Congratulations to Forrester for embracing “work anywhere”

George Colony. Drawing by Chris Morris, Boston Globe.

Forrester Research CEO George Colony is a stubborn, stubborn man. But he believes in the company’s research and he values culture above all. That’s why, after decades in an office, he has just embraced a post-viral “work anywhere” policy.

George Colony is dedicated to two things: culture and research

When I started working for Forrester Research as an analyst in 1995, there were 65 people there. When I left in 2015 as a senior vice president, there were 1,300. Now there are 1,700, located all over the world, and the company is on track to generate about half a billion dollars in revenue.

George Colony founded the company in 1983 and is still the CEO and Chairman.

I came to admire George during my time there. This is not to say that I agreed with him on everything. Some of his decisions drove me nuts. But if you want to know about George and what kind of CEO he is, there are two things that are crucial to understand.

First, he is massively and fully dedicated to culture. There is a consistent set of values that drives Forrester, encoded in the values 3CIQ: client, courage, collaboration, integrity, and quality. At a lot of companies, these words would just be words. But at Forrester, those values are part of the onboarding for new employees, they are repeated frequently at all-company meetings, and they are the names of awards that the top employees get each year.

The second thing to know about George is that the “Research” in Forrester Research is not just part of the name. When Forrester analysts tell companies to do X and not to do Y, that’s backed up by research. The research might consist of talking to lots of clients and vendors. It might be based on large surveys of consumers or businesspeople. It might be based on years of experience in a market. But it’s not just attention-getting made up crap. The research does not always lead to the right answers — predicting the right path is hard to get right all the time — but it is certainly the best and most informed take on any decision where technology intersects business.

Part of George’s dedication to culture led to a lot of investment in office culture. A few years after I started, Forrester left the office walls behind and moved everyone into open-plan “pods.” And about eight years ago, Forrester moved to a gleaming new headquarters on the edge of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The new HQ included state-of-the-art videoconferencing rooms and lots of other expensive physical infrastructure.

Forrester had remote employees and offices all over the world. But if you lived within an hour’s commute of the office, they expected you to come into the office at least four days a week. That was part of the culture. Some employees left the company over the policy, but the company maintained the attitude that a coherent and collaborative culture meant you were able to meet face to face with your coworkers.

When the research ran head-on into preconceptions, the research won

George just changed his mind. He published a blog post this week about the change in policy – a shift to a “work anywhere” model.

Obviously, the virus driving people out of offices was a catalyst here, but it’s not the only reason for the change. The research is.

Here’s a little of what George wrote:

What’s going to happen when the virus recedes? We had originally decided to return in a “2/3” footprint — we would require employees to be in the office two days a week, with the ability to work at home or elsewhere for the other three days. We have now decided that when offices fully reopen, we will be in a “full-flex,” or what Forrester terms “anywhere-work,” mode — employees and teams will decide when they will be in the office based on their work. This doesn’t mean that employees are free to move to goat farms in Idaho; we want most Forresterites to be “office-associated workers” — close enough to an office to be able to use the resource when required.

Why have we made this decision?

1. The office isn’t always needed. We used to think that the office was our toolbox. We have now come to see the office as simply another tool in the toolbox — when you need it, take it out and use it; if you don’t need it, work elsewhere.

2. Technology. While virtual work is not perfect, it has enabled an unexpectedly high level of collaboration. To paraphrase Marc Andreessen, software is eating office buildings.

3. Employee experience. Our research (summary only if you are not a client) is showing that companies that move toward anywhere work have happier, more engaged employees. On a 100-point scale, anywhere-work employees are 13 points higher in happiness, 7 points higher in engagement, and 10 points higher in seeing their companies as innovative.

4. Talent acquisition. Our research shows that 53% of US workers want more flexibility to work at home. In Forrester’s search for the best and the brightest, we cannot exclude half of the workforce.

In his post, George talks frankly about the challenge of maintaining culture in a mostly virtual workplace and the steps the company has taken to strengthen those virtual connections. And he admits that the biggest problem in such a shift is often the CEO:

What’s holding you back from moving to anywhere work? In many companies, it’s the CEO. As I initially was, many leaders are uncomfortable if they can’t see the workforce and exercise their typically high emotional quotient to “lead.” Big buildings full of busy workers make CEOs happy. Yes, those days will happen, but they will be planned events rather than everyday occurrences.

Knowing George, I am betting that this was a difficult and contentious decision. When you invest over $10 million a year in lease payments and have always worked in an office in a highly collaborative way, you don’t just dump that without a lot of thought.

But Forrester’s research showed that in 2021, smart companies that can work anywhere, should work anywhere. Forrester couldn’t tell clients that and ignore the advice for their own organization. So they made the difficult decision to embrace the change.

With the right tools and planning, Forrester can continue to maintain its outstanding culture in a world where analysts and the rest of the workforce work from anywhere. It’s a digital business — now it can act like one.

It doesn’t hurt that sales and growth are strong, earnings are up, and the stock price is moving in a healthy direction. These decisions are easier when you’ve made the hardest choices during the COVID era and figured out how to succeed anyway.

I salute the courage it took to make this decision. George and his crew will make it work. I have no doubt of that.

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  1. This post made me smile today, Josh. Thanks for giving George’s decision the attention and space it deserves. I can also corroborate your view that he prioritizes culture most of all. And that’s a great thing. Almost every company was able to make anywhere work happen functionally at the start of the pandemic. Making it work culturally is much harder but it’s something that we’re having conversations with clients about every day.

  2. Josh, I wonder whether you believe “work anywhere” well meets the needs of recent graduates and those for whom mentoring matters. The pandemic isolated many new hires, my kids included, and they were not well served by office closures.

    I agree with Jamie Dimon, presence matters. Learning, communication and problem solving are fostered by proximity; the latter may not happen voluntarily, especially among those too shy to ask.

    1. An excellent question. In orgs that were remote already before COVID, they’ve developed tools to mentor people and keep them in the loop.

      If senior people ignore the needs of junior people, it’s always a problem. It shouldn’t require tripping over them in the hallway to recognize and meet their needs.