How to Navigate the “New Reality”

Leaders need to be prepared to communicate clearly about what the company needs, how the work can best get done, and why decisions are made, particularly when it comes to in-office vs. remote work post-pandemic.

Q: When are we going back to the office?
A: We’re not. At least not all of us. And not all of the time. —David Burkus

Many people are wondering what the workplace new normal will be. Based on research, the new reality is that hybrid workplaces and remote work are here to stay. Robert Glazer is founder and CEO of global performance marketing agency Acceleration Partners and author of the new book, “How to Thrive in The Virtual Workplace.” (He also wrote a feature article for this July issue of Training: “How to Ensure a Positive Remote Culture.”)

Glazer surveyed 2,000 professionals—including CEOs, department heads, managers, and individual contributors—to learn about their remote work experiences. The data from his survey was clear that most employees don’t want to return to the office every day—not even most days. Before the pandemic, 52 percent of respondents worked in an office every day. Now only 2 percent want to return to the office full time. In fact, 68 percent of respondents indicated they want to work from home most of the time or every day.

Employees want flexibility and prefer not having to spend time commuting. Offering remote work can be a strategy to attract and retain employees in a post-pandemic reality. But Glazer also discovered the primary issue remote workers face is when to stop working when working remotely. There is no doubt that workers are working and working hard. Most employees reported working constantly and not taking breaks.

Advice for Leaders

In his Harvard Business Review article, “A CEO’s Guide to Planning a Return to the Office,” Dan Ciampa offered this advice for leading in this new reality:

  • Resist defining policies and making decisions too quickly. Buy time to gather more information and to leave options open as long as possible.
  • Ask questions and refrain from making personal decisions public as long as possible.
  • While it is important to collect opinions from employees, this is only one data point. Opinions change.
  • Survey managers separately from employees to be managed. Their perspectives add another dimension to the discussion and need to be considered.
  • One size (plan) does not fit all organizations. Larger organizations need more predictability and structure for perceptions of fairness among employees than smaller organizations.
  • Consider how remote work affects the culture.

The Office as a Cultural Space

Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker is attributed with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In a previous Training article, I described how meaningful rituals can be used to connect people and weave the organization back together again. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Anne-Laure Fayard, John Weeks, and Mahwesh Khan explained how hybrid work is making the traditional office a cultural space “providing workers with a social anchor, facilitating connections, enabling learning, and fostering unscripted, innovative collaboration.”

Leaders need to be prepared to communicate clearly about what the company needs, how the work can best get done, and why decisions are made. Explaining the value to employees of being involved in the cultural space is one way to encourage them to come back to the office at least a few days a week. Employees learn a lot from observing others. Role models and mentors guide the way by setting the norms and walking the talk. But this does not happen when people are at home working alone. Zoom has been helpful in filling the gaps, but it does not replace what can be learned from in-person interactions.

In Person and Online

Julia Austin shared some interesting ideas in the article, “Covid Killed the Traditional Workplace. What Should Companies Do Now?” She suggested managers structure time in the office to ensure face time. For example, make a team schedule, so the days in the office are most meaningful and focused on connections—both scheduled and serendipitous.

As a result of working from home, employees have lost time for casual conversations that often happen before or after a meeting in the hallway or running into people at coffee breaks. Post-COVID, Austin encourages leaders to create time blocks, either online or in person, for random connections and conversations essential for developing team culture.

Online, Austin said this could mean hosting virtual office hours where a manager’s “Zoom door” is open for anyone to pop in. In the office, this could be setting expectations that there are times for people to just sit together and work or to have more casual conversations to help people feel connected.

Lara Quie, business coach for lawyers (LaraQAssociates.com), told me that law firms want their lawyers back in the office. To entice them back, it may take a refurbishment of the office to a more conducive co-working space with pods for collaboration rather than individual offices. She said firms also will need to invest in technology that enables teams to meet in-person with the other half of the team present virtually. In addition, she advises leaders to adapt their leadership style to one of inclusivity for managing both in-person and virtually. They also will need a more flexible mindset and will need to focus on what each team member brings to the table as an individual.

Fayard, Weeks, and Khan remind us that “people still need in-person touchpoints that provide opportunities to clarify and align expectations, to refresh rules and work practices, and to build or revive trust.” Bringing people back together in offices at least a few days a week helps employees navigate the new reality.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development and change management consultant. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013). For more information, visit: http://www.JannFreed.com.