The Workplace Has Changed Before. We Can Change It Again
As vaccines for the COVID-19 virus begin to appear, organizations are beginning to plan for what comes next. Some managers seem ready to heave a sigh of relief, expecting everyone to flock back to the office once the all-clear sign is given. I don’t think it will go that way.
The reluctance of many organizations to embrace remote working has always puzzled me. The familiar benefits to both employer and employee seem to make so much sense as to make it inevitable. Less commuting time, more flexibility, a healthier and more pleasant planet to live on, access to a larger pool of talent, lower real estate costs… Despite these compelling benefits, I am accustomed to hearing managers insist that it does not fit their culture, there are too many risks, it could hurt productivity and other (to my ears) specious arguments.
I know that I am probably influenced by personal circumstances. I have worked primarily from home for the last 25 years. By now I can hardly imagine doing otherwise. During a short stint in Sydney in the late 1990s, I welcomed the novelty of commuting to the office every day, but it only lasted a couple of months. Riding a ferry across Sydney Harbour to the office was definitely part of the appeal. Other than that, I am a homebody.
Now just about every office worker is a homebody due to COVID-19. All those roadblocks were wiped away by government fiat or overwhelming safety concerns. When remote work is the only option, there is no opportunity to fret about culture, risk or costs.
Hybrid will not work for everyone
Certainly, some people will want to return to a formal workplace when they can. Working from home is not great for everyone. Workers with small homes or who share their space with too many other people will welcome the chance to go back to the office. For most organizations, however, having at least some employees working from home is likely to become the new normal, despite their best efforts to come with reasons why it would not work for them.
Now that they have seen what it is like to work from home, many employees will balk at coming back. Some have even made lifestyle changes to accommodate the new situation, moving farther from the office in search of more space and lower real estate prices or making expensive renovations to accommodate a home office. Others won’t want to go into any enclosed space with relative strangers even if there is a vaccine.
Organizations will simply have to get used to operating in a hybrid model with some part of the workforce at another location. Those who do it well will perform better. This change will be hard for some, but hardest of all for the managers who maintain unrealistic ideas about how work should be done. Longing for the days when everyone can sit around the same table every morning is understandable, but trying to mandate it will prove to be literally counter-productive, even futile.
What to do about it
What can managers do to embrace hybrid working? Here are some ideas:
- Don’t assume that everyone will come back. This is the big one.
- Make sure every meeting has a virtual component. It should always be possible to attend remotely, without having to make a special request.
- Take async channels seriously. If half your team is using Microsoft Teams or Slack, you are losing much more than half of its potential value. Incorporate different channels into your workflow.
- Plan for unscheduled opportunities. This might sound like an oxymoron, but it is possible to encourage unplanned encounters. Set up a time for informal discussions online, by video or chat. Create a virtual bulletin board where team members can post ideas or ask for help. Encourage random check-ins.
Changing practices to work well in a hybrid way may seem daunting, but this is not the first time around for this kind of change. As work began to move to dedicated offices in the 18th century, business managers had to convince a largely agricultural populace to leave their homes and come into an office or factory every day. That was a big change, but it happened. I am sure some insisted it could never happen, that it would never work to be away from home for so many hours per day when cows need to be milked and chickens fed.
They were wrong and so are the managers (mostly) saying that things just need to go back to the way they were. The change to hybrid working will happen, overwhelmingly. Why not embrace this change and resolve to become really good at hybrid working? There is no point in longing for how things were in the Before Time. Those times are gone.