Imagine that a year ago, somebody would have said that we would all be bound to our homes for months, walking on the street with face masks and that dining out, travel and tourism would come to an almost complete standstill?
We probably would have thought that this person had let their imagination got the best of them!
Today, we know that COVID-19 has affected our lives in major way, including our ways of working. While various state and national economies are slowly starting up, it looks like the “old days” from before the pandemic will not be coming back. Some of that change is for the better. In this post, we will zoom-in on the consequences for those who are used to working in an office environment, or who are eager to get back to one. There are 4 main ways I believe we will see work change post-COVID. Also, we will discuss two major pitfalls for leaders in this new landscape. Falling into these easy-to-make mistakes could shift your organization’s balance from a positive, to a detrimental experience for the company and its employees.
Remote work is the new normal
It’s an open question as to how exactly it will function in each company, but it’s clear that remote working is here to stay. In the wake of being forced to do so, employers and employees now agree that remote working can be equally as effective as working from the office. They’ve also uncovered hidden benefits to remote work that they might like to continue to enjoy. We may see a few different scenarios manifesting as a result:
- Companies that have not opened their offices yet and are questioning whether they (ever) should.
- Businesses with variable schedules, combining working from home with working at the office.
- Organizations that allow their staff to decide when, and for how long, they come to the office.
In fact, organizations that expect employees to be present all the time in the office will become a minority and labeled as “old-fashioned” or “archaic”. Once employment bounces back, they may find it harder to attract top talent.
Consequentially, the level of autonomy that employees have in any given organization will be proactively marketed in job-descriptions as “benefits”, and will be an indication of the modernity of the organization.
Changes in hiring criteria
Organizations that adopt remote working, even in a hybrid model, need to adjust their selection criteria in the hiring process. That is easier said than done. The biggest success factor for working from home is “trust”. The problem with words like “trust” and “reliability” as a criteria is that those are hard to assess when making a new hire.
Employees that work from home need to have an inherent sense of responsibility and the ability to work with extended levels of autonomy. They also need to feel invested in their company’s success.
When designing a job description, the hiring managers will need to consider what the responsibilities of the employee will be and to what extent, and at which moments, being physical presence in the office is necessary. Furthermore, it will be essential to specify how important it is to be continuously available during “regular office hours”, when people are working from their home office. When people work from home, it is almost a given that their professional and private lives blur. A way to circumvent this is to put more emphasis on the outputs of the role, instead of the hours put in.
Still, you need to define which behaviors are acceptable, and which are not. Like in every relationship, it is all about “expectations management.” Some employers may expect that their staff is available 24/7, meanwhile employees may want to have full autonomy on deciding when, and how long to work.
To avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, both the employer and the employee, will need to make sure that there is alignment on the “ways of working” and that there are open lines of communication when one or the other needs to deviate from this. As this becomes normalized, candidates will come to expect this information in the course of the hiring process as well.
Success metrics will change
The success of employees will also be measured differently the more remote work takes root. It will not be so much about their endeavors, but more about their specific outputs on objectives. This system of evaluation presupposes that managers know what they want, and articulate goals clearly by translating those into specific actions and accountabilities for team members.
Employees need to have the capability to work with more autonomy towards the realization of those goals and act as a “self-starter” within the given guidance. They will also need to have the communication skills to share how they have accomplished or exceeded expectations.
This will certainly create an interesting market opportunity for technology firms. Much like the software that is available to manage remotely working sales teams, I predict that there will be software developed to manage at-home workers. Salespeople are used to working independently and know that their outputs are driving their performance assessment (and thus not their inputs).
For many office workers this will be a significant shift in the orientation towards their work: productivity will be key and the dominant driver of success. A positive side effect may be that there will be less room for internal politics since outputs are clear and those accomplishing results will get most of the spotlight.
A new kind of company culture
People want to belong. The most successful companies are the ones with a strong culture. There is a lot of truth in the statement that “Culture defeats Strategy”. The risk of working remotely, is that the relationship between the company and employee becomes more transactional and culture is weakened.
It will be imperative for companies with remote working employees to double down on building culture. Many of the positive experiences that many employers and employees have had so far while working remotely during the pandemic are the consequence of a healthy and effective business culture. “Culture” is most quickly understood via direct experience and built over time.
If people are working from home most of the time, it will take additional efforts from the organization to build a winning culture. First, there remains a need to be regular physical meetings and interactions at least occasionally. More than in the past, those meetings also need to consider a level of symbolic action and ritual. Organizers will need to be conscious of creating an experience that makes employees look forward to going into the office and interacting with their colleagues.
Virtually, it is also important to build culture. For example, make sure that the digital workspace and the virtual meeting rooms are branded and represent the mission of the company. But beyond form, it is even more important, that companies are clear about their identity: what they stand for and what their purpose is. Those cannot be hollow words but need to be made tangible in all aspects of the business.
Employees also need to be directly involved in bringing this purpose to life, and it would be good if internal rewards and remunerations are linked to this. The best companies have a purpose that is aligned with the passion points of their staff. It means that companies with a one-dimensional focus on shareholder value will struggle to motivate their staff and are doomed to fail.
Remote working may create significant cost benefits for business, but it can also have detrimental effects that will ultimately be more costly than beneficial. Here are a few simple, but dire mistakes that leaders may make in the new landscape.
Being solely economically motivated
Remote working offers significant financial benefits for companies. It may be attractive to reduce overhead and office costs by keeping your workers remote, but money should not become the sole focus. If this happens, you will end-up with a team of what Charles Handy wrote about back in 1994, “empty raincoats”.
What does it mean to have a workforce of empty raincoats? If you only value employees for their financial efficiency and effectiveness, you pull the heart out of an organization and the staff becomes disposable. If that happens, employees will return the favor and prioritize their self-interest above the business. An uninspired organization is digging its own grave and destroys all its added value towards customers.
On the contrary, more than ever businesses need to (re-)define its distinctiveness versus competition and relentlessly execute on that, with an inspired and motivated workforce that is rewarded for taking ownership. The organizations that are consequential and consistent, will be repaid with the trust and loyalty from their employees and they will be ones who thrive.
Relying on outdated leadership values & skills
Remote working requires a different style of leadership. It could well be that leaders that were effective in an office setting, fail miserably remotely. Particularly, now we will enter bumpy waters post-COVID-19. Every business manager who thinks that getting out of this pandemic will be smooth sailing, and it’s just a matter of getting back to what things used to be is in for a surprise. Businesses need to be versatile to navigate this time via meaningful change and new strategies. It’s important is to keep the staff on board, by involving them in this journey and developing a growth mindset.
There is tremendous angst among today’s workforce. Employees that are working from home have a stronger need for communication and reinforcement. The level of security that the office used to provide, is vastly different from sitting in your home office. With unemployment mounting and mixed messages from politicians and economists, insecurity is at an all-time high right now.
In this climate, effective leaders need to check in regularly, maybe even daily, with their staff, be proactive communicators, and be open-minded and listen to feedback. Not every employee feels comfortable to speak up, so managers need to be alert for hidden signals and the unspoken words. Remote work calls for a new kind of empathetic and sensitive leadership that is capable of lifting up peoples’ spirits and challenging the staff with inspiring goals.
Additionally, management needs to make sure that there is room for informal interactions (e.g. virtual Friday afternoon drinks) and transform meetings in the office from a run through the agenda into an “event” that also builds a sense of belonging.
As said, not all the existing leadership in organizations fits this description. If not, it is better to take action and learn to develop your management style for today’s needs.
Imagine a year from now how we will work together. The lasting impact of COVID-19 on work can be either a disappointment, or a huge success. It is up to us. We have an opportunity now to implement the interventions needed to grow the satisfaction and happiness of the workforce and the success of our organizations.
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