I don’t like the expression “new normal“ – maybe I’ve heard it so many times that I’m bored of it! But we do need to consider what the new model could look like for the way we work once all the lockdowns are lifted, worldwide.
What is clear to me from recent conversations with clients is that things won’t go back to the way they were before the pandemic. This has major implications for leaders in terms of office arrangements, use of space, and ensuring the culture enables employees to flourish and embrace innovation.
While some technology companies may claim that they are moving to a permanent working from home situation, the reality is that a hybrid model where you blend home and office working is likely to be the best way forward.
This article looks at some of the areas leaders need to focus on.
Work will become more about what you do (ideally linked to your personal purpose) and less about where you go and when you do the work.
To explore your personal purpose, there is an exercise I do with people I coach. For more information please contact me.
What will be important is for leaders to encourage employees to find the working model that works for each of them. You need to be aware of your own preferences and the preferences of your employees. Design your workplace around their answers, so you can enable people to work from anywhere that suits them.
In 2020, people effectively copy & pasted their office routines across to working at home. But it just isn’t possible to look at the screen for 8 to 10 hours a day and flourish – I’ve had many conversations with people who are feeling burnt out or fed up with working in this way. It means that those who choose to work from home will need even more choice about the times when they do their work.
Also, keep in mind that people will need time to adjust once more – we’ve all been working from home for a year, and will need time to process what just happened. We will all feel like we’re taking baby steps out of our “nest”, so be kind to each other and yourself. Make it safe for people to experiment with new routines.
Received wisdom is that, for innovation to happen, people need to be together face-to-face. So the physical workspace will become the hub of social interactions, team working and innovation, and must be designed to enable this.
“74% of employees still want to come into the office as they say it is more conducive to team-building and management support.”
World Economic Forum
As a leader considering your workspace, now is a good time to look at your office layout and facilities. Think how you would redesign and/or refurbish it, so it encourages people to come in rather than choosing to work from home. This is particularly important at the beginning when people will probably be nervous about returning to the office. To help them get over these feelings, include social spaces that will invite them in.
Obviously, whatever you do must be Covid-safe. Employees will want to know how clean the space is, that the air is good quality, and have a sense that there is more space around the place they will sit. You should probably therefore over-demonstrate your attention to the working environment, so people can be confident that it is clean, safe and healthy both physically and mentally. That might mean reporting regular metrics around the air quality, cleaning rotas and hygiene practices, and making it obvious that workspaces have sufficient actual space between people.
It looks as though Covid is here to stay, and there may be top-up vaccination programs in future. You may therefore need to provide this service in-house, or at least allow employees time off to attend their appointments.
People will be more aware of their personal space, even when this is all over. The days of greeting people with a handshake, a hug or a kiss have probably gone for a while. You might therefore want to introduce a new system of greeting as standard, perhaps a toe touch or elbow bump, or nothing physical at all.
Corporates are likely to retain their flagship premises with good quality fit-outs to support their business culture and innovation, while other companies are questioning whether they need a headquarters or a main base at all.
James Peterson, head of asset and digital development, Australia for JLL, says: “Tenants now want less people at workstations and would rather prioritise spaces that enhance teamwork, collaboration and innovation.”
In my experience over many years, having a building in certain desirable or highly populated locations enables you to attract talent. So, if you need certain skills and there are places around the world tied with those skills – perhaps medicine or science universities, for example – those locations will always be desirable places to work and your ability to attract and retain talent won’t diminish as a point of focus.
It’s not just about enabling people to choose where and when they work, leaders should still focus on employee well-being.
To me, it is clear from the people I work with as teams or as individual coachees, mental health seems to be lower than it was three months ago. My view is that people got through 2020 with the hope that we would turn the page in 2021 – but we are actually still in the middle of the pandemic. Over time, with vaccination programs rolling out worldwide, things will get easier, but that is not on the immediate horizon.
Given that mental health is currently shaky for so many people, you might provide a zone or area dedicated to well-being. For example, you might build in a wellness centre, fitness centre, healthy eating provision, perhaps even a meditation space.
Whilst we are more used to working virtually these days, it still doesn’t replace face-to-face, so you need to continue to be very connected with your people, wherever they are.
I’m also noticing, as people do more virtual work, that conversations have become more transactional and task-focused. I suspect this is because the situation has gone on for too long to maintain relationships when people haven’t seen each other for such a long time.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Dan Ciampa (author and former adviser to CEOs) wrote a CEOs guide to people returning to the office. He makes the point that, as more people are vaccinated, CEOs are facing pressure to make decisions about when and how professionals return to office work. Here are his key points:
- Wise leaders will resist the pressure to define or make final decisions until it’s necessary
- Keep your own preferences private, because they will influence what employees feel is OK and not OK
- Don’t put too much weight on ‘spot’ employee surveys, because the situation is evolving quickly and feelings change over time
- Ask managers what they want separately from asking employees. Many managers have found that working remotely is more frustrating, because their job is harder to do from a distance, such as collaboration, leadership, relationship management and problem-solving. They need the ability to read the subtleties of all this in person
- Don’t get too transfixed by the technology. The big question is not how we can use technology to make remote working more efficient, but what will we be unable to do well if we go too far in that direction. That said, technology might be useful for scheduling times when people are in the office for productive work with others, for example, knowing when other people are in the building so they can book a workspace together. On the other hand, people may wish to stagger their journeys on public transport, so you might consider breaking away from the traditional 9 to 5 working day
- Real teams can’t be built online. Creativity depends on spontaneity and the repetition of unplanned iterations. You’re more likely to get good relationships and commitment if you experience something together, face-to-face, whether it’s good or bad
- CEOs should avoid being influenced by high-performing companies who quickly announced plans to embrace home-working because they are trying to sell their own technology. (It’s a case of: “They would say that wouldn’t they?“)
- Spend the next few months thinking about how to get work done in the future to foster relationships and emotional connections
I would add to this advice one piece from me, which is to reflect on what you’ve learnt in the last year – about yourself and about different ways to work. What did you discover about yourself? For example, strengths or a new purpose/focus? Consider what you want to keep from this last year, and what you want to discard.
How do you stay connected to employees who are not in the same country as you? At this stage, we just don’t know when corridors will open up to other locations, when quarantine restrictions will lift, or what the cost and insurance implications will be. It is likely that local rules will continue to vary worldwide.
It feels a bit as though we are living inside a science fiction film! I don’t know about you, but I certainly never imagined I would ever have to consider these issues.
Keep power in mind
Some useful questions to ask yourself:
If your team comprises most people in one location and fewer in another, will they all feel equally connected or is there a risk some individuals will feel left out of team discussions? If you’ve been in a team where most of your colleagues are at one site and you are at another, you probably already know what this feels like, unless it’s consciously managed.
How will people choose when to come in? Some may be able to attend the workplace frequently, but will they end up with more influence and power than those who choose to remain working remotely? Could this create a disconnect or resentment? Think about this and be aware if it creeps in.
Whatever choices you make need to be done for positive reasons. Rethink what you want and what you fear. Have your people lost social confidence? Are they worried about becoming sick? Do they fear long hours of commuting with less freedom than they’ve had at home? You need to understand and respond to those fears. Of course, good leaders have always done that.
Remember that every individual has had their own experience and challenges. Some have been furloughed, others not. Some have been home-schooling, others not. Some live near nature and beautiful open spaces they can enjoy, others live in the city where everything feels shut down and deserted – pretty eerie if it’s usually buzzing.
I would love to see the sea – but we are not currently allowed to travel more than 5 miles from home. That said, I am lucky to have a dedicated space which I use as my own office. I was used to working from home even before this happened, so I haven’t had to make any physical changes. But I’m aware that other people have to set up a desk in their bedroom to make video calls, or share a laptop with their spouse and children – this isn’t healthy. In addition, some people have been personally impacted by illness and death. If that applies to any of your team, you might find my article useful How to support somebody who is grieving.
As you can tell, there’s a lot to consider, and I hope this article has given you some food for thought.
P.S. To illustrate the point about tech companies promoting home-working, you might enjoy this amusing Apple ad.
- How to re-boot your social skills and confidence
- How to develop resilience and cope with stress
- Are you at risk of burnout?
- How to look after the wellbeing of your workforce
- Compassion: For yourself and others
- Employee engagement
- How to facilitate effective virtual meetings
Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action
Online engagement. While we are still stuck mostly working from home, there are a number of creative things you can do to enliven your online meetings and boost the energy for people on video calls.