The Outset Of The Pandemic Was Easy Compared With What Is Coming

September 06, 2022
BY Peter High Founder and President of Metis Strategy
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This past weekend marked the two-year anniversary of our living in quarantine. For those who had the option to work remotely, most made the move on roughly March 13 or 16. For a while, many executives bruised their shoulders as they vigorously patted themselves on the back for having successfully transitioned from in-office work to virtual work in March of 2020. They expected major issues, but fewer than expected arose. Of course, this is not to minimize the dramatic increase in cyberattacks that spawned as the threat landscape moved from offices to people’s homes, for example, but most businesses had employees who traveled, working from client sites, hotel rooms, on flights, and in a variety of other settings. This had been the case for years, and companies’ tools supported this model, for the most part.

What has begun to emerge as hybrid work begins in earnest for many companies will be much more difficult. Let’s begin with optionality. Prior to March 2020, 95% or more of all work was done in offices. Though business trips were a regularity for many, one’s primary work was done in an office. Therefore, switching jobs meant switching from one office to another and it would often necessitate moving from one city to another. There was not a lot of optionality in that scenario. Requests to primarily work remotely were easily rebuffed because it was not the norm.

In March of 2020, if you were in a job that could be done remotely, you did not have an option. You worked remotely for your own safety, the safety of your loved ones and the safety of your colleagues. Therefore, the playing field went from being largely even to, in some cases, more even, as everyone was remote rather than having some straggler business travelers dialing in to a group meeting in a conference room, say.

What has begun and will continue in earnest in 2022 will be the unleveling of the playing field. As offices open up, some are drawn to them and others are repelled from them. The employee in an efficient apartment with a spouse and a young child cannot wait to get back to an office full-time. The colleague who has a large house with a dedicated workspace separate from distractions may not ever want to commute again. Every flavor in between can also be found among an employee base. What approach will work best for productivity? What approach will work best for employee morale? What approach will amplify culture in the right way?

The future is likely to be hybrid. Most companies agree with this, and most are acting upon that hypothesis. That said, as a leader, whatever the going in hypotheses you have about the complexion of the future of work, it is critical to note that some will be wrong. Prepare your team for this inevitable conclusion. Two disciplines that must be focal are change management and communications. The former recognizes that changes will need to continue to happen and have a strong discipline in place to facilitate that change will be necessary. The latter ensures that formal and informal communications are in place to continue to provide updates to employees on what is working, what is not, what might be tested next, why, and so forth. It is best to err on the side of more rather than less communication during times of great change and uncertainty.

The last thing you want to do is go through any one-way doors in the decisions you make. If you tell employees that they will never have to come back into an office again, this will be difficult to walk back if the data and your company’s performance languish because of this decision. You will have given your employees a right that they will not take kindly to losing. Even if you are inclined to try virtual-only work beyond the period in which it is necessary for health reasons, best not to call it out as the solution for the long-term but rather that the company reserves the right to tinker with the model as time passes if the situation dictates.

Employees’ opinions should also be weighed throughout, of course. Many executives did not adequately take this point into consideration as initial plans were laid out relative to what the future of work might entail, and many paid the consequences in higher attrition rates. Engaging employees to understand what works best for them and why is a prudent measure to take, even if it is impossible to make everyone happy with the conclusions that will be made. The extent to which the communications plans can be frequent, transparent and bi-directional, all the better.

One must also lean on one’s ecosystem for insight. We are all going through these experiments at present, and if you poll ten executives at ten different firms about what the future of work will entail, no two will be exactly alike and some will be dramatically different. Remain in close contact with your ecosystem to understand what is working and why, what is not, and why, and judge your plans against what you learn. You may stick to your plans in the face of some of this data, but it is important to be open to changing your mind.

Lastly, as employees leave, and they will, of course, evaluate why they are doing so. Are your policies at all a consideration? Is the company an employee is leaving to join offering some sort of benefit or way of working that you might consider. This data is crucial to ensure that a trickle of departures does not become a flood.

The months ahead will be treacherous, but by forming a plan, continuing to test plans and developing open and honest dialogues with employees, a better future can be defined.

Peter High is President of  Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

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