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Throughout the pandemic, many leaders have focused on a return to normal operations. But as vaccination rates rise and restrictions ease, the era of anticipating the “new normal” is almost done — the new normal is here. Over the past few months, we’ve moved from recognizing a need for change to untangling how to make a new working model work.
This hybrid model has gained traction with companies such as Salesforce and Microsoft, and it’s quickly becoming the norm. According to a study by real estate services firm JLL, 66% of workers said they preferred this hybrid approach.
Each organization has to define its version of hybrid working in a way that meshes with its business model. For example, Uber will begin to let its corporate employees work from home for up to two days per week later this year. Chief People Officer Nikki Krishnamurthy said the combination of in-person and remote work gives employees the freedom to do their best work while staying connected to colleagues.
Related: Is Working from Home Here to Stay?
The ground has shifted
Leaders know that the next phase of working will be different. Yet, the ability to work from anywhere brings both an upside and complications.
Employees expect flexibility in regards to where and how they work — even if senior leadership isn’t yet on the same page. A client executive recently told his C-suite colleagues they could demand employees return to full-time work back in the office, but he cautioned they would pay the price in terms of retention and a limited pool of potential new hires.
Even companies that have always relied on in-person interactions have seen the benefits of virtual connections. A client in a face-to-face industry recently told me how pleasantly surprised he was with how customers adapted to virtual meetings — they enjoy the efficiency and convenience. Now, his company is determining when in-person meetings are necessary and when video conversations work just as well.
As you plan for your own new normal, use the following tips to guide your next steps.
1. Challenge legacy thinking
Change isn’t easy — especially for leaders who prefer an in-office setup because of its familiarity. For those pushing back on hybrid working, try to understand the underlying concern and how you can address it. One client leader was concerned about the loss of accountability without office interaction, so he introduced great collaboration tools and setup more frequent checkpoints with his team. These two steps helped him move past his legacy approach.
According to Deloitte’s most recent annual readiness report, chief experience officers said the workforce trait most key to their success was adaptability (i.e., a willingness and ability to change and grow as needed). Leaders are now faced with a different workplace that will require more flexibility and change than ever before.
2. Define your boundaries
Determine how different roles lend themselves to virtual working. Identify what work can be done virtually and which duties require a consistent, in-office presence. By looking solely at the work and not how you’ve done it in the past, you can better see the possibilities.
Virtual working can be exhausting if you are in video meetings all day. When you organize a group meeting or discussion, proactively consider whether it requires the high interaction and collaboration that face-to-face video offers or if it’s a more standard check-in that you could handle with a phone call. A little pre-planning can help participants have a video break and more flexibility.
Related: 5 Ways to Beat Zoom Fatigue
3. Seize the opportunities
Organizations are using this year as an opportunity to rethink their real estate or expand their talent market. If you have a huge investment in real estate, this is a great time to rethink your space requirements that align with employee expectations and reduced cost. If you have a critical skill need that’s challenging to find in St. Louis, for instance, a year of successful virtual working has shown you that you can hire in other locations.
A phased reopening gives you time to ensure employee safety while rethinking where and how people work going forward. Disneyland has reopened using a phased approach that maintains respect for safety guidelines while retaining its sense of “magic.” This required strategic planning and plenty of flexibility. There might not be character hugs or parades yet, but the company has maintained its commitment to guests while balancing competing factors.
4. Include other voices in your plan
It’s dangerous to assume you have all the answers in this time of dramatic change. Listen to employee preferences now — not their preferences from a year ago. One client of ours is using a preference survey to understand both individual and group preferences because they understand that employee expectations have shifted significantly over the past year. They also know this input will be vital to shaping leadership decisions.
The more engaged your workforce is in defining your new strategy, the more they’ll be invested in its successful implementation. They have likely thought of something you haven’t or have a fresh perspective that you’ll find valuable.
5. Communicate with care
Remember, not everyone will view this next phase of life in the same way. As a leader, it’s up to you to be transparent and communicate your goals while also recognizing individual differences.
One employee might be eager to return to the office for their mental health or to work in a space free of distractions from young children at home. Another employee might be happy to continue working remotely and avoid the hour long commute. Don’t rely on the peanut butter approach of spreading the same message across your entire organization — adapt and tailor your communications to meet people where they are.
We’re emerging from this global crisis as a new society. Zoom calls, remote gatherings and virtual sales meetings have all become the norm. As you make decisions regarding your company’s future, the underlying questions should be: “What can be different?” and “What do we want to be different?”