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Opinion - Workforce Wire

Op-ed: Here's why Synchrony will embrace the work-from-home model for good

Margaret Keane, Synchrony CEO
Key Points
  • A recent study from Harvard Business School finds that the finance and insurance industry saw 79% of jobs move online due to Covid-19. At Synchrony, that number was even higher.
  • The company's CEO says it did not set out to transform its culture, but that is what ended up happening in the move to remote work.
Synchrony is among the major U.S. corporations moving away from traditional offices to a "hub" model that will enable employees to work from home when they want (or full time) and visit a hub – e.g. a co-working space, Synchrony office, university space or other gathering spots – when they need to meet face-to-face.
Thomas Barwick | Getty Images

Outmoded habits are sometimes so deeply ingrained in a company's culture that it takes an extraordinary event before you recognize them and decide to change.  

The concept of remote work is like that. Despite all the improvements in technology in recent years — video conferencing, collaboration software, the ubiquity of smartphones — leaders at many companies believed, and I was one of them, that certain jobs could only be done in a traditional office setting.  

And was I ever wrong.

Covid-19 changed everything. Overnight, the pandemic made working from home a necessity for all.

According to a recent study from Harvard Business School, the finance and insurance industry saw 79% of jobs move online due to Covid-19. We surpassed that number at Synchrony. When the pandemic struck, we moved quickly to virtually equip nearly all employees to work from home — that included our thousands of customer service agents in call centers, our agile developers in our innovation labs and our senior executives in corporate headquarters.

We gave them computers, chairs and other equipment while creating the technology infrastructure needed to enable them to work securely. We learned quickly that providing work tools would be necessary but not sufficient. We would need to evolve our employee support programs to help our people accommodate the new normal. That meant providing everything from emergency childcare and an online summer camp for kids to financial assistance and mental health support. 

The reluctance to permit remote work was a failure of imagination on the part of leaders everywhere. ... Covid-19 was perhaps the worst-possible catalyst, but it forced us to make a transition that was long overdue.

We weren't thinking about transforming our culture or myth-busting our perceptions of remote work. But that's what we ended up doing. It wasn't all perfect or even easy. For example, the blurred lines between work and home life, our parents having to homeschool children, and the lack of social interaction was something we had to address. But once we got up and running, we noticed this new way of working, works.  

What surprised us more than anything was that nearly every role in our organization, including those we thought couldn't be done from home, were being effectively done with a remote and distributed team.

Replacing in-person meetings with video calls was revelatory. Our meetings were becoming more efficient. Employees began making decisions faster as we ditched PowerPoint presentations in favor of deep dialogue, more listening and robust debate. We dove right into the issues and opportunities at hand.

In addition, video meetings leveled the playing field for ideas, as people who previously had been too shy to speak up now blossomed in this virtual environment. Meetings became much more democratic and productive as a result.

There were personal benefits as well. Liberated from the daily commute and hours spent away from home, our people enjoyed more time with family. They pursued hobbies. They exercised more. Their quality of life evolved.

What was the impact to our partners and customers? We found we were able to respond and deliver for them at or above previous service levels.

Permanent work flexibility

As this transformation took hold throughout the company, even the most senior levels, we became more agile, faster and innovative. Who wouldn't want to make these benefits permanent?

That's why we announced recently that once the pandemic is over, we will move away from traditional offices to a "hub" model that will enable employees to work from home when they want (or full time) and visit a hub — e.g. a co-working space, Synchrony office, university space or other gathering spots — when they need to meet face-to-face. We will use these locations for cultural events, town halls, agile sprints, networking and other important business activities. Hubs will allow us to retain the human, personal connection of a traditional workplace while providing the flexibility employees crave.

The arrangement will apply equally across job roles and levels. Senior executives, including me, will role-model this behavior, whether at home, in the office or in a co-working space. 

Since we no longer need to tie employees to a specific physical office or site, we are also eliminating job locations for most roles. This will provide employees with more opportunities to take positions that previously may have required them to move themselves and their families to another part of the country. Perhaps even more important, we believe making every job effectively a remote job will help us build more diverse teams, from race and gender to diversity of thought and experience. In hiring, we will be able to reach into communities and parts of the country where Synchrony may not have hired for certain roles previously, as we used to tie specific jobs to specific locations. Career growth and career flexibility will be an incredible benefit of our new approach.

A related benefit of the hub model is that it will save money on real estate expenditures, allowing us to invest in new areas and reduce costs. 

To us, the transformation we've undertaken looks a lot like the future of work. Many of our business partners agree, and we have started sharing our ideas, learnings and processes with them.

The reluctance to permit remote work was a failure of imagination on the part of leaders everywhere. It proceeded from an outdated idea of how work is done in the 21st century. Covid-19 was perhaps the worst-possible catalyst, but it forced us to make a transition that was long overdue.

—By Margaret Keane, chief executive officer of Synchrony, a consumer financial services company

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