Let’s face it. It is more and more difficult to find people among us who aren’t 100% ready to return to a life we knew and comparatively loved … a life we lived prior to early 2020. In other words, … we want to return to what we recognize as ‘normal’. However, and whereas we long for this, what is realistic is that we will emerge in a place that will once again, redefine normal in new terms. Nowhere is this more apt to be the reality than in the business world.
The experience of the past year, while imposing things that we are anxious to leave behind, has also introduced us to aspects of working that we want to carry forward. Thus, success within organizations is going to be related to adjustments that leaders make to incorporate the learnings and experiences of this past year into the ways in which things operate.
Overall, success is going to require that the approaches and attitudes be restructured into an experience that is both more human and with a greater sense of purpose. COVid-19 has required that businesses reassess their strategies. Altering cultures to embrace more agility and resilience within the workforce is to be a given. Interpersonal relationships among co-workers have become more personal as remote work has taken us inside of other’s homes and all that reveals about them … and us. Rather than needing to guess as to the most desirable and needed changes, here are some suggestions that leaders can follow to eliminate the guesswork and devise a realistic and beneficial emerging ‘normal’. They have been identified by several faculty members of the Harvard Business School as key areas of consideration some of which are summarized here:
- Have honest conversations with employees (Michael Beer)
Whereas every responsible executive wants to know what changes employees want in the post COVID era, only your employees can tell you how they have changed and why. To find out how employees would like to work you need an honest, collective, and internally public conversation! To get there …
1) create an approach that makes it safe for a person to share their whole truth
2) consider the resulting input to develop a plan of action in terms for needed change
3) Share within the organization what you’ve heard and what you plan to do about it
4) Execute needed changes with periodic review to make any needed corrections
- Prioritize face time at the office (Julie Austin)
Although some people have learned to like and appreciate the ability to work remotely from home for all its’ advantages, they also may appreciate and desire real-time connection with colleagues while maintaining their at-home work lifestyle. Therefore, making certain that actual in-office time is optimized for true facetime is key. This would apply to more formalized meetings and the important inter-personal exchanges that work to build and further connection. Doing this will supply team members with personal connection that disappeared when remote work became the necessary approach.
- Be honest about the company’s needs (Amy C. Edmondson)
Decisions about an organization’ goals and related tasks must include a realistic analysis of what work can be accomplished in a remote environment. As well, consideration must be given to aspects of the work that requires in-person interaction. Working from home is best for relatively independent tasks, when knowledge is codified and can be easily shared from a distance. Being together matters when tasks are interdependent, require sharing tacit knowledge in fluid ways, and coordination needs are not scripted or predictable. An honest assessment of the kind of work your employees do should yield a prescription for the degree to which you are dependent on proximity for quality. Thus, the needs of the organization must be considered in devising a successful approach going forward.
- Keep talking about caregiving obligations (Joseph B. Fuller)
The next normal will be a function of changes in the way many workers—especially those possessed of the skills most in demand—view their relationship with employers. In responding to COVID, employers publicly and unambiguously elevated their employees’ health and well-being to be their highest priority. The absolute nature of that obligation will not be easily foresworn. Employees are unlikely to return happily to a workplace driven by the “old deal,” in which the employer sets standard rules of employment and the workforce acquiesces. They will expect not only the right to determine the adequacy of workplace safety measures, but also expect employers to consider their individual circumstances when designing their roles and evaluating their performance.
- Make Work inspiring – at the office or not (Gary P. Pisano)
Pre-COVID, we commonly used the phrase “going to the office” to mean a physical act—quite literally getting in your car or taking public transportation to a place called the office. The past year has changed how we define the office. It’s no longer specifically a physical place. The office now means a state of working. Post-COVID, we need to accept that the office is not necessarily a physical space, but a state of working. This does not mean we won’t go to those places we call the office or “work.” Everyone has different constraints, needs, situations, and jobs. If you have little children at home, for instance, or live in a place without a good workspace, etc., the physical place called the office can be critical. Being flexible about how people are asked to work is key, and leaders should be focused on how to make work inspiring, compelling, and engaging, whether that work is done at the office or not.
- Prove that your building is healthy (John D. Macomber)
Three things are now clear for office workers:
1. They don’t need to be in the office because remote work has been effective
2. They don’t want to be in the office unless they are comfortable that it’s safe
3. They are willing to be tracked, probed and surveyed more than ever before … think having
a daily temperature check or the need to carry a ‘vaccine passport’
For employers, this means that signaling the health of facilities is crucial to attracting people back. Some facility owners are spending a lot on capital improvements for better filtration, or for ultraviolet lights. Others are spending a lot on work rules, distancing, or bringing in half of the office staff on half of the days. The enhanced focus on health performance indicators is simply not going to roll back.
The evolving ‘new’ normal will continue to be defined as we emerge from the experience of the past year. With this comes an opportunity to reimagine work and the workplace as a much more human and purposeful experience. This requires that the learnings that have taken place are embraced and used to design the approaches employed going forward. Not all the COVID-19 experience is negative. In fact, there is a great likelihood that significant positives are on the horizon that will translate to increased success.