An image of a video conference meeting AccountingWEB How CFOs can support the future of work
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How CFOs can support the future of work

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Neil Cutting catches up with Joanne Caruso, executive vice president at the $16bn professional services company Jacobs, to talk about the work they did together in shaping the organisation’s “future of work” initiative. 

12th Jul 2023
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Three years have now passed since businesses were mandated to close their office doors, but while face masks, Zoom quizzes and restrictions on toilet rolls now feel psychedelic, many organisations still haven’t returned to their 9-to-5 pre-Covid office life. 

Instead, organisations have permanently changed their ways of working and adopted a more flexible approach. But for this “future of work” transformation to truly work, businesses have to fully understand the needs of the business, its people and its clients. 

I know too well the challenges that come from shifting to a hybrid set up, after having been heavily involved in Jacobs’ post-Covid future of work project. Closing and/or reducing office space was hard, and was much more difficult than simply asking colleagues to decamp elsewhere with their laptops. 

A picture of Joanne Caruso

The project’s executive sponsor was Joanne Caruso (pictured left). A lawyer by training, Caruso serves as the chief legal and administrative officer at Jacobs Solutions. Alongside that role in the global organisation, a number of the functional groups report into her, including legal, risk, ethics and compliance, ESG and HR. Additionally, she is one of the driving forces behind Jacobs’ work with Bridges to Prosperity’s charitable efforts in Rwanda.  

I recently caught up with my former colleague to reminisce about some of the boardroom challenges we faced when we implemented Jacobs’ new flexible work policy and retraced the steps we took to meet the cross department objectives and more importantly, earn the employees’ commute. 

Catalyst for change

When the Covid pandemic spread across the world with frightening consequences, office workers were left to set up their own makeshift work spaces. 

Offices were left empty, and for organisations like Jacobs, the primary concern was making sure its employees were safe and every one had the tools they needed. But it soon dawned on the leadership team and the organisation that they would have to think more long term about the situation and plan accordingly. 

“As many throughout the world, we initially thought it was just going to be temporary and a quick return to normal. But as weeks progressed, we soon realised that wasn’t the case, and that there were also differences in the many regions of the world where we had offices. So, one of the first things we did was put together a return to the workplace playbook and work out how we were going to actually bring people back - and what that looked like,” she told me. 

Caruso explained that the organisation created a dashboard that pulled in data from all around the world where they had offices which tracked, among other things the Covid rates, and the applicable laws for each location. While Jacobs had started pulling together guidelines on when it would be safe to go into the office, the organisation soon realised that they had to leave the decision to the different regions. 

But as it happened, the pandemic only accelerated the company’s new ways of working plans that were already afoot. 

Assessing the gaps

Following a presentation to the senior leadership team in December 2019, Jacobs had already started talking about how people were going to use offices and a shift to a more flexible way of working. This was being considered for both internal Jacobs and external client needs.

They were already ahead of the game as Jacobs’ leadership had started to contemplate what the “desired state” of the future of work looked like and what the clients wanted. 

When Covid hit “the executive leadership team was meeting every single day, and we were also giving regular updates to the board, in addition to the regular board meetings. But, by a few weeks in, it became apparent it was not going to be a quick return to the office, and the focus was on what we needed to do to support our clients and our people,” said Caruso. 

“Not knowing where the world was going to go, we looked at what expenses and costs we had. And like most organisations we considered: what are the things that we absolutely needed to do, and also what were the things that we could or should pause and/or hold back on?”

As part of that, the organisation started to talk about what kind of real estate and office footprint it needed. 

The desired state

Jacobs started to look at its office space and real estate needs, and the impact of consolidating office sites. This was the start of what Caruso called “rescale 1.0”. 

“[The finance and real estate departments] were a key part of doing all of the modelling, in terms of what it meant; we were looking at all of our leases, but then also really what it meant in terms of the future of work, and how people were going to work.”

Everything came down to clients first and making sure we were serving our clients and the business

As part of meeting the desired state of the new ways of working, and speaking to various people across the business, there were different requirements for project sites, government organisations and private organisations, which varied by country and culture globally.

And from an employee perspective as well, Jacobs found that it might be okay to consolidate some offices and make them destination sites, but that had to go hand in hand with an ever improving digital environment. 

“We really were trying to get the pulse of our employees and our clients,” said Caruso. This meant finding out what the employees wanted in terms of whether they wanted to come into the office and how much.” 

But ultimately, “Everything came down to clients first and making sure we were serving our clients and the business.” 

As the Covid lockdowns progressed, Caruso said people realised the technology benefit of video meetings, which allowed people to become more flexible without a decrease in service to its clients. A more flexible approach to working also became a big recruiting tool, as Jacobs was no longer limited to hiring talent based on their commuting distance to the office.  

Meeting the desired state

The new way of working was introduced across the business as a phased rollout, starting with Rescale 1.0 before moving on to Rescale 2.0 and then Rescale 3.0.

“We need to earn their commute” was a phrase Caruso kept coming back to that perfectly encapsulated Jacobs’ future of work transformation and helped shape the team’s efforts in rolling it out across the globe. 

We need to earn their commute

As Caruso explained, the project was driven by the need to have offices in the future that best served the needs of employees and clients; it wasn’t just about cutting costs. It became apparent that an office in what would be the future of work could no longer be the place where individuals go to just do individual work. 

To understand the needs of the employees and what the office needed to look like, the future of work team developed five personas; from somebody who needed to go in for a client meeting to somebody who was in the office for a meeting but needed to do quiet work.   

Research into these personas demonstrated that the business didn’t need as much office space. Jacobs was then able to completely reconfigure its offices. “The team spaces are beautiful: they're bright, they're open and they really do allow for a good work environment,” said Caruso. 

Personally, I was one of those personas that had no need to go into the office, but I did it for mental health reasons to connect with people. But I went into the office and my computer hardly worked. So those were some of the digital challenges because there'd been so much investment for people working at home from Covid. 

Caruso and the team also realised that technology was going to play a big role in meeting the organisation’s future of work desired state. “If [our employees] were going to make the trek into the office, they needed the technology to be able to work,” said Caruso.”

It’s clear why the phrase “earning the commute” was so important in the transformation process. 

If [our employees] were going to make the trek into the office, they needed the technology to be able to work

Measure and manage the transformation

Once the need for the project was established, the next step was to manage the transformation project. 

As the organisation adjusted to the more flexible approach to working, Caruso and the team realised that key to its success was to monitor the effect of the transformation. “It was run exactly like a client project,” said Caruso. 

This meant collecting more data, and once that was crunched and understood, learning from it and adjusting the plan accordingly, then the project team would assess any changes during quarterly reviews. 

“We took a number of people out of their day jobs to spend 100% of the time [on the project],” said Caruso. 

The Jacobs EVP served as the executive sponsor of the project and held regular meetings, but the people across the business were meeting almost every day. To keep the project moving, and the different stakeholders on track, the teams worked from a dashboard which listed the timeline and objectives. 

Caruso explained how important it was to get all the functions across the business involved - even if those discussions were brimming with “constructive tension.” 

“We would come up with where the opportunities were; for example this is where a lease was coming to an end, or where we thought we could go down from three floors, to two, or even one floor, or where we might be able to sub-lease. 

“The heads of the businesses were critical participants in the project and they would get involved often saying, ‘No, we can’t do that because that office or space is very important for our client.’ There was a lot of constructive tension in these conversations, as our former CEO would say, but it got us to a place that’s best for the company.”

Evaluate and improve

The project continues now as “business as usual,” as Caruso explained, with the transformation still undergoing continuous improvement. “We're still looking at it as we really think about and continue to optimise what our office space is.” And part of continuously improving the project is to always listen to their people.  

Jacobs doesn’t require its people to be in the office any number of days, after hearing clearly from its employees through regular pulse surveys that they don’t want a mandate, but they are encouraged to have those connections with their colleagues and clients. 

But getting to that point was hard and you will never forget the disruption caused by closing down an office space. This is where people have worked for many years and these decisions impact workers beyond the upheaval of their commute. 

“They see the consolidation of offices, and some people start worrying ‘is my job safe?’,” said Caruso. In order to respond to employee concerns and questions and provide information, Jacobs had a running set of FAQs on its internal website and held numerous global town halls. 

It was also important for the people in charge of the offices to understand what we were trying to do from a global perspective. 

In order to constantly evaluate and improve the project, we took a phased approach. This allowed us to realise that we should have spoken to certain people, or we should have presented something in a different way.

Now on the other side of the project, Caruso reflected: “I am much more steady because of what we went through with Covid and recognising that, with the right people in the room, and working together to get an outcome, that we can really do the extremely hard things.”

For finance leaders approaching a future of work transformation project, Caruso suggested these four steps:

  • Be clear of the remit at the start: Is it for cost reduction? Is it to improve client and employee experience? 
  • Understanding the impacts across multiple areas: You need a team which includes representation from the digital side, the people who look after the property side, finance and other people from tax and legal. Then there's a broader team of people who touch contracts, the environment and the delivery and the people who look after the offices.
  • Get as much data about as you can: There was lots and lots of looking at numbers and questions over things like when are the leases up and what was the usage of offices every day?
  • Run it like a project: What's the scope? What's the schedule? What’s the cost benefit? And who is accountable?

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