March was an amazing month for most organizations. The pace of change that occurred as organizations responded to the Covid-19 pandemic in order to keep people safe, keep operations going and keep customers happy was exceptional. Office, support, professional and management staff were set up to work remotely at a pace unheard of in most organizations and the technology support groups responded within unheard of timelines. Customer service and production work environments were set up for safe operations in most cases allowing these people to continue working at their facilities. Of course, none of this was ‘perfect’ and there are many lessons to be learned from how this all happened. Most organization are now reacting to what needs to change and be different in the new world workplace and are moving people back from their remote work locations. It is also now time to start thinking about what the ‘next normal’ new world will be. What we know is that it will be different, and even though we don’t really know how much it will be different we need to be prepared for whatever. Part I of this brief paper outlines some thoughts related to bringing people back to the workplace and Part II is about how to think about positioning your organization for future.
As I look across the multiple organizations that I interact with I am seeing three basic ‘next normal’ working arrangements for those who were working remotely:
- Mandating everyone to return to the workplace.
- Allowing people to continue working remotely for the foreseeable future with a slow phased in plan or deciding that people can continue to work remotely indefinitely.
- Developing a flexible innovative plan for what the new world of work will look like.
Organizations that are mandating everyone back are not only missing an opportunity to create more effective work arrangements, they may be irresponsibly subjecting people to the potential, or perceived threat, of contracting the virus. This strategy is creating serious morale issues. Many organizations have reported that the productivity of people working remotely was higher than when they were all in the workplace. Others have expressed frustration that they don’t know what people were doing remotely and needed them back to ‘keep an eye on them’. I am hearing this from organizations that were doing a poor job of managing outcomes and outputs of individuals before, where attendance was considered a key contributor to performance. Other organizations have opted to bring everyone back to avoid addressing perceived inequity issues of allowing diverse and flexible work arrangements.
Organizations that are deciding to let people continue to work remotely are scrambling to find ways to retain culture and sustain necessary relationships, collaboration and communication. There is no doubt that many organizations around the world operate effectively with remote staff. Whether this is a desirable or feasible option will depend on the organizations ability to implement processes for addressing the loss of regular physical interactions. For some people allowing them to continue to work remotely or not will impact whether they continue to work for the organization. For very legitimate reasons working remotely is very important to some people.
One of the most common themes I am hearing from people whose staff are now working remotely is “How do I know what they are doing? Are they actually working or just spending family or hobby time?” Most people want to be productive and of value and they will do what they can to contribute while working remotely. Some people may not be as productive as they would if they were at the office, but leaders have to trust them to do what they can. The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them, and to act accordingly.
Most organizations are looking to create a new work model that incorporates the best of remote work with benefit of physical interactions. The benefits of physical interactions in the workplace are most often identified as:
- Increased collaboration and communication between individuals and work groups
- Sustained and enhanced organizational culture – enabling defined values and desired behaviours to be reinforced
- Enhanced innovation through formal and informal interactions and meetings
- More effective and efficient on-boarding of new staff
- Access to necessary technology that is not available remotely
- Enhanced sense of inclusion and engagement
- Increased access to knowledge, information and just-in-time learning
For some people working remotely has significant advantages:
- Reduced commute time and stress
- Access to family when this is important
- Able to control time and focus with reduced interruptions
- They do not feel the need for personal interaction with co-workers
- They are actively avoiding exposure to the virus that could be of serious consequences to them or their families.
Ideally, we will create a model that allows these people to work remotely.
For others working remotely does not work:
- They do not have a space that is conducive to remote work
- There are distractions that get in the ways of work e.g. desire to engage in hobby activities
- There are interruptions from children, pets, relatives, etc.
- They crave human interaction and inclusion and suffer stress from isolation and lack of personal contact
- Remote technology is inadequate for high performance and productivity
These people want and need to get back to the workplace.
New, creative models are being designed by progressive organizations to take advantage of the benefits of both remote and workplace options. Some employees will work full time at the office, others will work remotely but will come to the workplace at defined times to participate in formal and informal interactions with their colleagues. With an increase in remote work, organizations will need to organize more interactive events both virtual and physical that bring people together for fun, collaboration and relationship building. Workplaces are being designed to support all of these opportunities. Some organizations have adopted interactive dashboards that management and staff access remotely to set, communicate, support and monitor daily, weekly and quarterly goals and other expectations.
For organizational leaders, this is a time to encourage and support new working models that will be of great value to both staff and the organization.
About the Author:Rob is a leadership advisor, strategist and coach who designs and facilitates powerful sessions for defining future direction and priorities. He also provides one-on-one advice and coaching that enables leaders to address difficult and challenging situations. Rob brings an exceptional depth of organization, business, and leadership wisdom to facilitate the best decisions and outcomes.