It has been one year since the world changed due to the pandemic. One complete trip around the sun with a virus piggybacking on us, and we survived. It has been undoubtedly a journey we never imagined embarking on and a difficult one at that. Now, as we make plans for a new future, there are some questions that keep me up at night.
The past year, work has been tougher than it has ever been – both for who moved online at home and for those who continued to step out of the house. This piece focuses on the set who had the chance to work from home for when the old life resumes, organisations will need to make a number of decisions in this space. Remote work is hard – take it from someone who is now working with people she has never met in person. Around the globe, people have been onboarded, transferred, and promoted; all while being on video calls and emails. Productivity dipped in phases, mental health took a toll, and work culture during Covid became harder to sustain. I am inundated with stories of happier days at the office with people hovering around watercoolers, sharing pints and wearing green. I can only form notions of what life and the culture in my new office may have been. It has taken me at least double the time to build a rapport with my colleagues and I am definitely still finding my way in the maze. I am not the only one. Hence, as organisations like Spotify, Facebook, Google and others begin to release their return to work intentions, here are five questions organisations need to ask while designing the employee experience and workplace culture in the coming months.
The biggest question that looms ahead of organisations is determining if they should open the doors to remote work and what ‘remote’ really means. While employees have been working from home the past year, I have said this before and will say it again – it is not a true experiment as the variables are completely different. So far, employees have had limited choice in the decision. When everyone is remote, the internet is an equaliser. When employees start electing to return to an office, the balance will shift. Those meeting in-person will likely spark more ideas, have exposure to informal chatter, and form stronger bonds. In such situations, how do organisations function? Do they ask employees to return to an office after declaring they’ll allow permanent work from home? If not, do they ask employees to come into office 2 days a week? If yes, does the entire team, office or organisation turn up on designated days or do we reduce infrastructure pressure via a rota system? Or do we leave it to chance? Who makes these decisions for the team? How does recognition help leaders in times like these? At present, there are without doubt more questions than there are answers. The bottom line however is that if required to choose between flexibility and delivering for customers, organisations will prioritise customers. A big driver for retaining, engaging, and growing the customer base is innovation. Innovation rarely occurs in isolation. As such, focusing on individual employee demands may be detrimental to organisational success.
Once we have decided on whether one can work from home forever, a few days a week or never, the next big question is why would anyone want to step into the office without being coaxed into it. With more and more organisations willing to let people work from any city, country, or continent, offices will need to compete for footfall not just with other organisations but also within the organisation. After all, why should anyone commute for work anymore when they can choose to work from an office a stone throws away? What is it about the workplace culture in an office that would entice someone to make the effort? Is it free food, office events, opportunities for easy collaboration, hallway conversations, innovation hubs, or the soda fountain? Sometimes small decisions have disproportional impact in categories like these. For e.g. let’s consider flexible seating. If employees are assigned a different space each time they walk into work or have to share their desk, the likelihood of them returning diminishes. Everyone likes to have their own space. There’s a reason why most employees personalise their space within a week of being assigned a desk. Taking that little piece of belongingness away even though it relieves infrastructure pressure may be a bad move. Whatever you decide, ensure you have a sound marketing strategy in place and follow through by creating an environment one would want to step into.
A vast number of organisations have disclosed a preference for employees returning to work at least a few days a week to help foster collaboration and innovation. Even for those who have declared themselves open to remote work, the fine lines indicate working in either the same city or country. There is no debate about shared creativity, inventiveness, and learning that comes from being in an office environment regularly. As employees choose to physically distance themselves from the teams they work with, how do you keep teams connected at this time? How does this effect remote work collaboration? How do organisations give employees a sense of belongingness in this atmosphere? If they decide to come to work at times, who funds their travel? Does the organisation fly employees from around the world for in-person meetings every quarter? Is there going to be a minimum on how often the team or multiple teams should meet if only for the sake of innovation?
The biggest differentiator between companies who successfully managed to engage employees during the past year and who didn’t was communication. During the initial days, employees were flooded with emails, town halls communicating organisational strategy, empathy, and ‘we are in this together’ emails. Those communications began to fade in the latter half of the year. It wasn’t just the frequency of communication but also the tone. While some organisations chose to be instructional in their communication, some chose to infuse an appropriate amount of empathy, understanding, and vulnerability. At the end of the day, the differentiator was purely – did you trust your employees enough to treat them as adults? As we enter the next stage of tackling the ambiguity around return to work or remote work, it is imperative that organisations intentionally revamp their communication strategy to reflect the values of the organisation.
The most important of it all however is taking time to reflect on how the organisation did with regards to responding to COVID as a whole. We conduct annual reviews for our employees and financial performance reviews for organisations. Why not add a layer of much required introspection on where the organisation did well and what could be done differently? I am a strong believer in retrospectives and now is as good a time as any to look back at the year gone by and define the future.
Many organisations have begun releasing their statements on what work will look like in the latter half of 2021 and early 2022. Between now and July, most would have taken a stance. While at this point, the questions loom larger than the answers, close observation of customer impact, productivity, other organisations, and employee motivation will help guide the way ahead. Whatever decision your organisation takes, know that there isn’t a perfect answer and everyone is experimenting. Forging the way ahead is fraught with perils. We have got to trip and learn.
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