The challenges of the last year have presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the workplace. At the peak of infections and restrictions, businesses of all shapes and sizes proved that necessity is the mother of invention. Roles, offices and workflows were swiftly adapted to ensure that organisations could continue to operate. Solutions were found to change overnight what many companies would otherwise have tinkered with for years. And the world of work continued.
But it remains a world unlike any we have seen before. Organisational culture is no longer built and perpetuated inside of buildings. All across the globe, the workforce and workplace have become separate – and our homes have become the place where we live, work and even teach. As we look ahead to the slow transition back to social ‘normality’, there is a need to define what this means in our working life. To do so, business leaders need to grapple with these four key priorities.
1. Set deliberate intentions for the future work environment
Much has been written about organisations at either end of the ‘WFH’ spectrum – from Spotify embracing the notion of ‘working from anywhere’ to claims by Goldman Sachs that our recent pattern of remote work is simply an aberration. The reality is that most businesses will likely land somewhere in the middle.
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that there are clear benefits to life and work operating more in sync. Organisations have continued to operate by being distributed in homes across countries and continents. Leaders have seen first-hand that their people can be happier and more productive when they are under less direct supervision and control. And few can deny that opportunities to perform outside of the four walls of an office can better integrate our work and home life, providing a flexibility that many would continue to value.
Yet the constant juggle of work and home/family life has challenged us all in different ways. The continued lack of variety is draining and many of us long for days back in the office. At times it feels like we are not so much working from home as living at work. Whilst the positive case for remote working is clear for driving results in a business cycle, it is less clear how this supports long-term learning and relationship-building as well as the sort of breakthrough innovation and creativity that relies on serendipitous interactions of people. When it comes to the future role of the office, organisations need to be deliberate about the freedoms they choose to retain, weighing up the balance of long-term organisational and individual interest.
2. Make certainty a two-way street
From a neuroscience standpoint, we know that uncertainty triggers more stress than the certainty of bad things happening. As governments clarify their own intentions to ease social restrictions, employers will remain a major source of uncertainty as their people seek to understand what their future working patterns will be. Many organisations are still working this through, and there remain a lot of unanswered questions about how the economy and broader society will regain its function. In this period, organisations should be as transparent as possible. Maintaining this balance is tricky, but communicating what is / isn’t known or what is definitely on the table, however challenging, should always take priority over keeping options open and employees in suspense. Without openness, people sense deception and perceive threat. Business leaders should encourage their people to participate actively in discussions about future working practices so that reaching clarity becomes a two-way, iterative process.
3. Equip managers to lead through collective trauma
We already know that managers are at the heart of the employee experience but it is true now more than ever. In a remote working environment, managers form the primary conduit between an employee in their own home and the ‘organisation’ that extends across other homes around the globe. Moreover, with social contact being limited as it is today, people put more emphasis on their work contacts and relationships than they have at any point in the past. The role of managers has transformed at a pace that’s left most ill-equipped to support individuals through the collective trauma of a pandemic on top of an already overwhelming need to address systemic discrimination and injustice. These are challenges which go beyond the influence of any one manager or organisation. Nonetheless, it is essential for leaders to recognise what they are asking of managers in “supporting their teams” and to share ownership for that responsibility.
Organisations should put significant focus and effort into ensuring that managers are fully equipped for this moment. Rather than utilise this previously ‘squeezed middle’ as a vessel for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up communications, companies would benefit from supporting them to practice empathy, candour and open communication within their teams and through their 1:1 relationships. This is an opportunity for conversations that focus on the ‘whole person’ – including their hopes and fears around coming back to the office, how their lives have changed this past year and what they feel about their role and future in the organisation. We now have the ultimate window for taking stock on our own personal and professional development, and are unlikely to experience something so collectively life-changing again. Levels of anxiety and depression are alarmingly high, untold numbers of us are burnt out or grieving those lost. Employers should not let this moment pass without recognising the role they can play in helping us to fix ourselves.
4. Lighten the individual load
Through necessity, many organisations have had to reflect on their pre-pandemic plans and priorities. A lot of activity and ambition has been pushed out from 2020 into 2021, where a sense of ‘normality’ had been hoped for. Little by little, all remaining social restrictions from the pandemic will be removed, and social life as we know it will resume. But it would be wrong to expect that society and business should pick up exactly where they left off. There is much for organisations to learn from how they have survived (or struggled) this past year to help focus on their true sources of value. We have an opportunity to rebuild, leave unproductive practices in the past, declutter and decompress.
To come back stronger, we need to find ways to work smarter, not harder. We can build our resilience to avoid the cost of future burnout and explore working patterns that improve productivity, such as piloting the four day week. Our businesses will be relied upon to regenerate the economy and fuel growth. We stand a better chance of doing so if we restore the true meaning of ‘organisations’ as collections of people who share a purpose rather than emblems of bureaucracy and control.
Some practical things to do next
As a leader:
Acknowledge the changes that are working vs. the challenges that will need to be addressed to redefine the organisation’s “next normal”
Find ways to be explicit about the policies and working arrangements that you envisage for the future
Organise a two-way communication process with your people to understand what their own hopes, fears and needs are
As a manager
Make time to ask people how they are feeling
Get support to manage the wellbeing of your own team, such as Mental First Aid training
Ask for help yourself if you need it, so that you can better help those who rely on you
As an individual contributor
Don’t just wait for answers – seek out opportunities to be part of the solution
Avoid overwhelm and burnout by practicing mindfulness and focusing on the things that are in your control
Get in touch in the comments section to let us know what your organisation is planning or what practical next steps you think are needed.
Kindred works with clients to advance modern organisational thinking and workplace practices. We are part of a movement to disrupt the traditional consulting model – offering smart, straight-talking thinkers and doers in strategy, leadership and organisation design, with access to the best subject matter specialists. Our mission is to create successful, sustainable organisations that make money and make people feel good about work.
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