Let’s Not Get Back to Normal
President Biden and members of his COVID-19 Task Force are frequently asked, “When can we get back to normal?” We know the many advantages of getting back to normal. But when it comes to work, perhaps we shouldn’t seek to return to normal. For many, “normal” entails commuting to designated offices (“For many commuters, the journey to work causes more stress than their actual jobs or even the dentist”); spending money on such items as gas, tolls, parking, auto repairs on cars, dry cleaning, and take-out lunches; and missing daytime family events. Moreover, this year of working primarily from home brought unexpected benefits not only to employees but also to their organizations, such as increased productivity, and the promise of even greater benefits if remote work were to continue.
Seventy percent of IT leaders surveyed by IDG believe that the shift to working from home or anywhere has created a more positive view of remote work and will likely impact their plans for future staffing. These leaders are not likely to go back to “normal.” My research among IT leaders including a recent poll among Advanced Practices Council members (senior technology executives) confirms these sentiments sufficiently for me to confidently predict that working from anywhere will not end when the pandemic does.
Leading in future hybrid working environments can be better than normal – and it should be. We can enhance the benefits to employees and organizations while embracing new opportunities such as those related to staff autonomy, innovation, and talent management.
The abrupt switch to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic required flexibility and autonomy on the part of all staff. In most cases, staff made good choices and adapted well to their new ways of working. Valuing flexibility and autonomy – in how the work is conducted and where – will continue to pay dividends, including the identification of better processes and tools.
Research has shown additional benefits of autonomy and choice. When people have choice, they manifest fewer adverse symptoms in stressful situations. The pandemic might go away, but stressful aspects of workplaces will not. One recent study found that when remote workers were given a choice between remaining at home or returning to their offices, those who chose the former experienced productivity increases of 22%.
Choice can take many forms, including how teams operate. At McKinsey, new project teams create their own charters that specify how they will schedule and conduct team meetings, share the workload, make decisions, give each other feedback, blend virtual and in-person interactions, and respect individual styles and preferences – what their working culture will be.
Organizations already benefit from innovation in tools and practices for working effectively in a remote environment and we read daily about additional tools offered by existing vendors, such as Zoom Smart Gallery. New vendors and tools will surely emerge to offer even better options. We will continue to learn about better practices for making remote meetings more engaging and productive, for sustaining a sense of community among far-flung workers, for sharing knowledge and experience, and for sustaining a sense of equity to counteract proximity bias (people in the office are more productive). The more we experiment with these innovations, the greater the likelihood that the future will overtake the past “normal” in productivity, engagement, and satisfaction.
Yet another opportunity for innovation is our use of work time and space. Google has announced plans to create a “flexible workweek” starting with a pilot in September 2021. Employees in the pilot will be expected to spend three “collaboration days” in the office and work from home or elsewhere the rest of the time. I suspect that Google’s pilot plan will proliferate throughout Google and be adopted by many organizations. Such work arrangements lead to implications for office space as well as use of time in office space. If employees spend part of their time in the office in order to gain benefits from in-person information and knowledge sharing, collaboration, and community building, shouldn’t a significant amount of office space be designed for groups working together rather than individuals working separately in offices or pods? Do people need designated office spaces or can they manage with dedicated lockers or drawers for personal items and mobile workstations to hold their laptops? Shouldn’t those days in which everyone from a team is in the office be dedicated to team or group activities instead of individual work? For example, McKinsey, a firm in which consultants spend much of their time outside the office with clients, has designated “Super Friday,” a day where everyone is expected to be physically present in the office. Events such as special lunches, town halls, practice meetings, and happy hours are planned for these Fridays.
Didier Bonnet, professor of strategy and digital transformation at IMD, reported that sourcing digital innovation externally is now the norm because firms have weak internal capabilities. Yet internal sourcing of innovation is more likely to lead to lasting competitive advantage. What if hiring internal staff with leading-edge digital innovation capabilities were not restricted by geography? If more of your firm’s staff worked remotely, this would open possibilities for hiring the best and the brightest regardless of location. It might even discourage your highly-prized talent from resigning in order to work from far-away paradises. In December 2020, the state of Hawaii offered free airplane transportation to remote workers who want temporary state residency as a way to boost its economy. Can other states and further destinations be far behind?