Amber scanned her email, her mouth falling open and her heart racing as she read the message from her boss:
“We plan to return to working in the office by the end of May. You either need to return to working in the office or be terminated.”
Why were they throwing away all the lessons learned from working differently in the past year? Haven’t we learned how to work smarter? What about all those conversations we had about how productive we are without a commute? I’m not doing this again, she thought as she sat back in her chair.
At the same time across town, Peter clicked end on his video call after confirming a business trip for this summer once vaccinated.
He immediately felt a pang of: “Do I want to do this? Do I really want to return to the life I had pre-social distancing?”
The past year has left the imprint of exhaustion from constant travel and time away from his family. Peter realized the small moments he had been missing, like playing board games with his kids at night. Social distancing gave space to laughter, rest, exercise, and eating family dinner. For all the airline and hotel status lost, irreplaceable family bonding and memories were gained.
“I want to choose what I put back in, not have it determined for me. I don’t want to go back to the chaotic lifestyle. There has to be a better balance,” Peter thought.
After a year of waiting, the vaccine has arrived with increasing dread for what comes next. How much have we truly learned from this experience? Companies that struggled with how to lead virtually or keep company culture intact weren’t struggling with the virtual part. They struggled with gaps in how the company develops culture and leaders. Gaps that only became obvious under the constraints of the past year when they had no agility to adapt.
The new ways of working often shattered long-held beliefs that virtual work wasn’t possible. Culture doesn’t exist within walls; it exists in interactions. If anything, culture became more pronounced as people worked differently this past year. Employees felt the true experience of what was encouraged, reinforced, or discouraged through virtual exchanges.
Companies and leaders that say things like “Get back into the office,” or “Return to the way things used to be,” are missing the opportunity to realize what has been learned. There is agreement on one thing: There is no going back to where things left off in February 2020. Not just in terms of where work is done, but how it is done. Leaders should take the opportunity to harvest insights from employees on lessons learned and use them to reimagine and evolve work.
Don’t make assumptions
The past year has demonstrated that employees don’t have to work in the same office, city, or time for successful performance. Some employees will want to return to an office, some want to continue working remotely and others want a hybrid option. Ask your employees for their preferences before you define location.
Involve your colleagues
Reimagine how, when, and where you will work together. Dedicate time to listen and learn to concerns and wishes. Workers have a range of emotions about the next stage from concerns about catching COVID to what they put back into their life. Listening helps you learn what is important to them.
Inquire and reflect with individual check-in conversations
Get curious with a check-in conversation with each employee. What have they learned that will make their work experience easier going forward? Are there ideas to implement for other employees? Your goal for the conversation is to learn about their experience. Identify what to continue or consider doing going forward to improve the work experience and achieve better outcomes.
- What did you like best about this past year of work?
- Where did you feel challenged?
- What is something that made work easier for you this past year?
- What is one thing you want to retain moving forward?
- What is one change you would like to see?
Dedicate time for team reflection
Many teams were forced to develop new muscles to interact virtually and produce results. Dedicate a meeting to reflect and define shifts to make as a team. Your goals for this meeting are to be curious, challenge assumptions, and define what to do going forward. This discussion identifies challenges and how to experiment with different approaches. You may want to collect responses in advance through an anonymous survey. Give everyone a voice in this meeting and avoid rushing the discussion or decisions.
- What have we done well in the past year?
- Where have we been challenged?
- Where have we been slow to make decisions? What could help that?
- What is one thing you want to see different in the way we work going forward?
- What is most important to you in this next phase of work?
Define team norms for hybrid or virtual work
Many companies are exploring hybrid approaches to work. The key to success for hybrid teams is to define norms and minimize assumptions. This works best following the reflection questions above. Your goal for this conversation is for the team to define how, when, and where they will work together.
- Are there core hours we want to establish for meetings or overlapping working times?
- Are we currently having the right meetings at the right time with the right people, or do we need to make changes?
- When do we expect each other to use web cameras?
- What would be circumstances where we might come together in person?
- What are the days/times we want to protect and don’t reach out to each other (e.g., vacation)?
Instead of deciding for employees, bring them into the discussion. Take advantage of the rich insights gained over the past year to reimagine how you work together. Learn what is important to employees. Explore how to build on what worked well and experiment with new ideas. Get curious about how to evolve the culture of your team and organization. Use each discussion as a way to define and gain agreement with your employees and your teams on the best path forward.
There is no going back. The way you move forward will send a strong message to your employees. Take the time to reflect, reimagine and evolve how you work together.