The global pandemic gave us few choices in the nearly instantaneous move to remote work. But as organizations plan for an eventual return to the workplace, leaders will need to begin asking key questions. The most important decision leaders face is whether to be brave enough and willing to explore the possibilities the pandemic has made possible. If we are, we can embrace lessons learned during the pandemic and successfully reimagine the workplaces of the future.
“Answers have a shelf life. Questions can last a lifetime.” My colleague and I say this a lot lately because it speaks to the reality that pandemic conditions differ everywhere, and they’re always changing, so policies may be in flux for some time. But if we know the right questions to ask (and re-ask), we will be in a better position for success when planning our return to the workplace.
Since nearly the start of the pandemic, Prosci has been researching the return to the workplace and reimagining of the workforce. Our work also involved connecting with strategic change leaders from various industries and organizations to explore what lay ahead. These rich experiences yielded three types of prompting questions organizational leaders must answer to make the most of the workplace possibilities now available.
What did we learn about ourselves and our organizations that will help us be more successful in our post-pandemic future?
The pandemic brought pain and suffering, but it also brought a lot of learning by necessity. Reflecting on what we learned helps us identify the capabilities and competencies we developed, which we can now leverage as we reimagine what the future of the workplace would look like.
What did we miss most while working “apart” that we can’t wait to recapture when we can be “together” again?
Being reflective about what we missed most while we were apart helps us really understand the value of the time we spend together and maximize that time as we reimagine future of work. You know, the human connection, serendipity, sticky notes, the smell of flip chart markers, and so on. Once we identify the things we missed most, we can use that knowledge to elevate what is possible in front of us.
What have we been able to do for more than a year now, which we once considered impossible?
This question taps into the tenacity and resilience demonstrated at the start of the pandemic when we all moved from together to apart overnight. We did many things we never imagined we could, as people and as organizations, just navigating a whole new set of constraints. Think about grocery delivery, Zoom meetings, and even virtual weddings. So much imagination went into making the pandemic tolerable, but it’s great for informing how we can bring forward what works and apply it in a new way.
Are we thinking about who must return to the workplace or what work is most effective when it happens in a shared space?
We need to be especially thoughtful about this question when we step back into shared spaces. The constraints that have been removed and what's now possible require a different mindset. Focusing on who comes back to the workplace is a fixed and old-school mentality—a mindset of trying to get back to what workplace meant before. We need to reorient by identifying the work that is most effective when it happens in a shared space. This taps into those new possibilities and new capabilities, and really amplifies what's most important when we do have the opportunity to sit around a table or to stand at a flip chart or whiteboard. This also creates space for the flexibility people have grown to value during the full work-from-home experiment.
What is the office for? What is it meant to accomplish?
Seth Godin, the entrepreneur and author, talks about how understanding what something is for helps us see the value we hope to create. He uses the example of catering a lunch. Depending on who and what you are doing it for—a dear friend, your boss, or someone you don’t like but who is very influential—your choices will vary. In the same way, asking what the actual purpose of the shared space is when we come together in an office (what the workplace really is for) enables us to see when the office doesn't add value or when we can really elevate the value. What is the office for? “Where we must go to do our work” used to be the de facto answer. That is simply no longer the case.
When and where does “the where” matter?
During our return-to-the-workplace advisory work, a university was trying to decide which classes to bring on campus and which to leave off campus when managing capacity. They began considering each class and asking questions. Does the “where” matter for this class? Does the physical space used to teach this course really matter? The where or physical space matters significantly for an anatomy lab course, but it matters far less for an 18th century French literature lecture.
What of our work is more like anatomy lab, where “the where” matters? What of our work is more like 18th century French lit, where “the where” doesn’t matter?
Taking it one step further, we must differentiate between collaborative work and constructive work, the importance of the materials and the environment, and how that enables people to do their jobs. Consider something like photography. It’s collaborative work. You must be where the camera and subject are. But editing digital images is constructive work that can be done anywhere. Certain types of work are best performed together while other types of work can be equally productive when performed apart. Understanding the nature of the work enables “heads-up” decisions when re-imagining the workplace.
In what ways does our organization really need to be strategic when we begin reclaiming shared space?
This is the essence of the shared-spaces decisions ahead of us. Intentionally asking whether and how much “the where” matters for each role frees us up to be creative about how we want to use space. It will provide room for the flexibility and choice people want. It will enable us to make the most of our precious time together. Being strategic means creatively designing what will best serve the interest of the employees and the organization going forward, given our newfound capabilities. The opposite of a strategic return is rapidly racing back to what was.
How will we make the most of shared space when we get it back?
When we have the opportunity to go back into the office, are we going to simply rush back or are we going to be strategic and really hone in on where and why, as well as the value that shared space can create? Having different office scenarios in different regions creates the need for hybrid meetings with some people onsite and some people virtual, at least for a while. How do we get smarter and embrace that?
Where in the organizational hierarchy is the decision being made about the location of work, i.e., “vocation location”?
Organizations are providing various answers to this question. In some instances, there is no decision to be made. A surgeon or other “essential” work would automatically be considered full on-premises work. An employee in a geographic location where there is no workplace would be considered full off-premises work, except for visits to the main office. But the work on the spectrum between these extremes requires decisions to be made somewhere in the organization. Options range from the individual decision to the enterprise decision or somewhere in between (i.e., team decision, department decision, or division/function decision).
What is our standard approach to on-premises work and off-premises work?
The answer to this lies across a spectrum, too. At one end is all on-premises work and at the other is all off-premises work. The primary hybrid approaches we see are “hybrid by schedule,” where an employee is on premises for set days/times, and “hybrid bespoke,” where the employee decides when to be on premises. The amount of on-premises time can vary from two or three days a week all the way to once a quarter. After choosing the approach, organizations will still have many questions to answer and areas to consider when planning for the format of their hybrid workplace.
What aspects of the organization will need to permanently change to accommodate the work that is going to remain off premises?
We run the risk of unlearning valuable lessons we picked up since the start of the pandemic. We must be intentional about stopping this leakage of capability and trust that we grew over the last year and a half. If we go running back to where we were and what we had before, we lose some progress and learning. Will leaders be brave enough to step into the flexibility available because we have the capability to work from anywhere?
How can we avoid defaulting to trying to return to what was?
To answer this important question, we need to look at the outcomes sought from the change. For example, when one organization planned a large, in-person meeting, they thought about what they wanted to get out of it and realized a virtual meeting would enable better cooperation and information capture from small groups. They achieved better outcomes because they had the bravery to ask the question and gave themselves the freedom to answer honestly. If organizations don't take on this mindset when looking at distribution of on-premises, off-premises and hybrid workers, they risk not achieving change success because they have not embraced what's been made possible by employees.
There is no return to exactly what was. There is only reimaging what can be if we are brave enough to explore creative hybrid solutions and see the value of flexibly defining “place.” When leaders thoughtfully ask and answer these prompting questions, we better align our reimagined workplace to the experience our employees want and the most productive environment our organization can create. We must be intentional about leveraging what we learned throughout this pandemic experience—through tenacity, ingenuity and trust—and the ways we all grew as a result.
Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.
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