effectively. It’s about being market orientated, by systematically generating market intelligence, disseminating it throughout the organisation, and responding to that intelligence effectively. Intelligence generation consists of collecting information about your market from sources such as customers, competitors and collaborators. Intelligence dissemination is all about making sure that information reaches the right people at the right time within the organisation. The final stage, responsiveness to intelligence, is acting on that information to meet customers’ needs.  

In small organisations, this can happen quite easily; if customers at a café think the coffee is too bitter, the barista can share that feedback with the owner, who might switch to a smoother blend. But in more complex organisations, this communication needs to be deliberately cultivated and managed from the top down. 

Building a business culture of market orientation is easiest when people can meet, talk, interact, and otherwise communicate more freely with one another across all levels of an organisation. In a situation where everyone is working remotely, those open channels of communication can be difficult to encourage, especially across different teams who might not normally interact with one another. Someone in sales might not have much reason to talk to someone in IT, but if they did, they may stumble on a way to improve the customer checkout process.  

Easily ignored emails, formal Zoom meetings and isolated Slack conversations might contain the information necessary to discover this opportunity, but, without a culture of customer-centricity and the encouragement of open communication, it is far less likely to happen. 

A market-driving approach

Market driving is a proactive approach to customer-centricity, one that tries to anticipate customers’ emergent or latent needs through innovation. At its heart lies creativity, much of which can be driven by fostering social capital within the business. Social capital is a way to think about the relationships and shared values that make up an organisation; it highlights the value that can be generated from the networks and interactions between individuals in the organisation. This is extremely important, and, in a research study, I and my fellow researchers demonstrated companies with a high level of social capital can use it to boost their creativity, and through that, their business performance. 

Working in isolation and only interacting in structured formats makes social capital difficult to build and, creative collaboration harder to achieve. The water cooler effect, the idea that casual conversation can make people more productive and inspire creative ideas, is no longer there. Sometimes the most creative and powerful ideas originate from serendipitous moments and unplanned interactions. These things are difficult to replicate when people are working remotely. 

How can a business make the most of the limited time together in the office? Managers need to look for any and every opportunity to bring people together when they can, particularly in casual situations. It means running more training days when people can be together or encouraging informal social events where they are possible. As the number of days that people are in the office dwindles, the value of that time spent together becomes so much more valuable. 

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Main image: Eva Almqvist / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images.

Omar Merlo

About Omar Merlo

Associate Dean (External Relations), Assistant Professor of Marketing - Academic Director, MSc Strategic Marketing
Dr Omar Merlo is Associate Dean (External Relations) and a faculty member in the Department of Analytics, Marketing & Operations. Previously he was Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Cambridge and at the University of Melbourne.

Dr Merlo’s main interests are in strategic marketing, services and relationship management, and customer engagement. He has received several awards, including teaching prizes from multiple universities, an American Marketing Association award, and a European Union Award for Excellence. His work has appeared in several academic and professional journals, such as MIT Sloan Management Review, Industrial Marketing Management and Journal of Service Research.

An experienced consultant and executive educator, Dr Merlo has worked with many organisations around the world, including McKinsey & Co, Samsung, Audi, Barclays Bank, ING Bank, ABB, and Airbus, among others. He is also a member of Duke Corporate Education's Global Learning Resource Network and a mentor for several start-ups.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Professional Web Page

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