Formal Shirts with Pyjama Pants: How COVID-19 Will Determine the Workplace of the Future
Smart-casual has a new meaning in the time of COVID-19. What were previously just adaptations required to keep the gears of the global economic machine turning, flexible hours, and work-from-home arrangements (WFH) have now become a preferable option for many employees. Once we get back to normal (whenever or whatever that might be), will these employees return to the office? If not, how can organizations support them whilst working from home or any other place in the world?
No one can say for sure when things will go back to normal. No one can say what ‘normal’ might even look like if it were to appear on the horizon. But one thing we can say for sure is that we are not going back to how things were before the pandemic. With remote working turning out to be very pervasive, some employees are thriving while others are losing a sense of balance between their work and home life.
With many employees working from home as a safety precaution, the obvious recurring thought in any manager or project lead’s mind is:
Do I really have to attend the Zoom meeting in 6 minutes?
No, wait, it’s not that. It’s actually: are my employees and team members being as productive (or unproductive) as I am?
And the answer is — you really can’t know for sure. You just have to trust that they’re doing what they say they’re doing. While this may be concerning for some, for others, it’s all about having faith in a team. For the employees, this can be a breath of fresh air in their daily workflows and careers. Furthermore, WFH will bring benefits that will be difficult to give up if things reverse. And we’re not just referring to being able to work in your pyjamas with messy hair and the cat sitting on your lap(top).
“Calculating productivity might not be as simple as a basic equation”
Research conducted on the benefits and drawbacks WFH has produced conflicting data on whether WFH increases or decreases productivity. For example, research by McKinsey and the Pew Research Center found that productivity increased while working from home, yet research conducted by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago found that productivity decreased. Naturally, the results of these studies depend on how productivity is defined and measured. If you’re calculating productivity simply as output divided by time, do you include the hours you spend traveling to and from work into your equation? Calculating productivity might not be as simple as a basic equation. Ultimately, the profession considered also influences it. IT and tech professionals may transition to remote working easily, while engineering consultants will still rely on-site visits and group meetings to coordinate their projects. In light of these variations, it might be time to rethink the way we view productivity in the workplace.
Labour productivity has been declining steadily in the United States and Western Europe since the end of World War II. In fact, it’s now at a historic low according to economic research compiled by McKinsey. In a world obsessed with infinite economic growth — on a planet with finite resources — perhaps the question is whether organizations should still be focused on juicing up the productivity figures instead of adopting a more holistic view of the employer-employee relationship. This viewpoint might include focusing more on employee satisfaction and wellbeing, as well as providing employees with more autonomy in where and how they choose to perform their work.
While there are differences in the results of the studies produced by McKinsey and the Pew Research Centre regarding productivity, both studies highlighted COVID-19 has fast-tracking of digitization in the workplace.
This all points to a fundamental change in the relationship between employers and employees. In particular, this development will influence the need to treat employees as individuals, with distinct preferences rather than as a homogenous group. It has become abundantly obvious now that individuals require individual and specific solutions for their unique needs. So now we are faced with the question: how can organizations support their employees as individuals rather than as a collective?
1. Provide individualized solutions
Not only do employees vary greatly in terms of what they consider to be attractive perks and motivating incentives. The pandemic has further shown us how different our personal circumstances and preferences can be in terms of our work life. Organizations need to move from a one-size-fits-all perspective to a personalized approach, which identifies and accommodates personal preferences for each employee. It’s about challenging the status quo in terms of collaboration, working conditions, working hours, career paths, training opportunities, work location and so on.
“People have different routines and habits that they have developed over the course of their lives”
Wouldn’t it be great if you could get personalized and predictive options from your employer that really match up with your preferences automatically? Possible scenarios and questions which employers will need to set up solutions and answers to could include the following:
- When are my employees most productive and focused? How can our work schedule be adjusted to these preferences on an individual level?
- What is the next possible career step for my employee? What options can I automatically recommend based on data?
- Which skills are necessary to achieve my goals within the next 12 months, based on my personal capabilities? Which courses and training options are available based on my learning style?
- If I move to a new place or if I get pregnant, which mobility solutions are available for me? I would prefer to get personalized options even before my child is born or before I move.
- Which projects are planned for the future? I would like to get recommendations about which projects are the right fit for my skill set, my interests, and my preferred collaboration model.
We could expand this list endlessly. But the main point is that employers and especially HR-Departments should start using data on a high level to predict and offer suitable and highly personalized services to their employees.
2. Embrace a hybrid system between remote and office working
It’s quite clear that a mass migration back to the office is not going to happen. Research compiled by the World Economic Forum indicates that at least 44% of the workers included in the study are able to work from home, and 84% of employers are ready to digitize their working processes to accommodate extensive remote working. Online working platforms such as Glassdoor reported that the number of remote working job opportunities has doubled since 2011. Cost savings for organizations and employees alike, associated with working from home, are likely to increase the desire to work remotely for professions that are able to do so. As for the others, the likely outcome is a hybrid system of remote and office working, with organizations either prescribing specific days in the office or allowing employees to choose which days to come in.
“Some personalities need to be surrounded by other people while others prefer to keep to themselves and work at home”
Such a hybrid system may prove to be the ideal solution, as remote working is not without its drawbacks: humans are social beings, and the working community that we interact with from Monday to Friday helps keep many of us sane. Some personalities need to be surrounded by other people while others prefer to keep to themselves and work at home. This fact won’t change in the near future. What will very likely change (and it’s already happening), however, is that employees will increasingly feel like they deserve to choose the place where they can work according to their needs. We are not only talking about WFM, it’s more about the freedom to work abroad for a certain period of time for instance. Again, it’s all about personalization. Some employees prefer to work in metropolitan areas, some like it quieter. The question is: where does the employee feel most comfortable working at any given time? Whether in the mountains or at the beach, nowadays and in the future it should not be a huge problem at all to allow employees to work wherever they want, as long as all legal and insurance requirements are fulfilled.
3. Communication and trust are still key
There are certain things that you definitely can’t and shouldn’t try to automate. Trust, empathy, and great communication are such things. Regardless of whether the work is performed in the office, at home, or at the beach, mutual trust is vital for any healthy team or organization. The mechanism for facilitating this trust is open, transparent, and respectful communication. Unfortunately, technical difficulties are a recurring theme with remote working. Yet these are solvable problems and they don’t necessarily need to be a hindrance to communication among team members.
Leaders should be focused when in dialogue or receiving feedback. They need to be attentive to nuanced and suggestive language, and they must ensure that team members feel heard, recognized and safe. Regular team meetings, check-ins, and one-on-one’s should not be something special. It’s a necessity for building healthy teams. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, all these points should seem quite familiar to you. The question is how do we implement these seemingly obvious strategies. One very useful tip is to organize all your team meetings and check-ins in your calendar as soon as they are confirmed. Regularly check your calendar so you are prepared for these meetings even if they are the easiest thing. If everything is running smoothly, the meeting can consist of you highlighting all the positive points to boost morale. To ensure that your team members feel heard and safe, we have two suggestions. Number one, before you go into a meeting, create a brief but concise checklist that will ensure that you are as present as you can be at the meeting. Meaning, ask yourself: is there something on your mind that is distracting you? Are you waiting for an important e-mail? Will you be constantly glancing at your phone during the meeting? Are you in a rush and do you need to get to the next meeting?
So, what to do? The first step is: be aware that these things will distract you. The second step is to try to put those out of your mind when in a meeting. No one will feel heard, and you will never pick up on the nuances if your brain is somewhere else. Suggestions number two is to start off every meeting by asking your employees how they are feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. Show compassion and understanding for family problems. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to look after your team and create an environment for employees to grow and flourish. Sometimes people will have a hard time opening up about the difficulties they are facing in life. However, if you ask people to just say a number, it will be easier for one of your employees to say “hey today I am at a 2 or 3” and that will give you the opportunity to pull them aside and ask them what is going on. We are not suggesting that you need to be the ultimate problem solver or that you are expected to be anyone’s therapist. However, if you don’t know that your employee is having the worst day in their life, and you are pushing them to give presentations or give reports, you are actually doing everyone a disservice.
Furthermore, establishing boundaries, expectations, and systems for monitoring and evaluating performance is a must. We don’t mean this in the sense of controlling and micromanaging your employees. Instead, it’s all about discussing and agreeing on the goals as a team (personal goals/team goals/company goals). The key is to enable and support your employees on the way to get there. Reward persistence and creative thinking rather than rewarding long working hours. It’s a question of quality over quantity. By prioritizing these behaviors you validate your employees as well as creating a company culture that focuses on creativity and the individual.
What happens next? No one has a crystal ball
Since the pandemic started there have been countless discussions, ideas and predictions for what will happen next. A lot of the time you hear people say: “and when things go back to normal…. well things won’t go back to normal…” We have all heard people say this. We think the question “what happens next?” can be examined through the context of the phrase” when things go back to normal…”. Well, we will never go back to “normal”. We won’t go back to how things were. Instead, it is likely that there will be a strong residual push to go to the physical office and slowly with time it will hybridize into something else. What will that be? We wish we could tell you, but the truth is no one knows. The best way to design the workplace of the future is to know how your employees want to work.