Work in the Next Normal – Some Key Considerations

Like many of you, I have followed the never-ending flow of opinions and guidance about reopening business as COVID (hopefully) recedes.  My objective here is to boil much (but not all) of the public material down into 3 key categories:

  1. What does this mean for individual employees?
  2. What does it mean for managers of people?
  3. What does it mean for companies?

And I will divulge my own bias.  I believe hybrid will be the “dominant strain” of the next normal.

Individuals

Businesses now need to understand their employees at a deeper level than previously. In many ways, understanding the WHOLE person is far more important than it ever was.  Parenthetically, I have to point out that businesses have a unique opportunity to dovetail thinking about where work gets done with your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy.  But I won’t digress on that point other than to plant the seed in your heads.

Let’s take two hypothetical but very plausible employee examples:

Elliott has been with his company for about 8 years and has established himself in the firm. Demographically, Elliott is at the point where he owns a home in the suburbs of a major city and has a couple of kids. Prior to COVID, he commuted to work in the city each day.

Deborah was hired into the company during COVID and has never been in the main office.  She is in her mid-20’s and lives in a downtown apartment which she shares with roommates.  She lives in an urban setting for easy access to work, entertainment, and public transportation.  As a new employee, she is still working to establish herself with her manager and colleagues.  Being 100% remote has made it a challenge to learn and adapt to the company’s culture. 

  • It should be obvious that Elliott and Deborah have quite different work-related needs.  Elliott is more likely to have a space at home where he can concentrate on his work.  Deborah, as an urban professional in a shared apartment, is more likely to be using an ironing board or the kitchen table as her office space than a desk behind a closed door.
  • Elliott knows who to call without thinking when he needs insight from a colleague or has to collaborate on a project.
  • Deborah is still trying to figure out who to call when she needs clarification for a project.

I could continue but you get the point.  Elliott and Deborah have different needs.  Think about it:

  • Who is more likely to be getting the kind of mentoring and cultural guidance everyone needs to be successful?
  • Who is more likely to benefit from what used to be routine office coffee machine chit chat?
  • Who NEEDS to be in the office with other people?

Here, I want to introduce the concept of SYNCHRONOUS and ASYNCHRONOUS working.  Millions of people have made a PLACE shift over the past 15 or so months.  But a substantial subset – perhaps a majority – have also made one or more TIME shifts.  Since we know Elliott has a couple of kids, it’s quite likely he has been involved in some home-schooling these past months.  With his tenure and an existing network, Elliott can probably do some of his work when his kids are busy with other activities.  He can work ASYNCHRONOUSLY – in other words, he can work WHEN he is able to and not necessarily when others are working.

Deborah, being new is still learning how to get stuff done.  She is more dependent on access to others at the same time she is working on an assignment.  Deborah has a higher need to work SYNCHRONOUSLY – when others are available.

The science of work behavior tells us that behavior is the product of 3 drivers:

  • Achievement – mastery of one’s work.
  • Affiliation – relationships and a sense of belonging.
  • Power – the ability to influence.

Before you stress out about a return to the office in a hybrid environment, you can ask yourself 4 questions.  These require some introspection, but the answers will help you to determine how YOU should react to a return to the office and help you consider what you can do about it:

  • What do I want (or need) my routine days to look like?
  • What stresses me out?
  • How does my boss define success – now?
  • What do I value?

Managers:

To successfully shift to a hybrid work environment, managers need to do something most have never had to even think about before – designing hybrid work with ongoing human considerations – not just one-off situational ones.  Hybrid will not be about making an accommodation for Elliott if he has to take one his kids to the doctor.

Although I previously didn’t use the term, the discussion of Deborah and Elliott’s situations are really about factors that influence their productivity.  As we think about how to make work productive in the next normal, we need to consider and optimize the balance between the 2 dimensions of PLACE and TIME.  Where and when work gets done.  And does the work in question need to be done synchronously or can it be accomplished asynchronously.  Individual employees come at these questions from their own perspective.  Managers of people will need to understand those employee considerations AS WELL AS their own needs that are unique to their circumstances. 

Managers have their own drivers of productivity.  Put aside the fact that most managers are now working managers with their own delivery responsibilities, the people dimension of a manager’s role typically involves:

  • The need for regular communication with team members
  • Conversation
  • Debate over access to resources
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching
  • Etc.

A prime responsibility of any people manger is therefore, one of coordination.  For a people manager, time is usually more important than place.  But in this case, the time normally needs to be synchronous. 

Companies:

Questions companies need to think about include:

  • What is the nature of my business?  Does it involve a lot of direct customer interaction?
  • Are those interactions normally face to face?
  • What do my employees really need?
  • What do my employees want?  Will they be happy with 3 days/week in the office or will they, like the folks at Apple stage a quiet but sobering revolt?
  • What does hybrid look like?
  • And how do I accommodate the hugely different needs of a Deborah or an Elliott?

I’m not going to suggest answers to these questions.  What I do want to do is plant seeds with you on how to start figuring out the answers to these and other related questions.  First and foremost, companies need data.  And don’t assume you already know.  The world has changed a lot and more than most realize over the past 15 months.

Research clearly shows the best way to get data on what employees need and want is to conduct an anonymous, third party survey.  I want to stress the 3rd party dimension of this.  I can almost guarantee your participation rates and the candor of the responses will be better if a 3rd party conducts the survey. 

Second, once companies have data, they need to define the hybrid culture they want to achieve.  For our purposes, culture means the shared values and shared norms of behaviors and attitudes.

Next, companies need to upskill EVERYONE (and especially managers) on the behavioral tools people will need to succeed in the Next Normal.

In doing that, companies need to address the HOLISTIC hybrid environment.  That means paying attention to and adjusting:

  • Structures
  • Processes
  • People
  • Rewards

And certainly not least, give managers the tools they need in their roles to be effective at leading hybrid teams.

So, wrapping it up:

  • Hybrid is here to stay.
  • Individuals need to assess what is right for them and their unique needs.
  • The front-line manager’s job is and will be harder than ever as we define the next normal.  Companies need to invest in building managerial skills and techniques to help them and their teams succeed as a next normal emerges.
  • Companies have a lot to figure out and need to do it quickly.
  • And lastly, don’t expect the first set of solutions to be the final version.  It is an understatement to say we live in volatile times.  Successful people and companies will need to iterate these answers until some level of equilibrium is achieved.  And then – something else will probably happen.

If you found this blog useful and/or if you can use some help in addressing a people management challenge, contact me at:

+1 508-507-1207 or ken@somershrsolutions.com

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