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We went out to dinner with a group of friends a few weeks ago to celebrate a milestone birthday.That phrase used to be so normal. Instead, just saying it feels like a milestone. After months of distancing, we hugged, sat elbow to elbow, shared food. A month prior when I sent out invitations, we worried it would be a stretch — would people really be comfortable gathering?
What a difference a month makes! People who wore masks on hikes two months ago are re-emerging into public spaces, blinking cautious eyes against the stew of humanity, and embracing. (Not everyone. The precaution and hypervigilance will linger for many, triggering fear or aversion to some daily activities that used to be commonplace).
This is less commentary on the vaccine than on what an accelerating pace of change feels like. It’s hard to predict what your friends — or your world — will look like in 6 months based on a linear progression from where you are today. In our personal lives at least, we don’t emerge incrementally so much as burst forth.
The great re-emergence (or, after the COVID summer)
Meanwhile, many companies are trying to re-envision the workplace. Understandably, some are taking a measured approach, driven by a desire to “get it right.” Others are making strong pronouncements about what the great re-emergence will look like. But nobody really knows.
This is uncertainty.
We know what the workforce is saying. Surveys, largely of professionals, say everything from 81% don’t want to return to the office full time, to 39% will consider quitting if they don’t get flexibility, to one in four intend to look for new jobs anyway. We know what executives are saying (hoping). We know there is a gap and that those predictions and sentiments themselves have shifted over the past two months.
In April, a survey of CEOs found that 83% wanted employees back in person full-time, and only a quarter intended to let employees work remotely for a significant period of time. Big names such as Amazon and Goldman Sachs made clear that remote was “not the new normal.” In June, McKinsey reported that 9 out of 10 executives say their organizations will be “combining remote and on-site working” — in other words, a hybrid model.
And we don’t really know how it will play out. Sixty-eight percent of executives have said their companies don’t yet have a plan.
Here’s what we do know
The same long-term forces from before the pandemic — rapid technology change, hyper-connectivity that propagates information (or changes) everywhere instantaneously, more powerful (informed, fickle, demanding) consumers, and more powerful talent (informed, expectations) — are still at play.
To keep up, companies will continue to be under pressure to move faster, be more agile and innovative, and deliver more value in the market.
In 2021, some additional pressing concerns for companies include:
- Macroeconomic uncertainty and inflationary worries
- Social unrest and increased awareness of wealth and opportunity disparity
- Extreme climate-related events
- Countries and regions still deeply suffering from the pandemic
Finally, there is the workforce itself. Workers are coming out of what for many was a traumatic time. For others, it was a wake-up call to reconsider work, life, and values. The costs and damage weren’t equally shared or experienced, yet it would be hard to say that anyone came out of the past year unchanged.
Those changes complicate the picture for companies worried about retention. Even as the economy has rebounded, job openings have outpaced returns to work. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Americans left their jobs at an unprecedented rate in April 2021, an upward trend that started well before the pandemic.
While the record-setting quit rates in 2018 and 2019 pointed to worker dissatisfaction with compensation and career opportunities, in 2021 potential job-hoppers are more likely to cite the desire for flexibility and concerns about career advancement and upgrading their skills to remain competitive. As many as 8 in 10 believe working remotely has hurt their career development.
Even if some of the readiness to leave is a short-term reaction to pent-up demand and numerous openings, companies now have to consider the more sustained effects of existential crises and actual shifts in employment patterns and workers’ expectations of employers.
That means that at each step of the way, organizations have to first ask, do the old rules still apply? The answer may often be “no” or “not completely.” And if not, what rules do apply? Companies and leaders have to question conventional wisdom and not try to pick up the same strategies where they left off.
Can we ever return to the status quo?
First, if we learned anything from the year of shutdowns and remote working, it was that you can’t just replicate what you used to do into a new environment. The old in-person processes and practices didn’t generally map directly into the fully remote world.
For example, at BetterUp (and likely many other companies), we didn’t rely just on virtual whiteboard tools to recreate how we might previously have brainstormed in a conference room. Instead, group collaboration often happens over a longer period, starting with asynchronous work that gradually gets combined, revised, and built upon before a group working session. While we sometimes miss the ease of scribbling on a wall, we’ve gained wider participation and more thoughtful “plussing” than when the loudest voices in the conference room prevailed.
Successful organizations developed new ways of working. They created new practices that took advantage of the possibilities afforded by virtual environments. They acknowledged what was lost, rather than trying to recreate a virtual version of what they had before.
This applies even more so as we face a hybrid environment. Ask any parent of school-age children about the “worst of all worlds” potential of the in-between, the hybrid. As with companies today, schools over the past nine months had very different interpretations and execution of hybrid models. Unsurprisingly, the effectiveness and experience varied widely as well.
Managers are on-point
Like the parents juggling children’s different schedules, systems, and expectations, direct managers are most likely to be the inheritors of the worst parts of a poorly-designed hybrid model. That may be unavoidable, but managers will need more support as organizations work through what is likely to be an evolving approach.
Leaders need to first clarify their priorities for the organization, irrespective of a hybrid work environment. This means both a return to core values but also understanding, operationally and strategically, what is necessary for the organization’s success. What performance markers actually matter? What is the company working to achieve in the next 6 or 12 months? What’s non-negotiable and what should be deprioritized?
With that more clearly in mind, leaders can take up the question of what their hybrid model will be. Leaders need to think hard about what hybrid means and what the goals of the physical environment are, what their employees’ needs and preferences are, and how integrated the virtual and physical workforce need to be in time and space.
New realities and 5 questions for a hybrid world
The new world of work was already creating new realities for the way organizations developed and supported their people in order to be competitive, delight customers, and drive performance. A post-pandemic hybrid environment complicates these realities.
- Human potential is everywhere: How will you tap into the diverse potential throughout your company (and beyond) to empower the frontlines, fuel creativity and imagination, and drive innovation that will sustain organizational performance over time?
Equity and opportunity — The way influence and social capital develop may change in unexpected ways. That will have consequences for different groups of workers and could improve gaps or widen them.
More siloed teams — Organizations will need to develop new practices for collaboration, connection, and career development that not only span virtual and physical environments but intentionally span organizational boundaries.
Lack of clarity on what type of performance matters — Many articles are quoting employees saying they were more productive at home, or executives saying their organizations are more productive in one environment or the other. But with fewer workers engaged in standardized tasks, productivity is less a hard metric than a perception. To contribute effectively, employees need to understand the desired organizational outcome and how their performance can affect it.
- Every manager matters: How will you support and develop managers at every level to create inclusive, innovative, high-performing teams?
Expanded role of managers — Today, managers have to do even more in terms of coaching, fostering belonging, developing talent, guiding experimentation, and supporting team members’ well-being across time zones and locations. Many companies were not supporting mid-and lower-level managers in their roles before. Now is the time to change this.
- Continuous learning is the new competitive advantage: How will individuals notice and make sense of change, stretch out of their comfort zones, and have opportunities for growth?
Decreased diversity of interactions — Interactions with people who are not like us, either within the organization as well as more generally, may decrease with more people choosing work locations based on convenience and comfort.
Fewer unplanned experiences — Unexpected and visceral experiences are key to breaking through certainty and helping people understand change and reimagine possibilities.
- Well-being underpins performance: How will the organization and leaders proactively support the well-being and mental fitness employees need for performance?
Social connection and loneliness — The importance of social connection rose over the past year. Companies and individuals will create new forms of connection and community in the virtual and physical environment, but loneliness could worsen for some as the collective experience of distancing ends.
- Meaning, purpose, and belonging awaken potential: How will you cultivate a culture where everyone feels a sense of purpose and belonging in their roles and in the organization?
Work-life balance — Our pre-pandemic multi-year research found that remote workers struggle more, not less, than in-person workers with work-life balance.
Meaning and purpose — Pre-pandemic, remote workers also struggled more to find meaning and purpose in their work. This could be related to a diminished sense of service to others by not sharing communal space, or it might have been related to the type of work tending to be peripheral and carved out in a way that made the connection to impact less clear.
Belonging — The way people experienced inclusion and belonging during the pandemic varied. A return to partial remote, partial in-person may improve connection for some and make it worse for others. People’s sense of belonging, in part, will depend on leaders being purposeful in fostering belonging.
How to move forward when uncertainty is the new normal
If you’re feeling uncomfortable trying to peer into the crystal ball and figure out the right way to do hybrid, get used to it. This is the essence of the uncertainty and potential for dramatic change that is the new world of work.
Through BetterUp Labs research and our own Member data, we know that leading and performing in uncertainty requires specific skills. Those same skills apply to organizations trying to plan for re-emergence into a hybrid world. Leading and navigating amid constant change requires communication skills, empathy, cognitive agility, emotional regulation, and resilience.
What can leaders do?
- Communicate (don’t message)
If an organization, with all good intent, were to tell their workforce today that everyone needs to be back in the office because research shows they’ll be more satisfied, less stressed, and better develop themselves to be more successful over a career, it would likely fall flat. Workers depleted by a year of stress and uncertainty and fired up by the news of a hot job market, are feeling their power, feeling their preferences, and wanting to make their needs known. Edicts and assertions are out. A better approach might be to start — and continue — a conversation with your employees. That means more than a survey of concerns or a one-off town hall to hear demands. It means an ongoing dialogue for employees to express the range of what is working and not working for them, and for leaders to do the same.
- Acknowledge the gap (and mind it)
Companies will have to account for the wide range of perceptions and preferences and try to flexibly accommodate the range to access needed skills and labor. They need to approach it as an experiment that will continue to evolve as organizations — and individuals — figure out what works and doesn’t. Conflict will begin to appear. What works for some individuals may not work for the organization. How will leaders navigate creating policies for the many and the few?
- Question your assumptions (and intentions)
Why do you want people back in the office? Is it to keep tabs on workers who you believe are slacking off or to correct performance issues? Is it a test to see who is most committed or to offset a loss of control? Or is it to re-establish culture, build community, or reinvigorate a mission? Get clear on what you want to achieve, and know that even a complete return to the office is going to come with new expectations.
- Understand what is lost (and what is gained)
Organizations, and individuals, have choices to make in determining what the hybrid model looks like. Each choice has consequences. Rather than argue for one being better than another, being clear about what is lost can help you develop new ways to offset or mitigate what is lost.
- Whatever you decide, don’t get too comfortable
Despite what research or the data say about these considerations, employees are unlikely to know the research (or believe that it applies to them) until they try the experiment for themselves which may take weeks, months, or longer. In the meantime, they “want what they want” based on each individual’s perception of benefits and tradeoffs. Be flexible. There will be a variety of contradictory needs and preferences within your workforce. And preferences and needs will change as people adjust and experiment with the next normal.
Take a deep breath
As you plot your course forward, remember that the situation is fluid, and new data (and smart answers) emerge every day. Plans will change, models must adapt, and organizations, like people, will sometimes misstep. Anchor in values, and take the time to get some alignment on what matters to the health and success of your company and your people. Then stay focused and let what really matters guide the many decisions that follow.
And remember, the great re-emergence is but one of the uncertainties that will challenge leaders in the new world of work. The culture and practices you create, and the skills you build in navigating this time, are an investment that will shape the future.