The Future of Work, and the Workplace, Post-Covid

The future of work post-pandemic has been much anticipated and has caused legitimate concern for many. Working conditions for some have been improved, for others, it has been stressful. As for many, working conditions have been impossible as the unemployment numbers for women while kids learn remotely have demonstrated.

Companies have learning to do and decisions to make. Individual employees also have learning to do and decisions to make and have to make those ideas, decisions, and concerns clear to their employees. Moving forward shouldn’t just require compromise but will require adjustments, and with the proper learning and creativity, we can absolutely make the workplace of the future stronger than the past. 

Much of what the pandemic brought about in changes is not new. Some trends are simply accelerating because of the pandemic, but we were heading there anyway. Others are more distinct new trends. Some trends are just temporary, such as an aversion to cities, that will likely revert to previous levels as they are patterns that have too much gravitational pull. 

These are some conclusions I have drawn and suggestions to make that reflect my current thinking on this ever-moving target. 

Be long-term optimistic 

Our mindset in how we approach these challenges may have a huge impact on the outcomes we achieve, and I have seen the differences from company to company. Are you trying to minimize the bad things that have changed? Or, are you trying to design work, and the workplace, to be better than it ever was? How we frame the changes determines what types of solutions we’re willing to consider, and how hard we’re willing to push to try some new things. 

The short-term is ok to be pessimistic. Things are great, and we have a lot of issues, and we have to close some gaps. But don’t allow that to cause us to lose sight of the long-term, and let’s be optimistic about the workplace we can create. 

Beware of looking at all participants through the same lens

I heard an interesting statistic in how many days companies wanted employees in the office in the future, and how many days employees wanted to be in the office. One answer was 2 days, and the other answer 3 days, and the analysis was that there will be some negotiation between employees and company management to compromise. But this problem cannot be looked at in averages. 

For one employee, who has a stressful and expensive commute, is an introvert, has a couple of slightly toxic work relationships, their ideal answer might be zero. For another employee with a small apartment, 3 preschool kids, a poor internet connection, and a need to belong, the ideal number is every working day. 

A major risk people face is either intentionally or unintentionally establishing a culture that allows people to work remotely but signals being in-person is important. This example of a job post states that important positions are not remote. That’s a dangerous precedent. 

Some companies have already made big shifts, with Spotify among others announcing that employees can work from anywhere, as the maker of WordPress has always done as documented in the book A Year With No Pants. Hawaii has offered free flights to remote workers who are willing to spend some time working from the sunny islands.

Whatever policy you decide, practices you adopt, or flexibility you do or do not employ, it will not be better for everyone. For some, it will be worse. You must acknowledge that, and deal with the consequences head-on. 

What is a workplace for? 

In rethinking the workplace of the future, we have to be clear about the purpose of the workplace. It used to be a place where people could be co-located so that pieces of paper could be easily shuffled around and, of course, a whole range of meetings could happen. Neither of those is required in the way they once were. 

Late last year I did a video on three primary purposes that a workplace can help to cultivate, and those are connection, culture, and collaboration. People want a sense of connection and a sense of belonging to a team or an organization. That’s why having a “work best friend” has long been an indicator of engagement. Now I have certainly witnessed and experienced that connection, and the trust that comes with it can be built remotely, as I have been able to do with several clients that I’ve never met in person but we have a great relationship. However, it is certainly easier in person. 

Building culture falls in the same boat. It is far easier to do in person because you have more control over the formal and informal influencing factors and experiences that help shape people’s beliefs and behaviors. And finally collaboration – it’s been amazing how structured collaboration has evolved through a range of both synchronous and asynchronous tools. However, unstructured collaboration based on random interactions and chance encounters is certainly limited, and has a history of providing effective and sometimes breakthrough innovation. 

The key point is, know WHY you want people in the office, and build your workplace around a purpose. 

 

Make better use and integration of synchronous and asynchronous engagement 

“Zoom fatigue” is perhaps an even more popular term than “pandemic fatigue” which indicates for many how much they struggle with this. Researchers at Stanford completed some analysis of Zoom fatigue and unfortunately, many of their proposed solutions require individuals to take action rather than broad strokes that companies could take to help their employees. Some of them are simple adjustments that I found helped early on, such as standing or sitting further away from the screen while using an external camera, or turning off self-view most of the time. But making Zoom and Teams meetings more tolerable is not going to be enough. 

Virtual meetings have changed some things, but all highlighted some of our worst behaviors. Some research has shown that meetings are, on average, 20 percent shorter but also have more attendees. In my own informal poll on LinkedIn, the majority of respondents said they are experiencing back-to-back-to-back 60-minute meetings with no breathing room in between. In general, this work is not thoughtfully designed and not sustainable. My calendar, which my clients access directly, has options for 25 minutes, 50 minutes, and 80 minutes to provide at least room to process what you just did, and be prepared and intentional with what you’re about to do. 

But better meeting management is not enough. It is also moving work out of meetings and getting better at asynchronous communication and collaboration. Much of the work done in my Learning Lab Workshops are done asynchronously, allowing both for people to schedule it into their work as it best suits them, while also allowing people to process their work in different ways. Within our team, we do 90+ percent of our work over Trello, even avoiding the black hole of email. When written communication is insufficient, then we can record a quick Loom video. Meetings are reserved for topics that require discussion. The majority of information, requests, and even feedback is completed asynchronously. 

Developing better asynchronous communication is not just catering to the introverts in the team. It is just a better way to work. 

What we care about, pay attention to, and measure? 

During the pandemic, what mattered changed very quickly. Dress codes largely went out the windows. I would have video calls with multi-billion dollar leaders while they wear tie-dye shirts and a hat. The “covid beard” became a thing. Our backgrounds for video calls were half curated, half a window into reality. I’ve met more children of my clients over video than in the past 20 years, and dramatically more pets, and that’s a wonderful thing. 

Because many people worked remotely, it was actually harder to look busy. Outcomes mattered more, and managers became more adept at evaluating outcomes versus activity, even though there were many failures along the way, including some managers who insisted that webcams stayed on so that they could see people working (or not). 

Empathy increased. Awareness of people’s personal lives, both good and bad, seemed to increase. Outcomes mattered more. Personal appearance mattered less. Dress codes mattered less. “Looking busy” mattered less. I hope these are some of the changes that we can keep in a post-pandemic world. 

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