Rolls-Royce North America CEO and president of defense Tom Bell says the pandemic transformed the way he thinks about work. It’s no longer a place, but an activity.
As such, leaders must turn to their workers to navigate this new era, he says.
“Suspend your disbelief just a little bit, and ask your people how they could be best productive,” Bell said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Our people will have great answers for us if we just trust them.”
The Reston, Virginia-based unit of the British multinational aerospace and defense supplier Rolls-Royce operates under a hybrid work policy, which became official for most workers in early 2022. Every day, employees can choose where they work and aren’t mandated to the office on any specific days. Bell said the company has “resisted the urge to micromanage” and made remote work widely acceptable versus an exception – a massive departure from his pre-pandemic philosophy.
Bell relied on his people to help his team with an $8 million redesign of the company’s Indianapolis office, which opened in May. He also learned that his team of skilled workers could digitally show how the Rolls-Royce engine would integrate in to the U.S. Air Force B-52 aircraft – all while working remotely. The model ultimately landed the company a $2.6 billion contract.
Bell shared his vision of how work is evolving at Rolls-Royce North America, which employs about 6,000 workers. His answers have been edited for clarity.
Q: How have your views evolved on remote work?
A: In 2019, if you had told me you were working from home, I would have had a mental picture of [you on] the back nine or the tennis courts. In 2020 and 2021, most of us were working from home, and all of us were incredibly productive. Even I said, ‘Well, why should I wake up and just automatically drive to work?’ It’s been a change for me from skeptic in 2019 to somebody who’s really excited about hybrid working. Who doesn’t like being able to take their lunch break and walk their dog, see their kids or get some sunshine? It’s been a productivity enhancement.
Q: How are you thinking about flexibility for workers whose jobs require them to be in person?
A: If you’re a manufacturing engineer, much of your job is out on the factory floor talking to mechanics and helping us build products. But that doesn’t mean every day you necessarily have to be there. You have a cadre of people who can rotate in and out. You have people who can be on remote calls. We’ve all learned to trust video. So our mechanical and manufacturing engineers can look at problems even if they’re home. We’re trying to think liberally about how we spread the wealth of hybrid work.
Q: How did digital modeling a B-52 aircraft change how you typically vie for a contract?
A: We digitally modeled that whole [B-52] ecosystem. We knew that the biggest problem for the U.S. Air Force was how much risk they [might] be adopting with a commercial engine in a B-52. We spent a lot of time digitally modeling and showing it with virtual and augmented reality. A [maintenance person] could put on an augmented reality headset and see how to physically maintain that engine, how to access the panels, etc. For such an old airplane and unique application, it was groundbreaking.
We had been using virtual and augmented reality mainly for servicing engines. This was the first time we moved it into the new business side. All our employees and systems now embrace digital as the way we’re going to work into the future.
Q: Will there ever be a fully automated factory?
A: Do machines become more automated? Probably. There’s still a need for our workforce to come together to put that engine together and test it to understand what’s happening and anticipate what’s going to happen. Machines still don’t work perfectly all the time. That human is there to see something going off the rails – I don’t see that being replaced any time soon.
Q: Why did Rolls-Royce invest in a new office given its flexible work policies?
A: If you’re tired of seeing people in 2D, you can come have a cup of coffee with somebody [at the workplace]. We’ve stopped assuming everybody’s at work every day. We no longer have a desk for every person, and we certainly don’t have a parking spot for every employee. We’re no longer thinking you come to the workplace to work by yourself. You only come to meet a customer, collaborate, innovate with team members or suppliers, solve a vexing problem that only a whiteboard will help do.
Our workplace has two floors of space where a person can come between meetings, conferences and phone calls and do some work. It has two floors of collaboration space – it’s flexible to be reconfigured for whatever size team. Then two floors for customers and social interaction.
Q: What were the priorities for redesigning the office?
A: We jettisoned all the old infrastructure we had invested in the 2010s. It was about rethinking our application of technology. We brought employee focus groups in virtually and said, ‘What is it that you need for your team to be productive?’ Our employees have had a heavy hand in determining what that space looks like. We’re going to take stock of this in six to eight months. Because it’s flexible, if we need more collaboration space and less touch down space, easy.
Q: What trends are you seeing from how employees work?
A: So far, more employees are still virtual than we anticipated. Utilization is probably about a third. But as people get used to what in-person work is all about again, we anticipate that the space is going to be fully utilized.
Q: Do you expect the new office to be the blueprint for future offices?
A: Yes. I had my peers from across the corporation, Germany, the U.K. and other nations into Indianapolis for an executive meeting. Now the conversation is, how do we make this the new standard?
Q: How has leadership training changed since the pandemic?
A: We now have mandatory training, which can be taken virtually. It is quintessentially the difference between management and leading. You can manage tactically easier when everybody’s physically present. What’s required in 2022 and beyond is real leadership. You may not see for some weeks, and that’s OK. You need to embrace that and lead even more effectively rather than worrying about managing.
Q: What specifically are managers being told to do differently?
A: The first thing is not believing that work is a series of tasks or deliverables on a finite schedule. Work is now a conversation about the team’s deliverables over a period of time and how teams work together and divide that work up to reach objectives.
Q: How is the company dealing with bias that may arise with workers who visit the office more often?
A: We’re learning that embracing virtual work is helping break down proximity bias. I see most of my team in a virtual space more often than I see anybody physically. And usually when I see people physically, everybody’s together. There’s truly a meritocracy of ideas, and everybody is equal in that form.
Q: How is Rolls-Royce responding to the current labor shortage?
A: We’re expanding with our approach to virtual work. We think that’s a key enabler to fighting the talent war.