Before March 2020, the new world of work was slowly making its way into the working world ecosystem. A relatively small number of companies offered flexible work options, and a few more organizations experimented with unique benefits and work environments (cue the Ping-Pong tables and free lunch). The newness of these types of programs made headlines and helped distinguish these organizations as terrific places to work. Over time, employees learned that as nice as these programs were, there was a lot more to a thriving work environment than volleyball courts and pet insurance.
And then … the pandemic. All the rules flew out the proverbial door. Welcome, new world of work. Flexible work arrangements became the necessitated norm, and Ping-Pong tables and volleyball courts were replaced with treadmills and walks around the neighborhood. And when the short-term crisis became long-term reality, organizations realized the world of work is forever changed. Even though we managed to navigate the uncertainty and disruption, we are now left trying to figure out how much of the pandemic working approach will carry over into the future.
Each organization’s journey and outcome will look a little different. As employees reset their expectations and reflect on how and where they do their best work, the idea of visibility at work will be redefined. The focus for employers will be on understanding how best to support employees to drive engagement in the new world of work. No matter where you started and no matter what you’re targeting, there are three keys to make the trip successful.
Products and services are complicated, the market is complicated, and the economic landscape is complicated. Therefore, a lot of our work is complicated. We need employees to focus on their work and do their best without overburdening them with programs and administrative tasks that are over-engineered. But, finding that perfect balance can be tricky. As an example, processes are often created to address the uncommon outlier, overburdening the masses just in case an outlier occurs. Think about the common performance management process. Managers and employees are both often required to write long and extensive narratives about experiences that happened months ago just in case an employee’s performance is so substandard that the organization might put the person on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Save the detailed documentation for when it’s really needed. The outlier events deserve attention, but make addressing those outliers its own process, reducing the load on the rest of the organization.
Work is not an extension of school, but it certainly feels like that sometimes. Employees often have to ask for permission to do things like take a vacation day or flex working hours. Different types of work do require different standards. Some positions require standard work hours to balance production or coverage, but for many employees, those rules are simply a carryover from the type of work that requires structure to the type of work that doesn’t require a lot of structure. When creating policies and work norms, we often fall into the “but what if …” trap and try to design a one-size-fits-all approach and account for every possible outlier. This then imposes undue burden on the majority of your employees, who show up every workday and give their best in service of the organization’s success. Your employees don’t need a babysitter; they need an advocate and a coach. Where do you start? Pick some perceived low-risk policies, and experiment. Maybe knowledge workers don’t need vacation requests to be approved—they can simply notify their team leader they’ll be out of the office. Or, perhaps knowledge workers can have the autonomy to take care of personal business during the workday. Yes, we need policies—just be sure your policies are for grown-ups, not students.
Simplification and grown-up-ification are essential so that space is created to amplify your employees’ talent. We’ve been trained to think that employees need feedback on what they’re not good at so they can get better at it. While that is sporadically true, by leading with what is usually perceived as negative, the impact is the exact opposite of better performance. Your organization is full of smart, amazing human beings, so start there. Instead of focusing on what’s broken, focus on bringing out the unique best in each employee. Starting with strengths reduces burden on the team leader and on the team member and shifts the individual and organizational mindset. Ask yourself what environment you, yourself, work better in—one where you are regularly reminded of what you’re not so good at or one where you are coached to be your best?
The new world of work is, well, new. How we, as leaders, create a work environment that reflects and keeps up with the new world will be essential for our organization’s success. The work of creating that environment is urgent. Employees, especially our best employees, are coming and going at head-shaking speed and are looking for organizations that are committed to amplifying the unique value each employee brings, no matter where that employee is in the hierarchy. Turning these headwinds into tailwinds requires us to reassess our practices, streamline our processes, and shift our mindset around visibility and performance. The world of work isn’t broken. The new world of work is an amazing opportunity just waiting for you to seize it.