As a consultant to organizations that span all industries and have employees based on every continent around the world, I’ve witnessed my fair share of leadership successes and mistakes. I’ve always made it a practice to take notes on the leadership mindsets and actions that are the biggest contributors to success.
Then, 2020 arrived, and with it came a new set of challenges. In hindsight, you might say the pandemic created one of the biggest workplace experiments of the last century. Every business faced the same problem at the same time, and not one of them was prepared. Employers and their associates had to react to the unknown in real time. Major lessons were learned and relearned.
As leaders were forced to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, their actions ran the gamut. The world watched as some led with some frustration and complaints, while others managed to be incredibly proactive and thoughtful. These observations revealed three do’s and three don’ts for a post-Covid workplace.
The Three Don’ts
#1. Don’t assume we can go back to the way it was pre-Covid.
There’s simply no going back. As a collective unit, we have been stressed, anxious, sad, and scared. We’ve pulled kids from school and scheduled our grocery deliveries online. And that’s just the start. We’ve changed. As a result, in the future we’ll be less tolerant of routines that don’t pass the “Why are we doing things this way?” test. After all, we just learned that the status quo can be shifted in the blink of an eye, and a new way of doing things is indeed possible.
One significant realization to come out of the Covid-19 era is the discovery that working virtually is possible – and with this realization come many benefits. For example, organizations are now finding that virtual meetings are better attended, with better participation and efficiency. People aren’t intimidated to talk about real issues, as virtual forums promote equity among participants – no more foreboding presence at the head of the conference table. No matter how an organization chooses to leverage virtual meetings and events moving forward, leaders simply cannot take their feet off the digital gas pedal.
#2. Don’t perpetuate a belief that if people aren’t working on site, they won’t perform to their highest level of capability.
There’s a war on talent. Leaders need to keep their current associates and team members while attracting new talent. This means meeting people where they are and creating an organizational culture that supports the needs of today’s employee. It means retiring the outdated perspective that if people aren’t working in the office, they are less responsible and less committed to the organization and their team. 2020 proved that people can set new practices to successfully execute their tasks from afar. The minute their leaders demand a return to a pre-pandemic work style, it will be the equivalent of saying, “I don’t trust you,” which will create a toxic work environment.
#3. Don’t ignore the sentiments and reasons behind why people want to resume their work lives differently now. Instead, use this insight to improve your organization.
Leaders need to remember that each person approaches work with a unique perspective. We must seek out these viewpoints and leverage them to determine the best way to work together. After 2020, there are people who don’t want to travel as much as they did before. On the flip side, there are others who are desperate for more travel opportunities. Leaders must be active in learning what their employees want and using this information as a foundation for the organization’s strategy moving forward.
The Three Do’s
#1. Do include your people in a collective debrief on the past year’s lessons.
The pandemic forced us to learn some valuable lessons – ones we never would’ve had to learn otherwise. This insight should be used to improve the quality of work and the quality of the employee experience. Leaders should debrief on what they need to do better in the future and what they’re looking forward to getting back to. Encouraging people to openly and honestly share their opinions, concerns, and excitement will be invaluable in helping leaders identify what needs to be done to foster engagement in 2021 and beyond.
The hybrid workplace and culture of the future can create higher levels of empowerment and productivity, but a key starting point is to think of the employee as a customer of the new environment you want to create. Leverage your employees’ insights on how you should work together in the future.
#2. Do encourage in-person interactions and experiences but make it valuable.
For the last 18 months, we have been forced to figure out how to work together at a distance. After so much time working in a remote environment, many are itching to get back to the old ways of doing things. In-person meetings and events are returning as organizations learn to balance face-to-face and virtual interactions in a post-Covid world. Both have value. Perhaps the weekly and monthly meetings will happen via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but the bigger ones – such as quarterly meetings – will be the ones where folks come together in person. Leaders need to be thoughtful about when being together in person brings value and when it doesn’t.
#3. Do realize that managing hybrid teams is the new norm.
Leaders have to challenge a longstanding belief that in-person interaction is always best. The biggest workplace experiment in history has proven that when people work virtually, they will, in fact, do their best to deliver on what they’ve committed to deliver.
Is it easier to manage virtual teams? No. Leaders must adjust and adapt their leadership behaviors and mindsets to tackle this new challenge. Leaders now need to dedicate more time to checking in with their people and asking more questions to ensure everyone is on the same page. In short, leaders do have to work harder to ensure people feel connected. This will be well worth the effort as teams remain collaborative and cohesive whether they are physically together or not.
The Way We Work and Live Has Changed
2020 has fundamentally changed the way people work and live. The grand workplace experiment we were all forced into has given us new insights on the quality of work and quality of life people want. Leaders must recognize this significant shift. And while we navigate this transitional time period, leaders will likely have to adopt new behaviors to establish workplace cultures that give people a reason to feel motivated and excited – whether they’re sitting in their loungewear working from the dining room table or commuting to the office.
Leaders also must be vulnerable enough to lead by example and shift personal behaviors to adapt to the new hybrid workplace. We cannot return to the “old” ways of working or leading. People are different. We are part of a new work contract.