|Many companies had some type of distributed workforce pre-COVID. Why are the work dynamics so different in 2022?
Before COVID, some people had the option to work from home part time, and some worked remotely full time. But after working from home for two-plus years, most employees expect to have more flexibility than they did pre-COVID.
We’re seeing many companies asking employees to work out schedules with their department heads so the whole team can be together for at least a few days, which is a great step. But they’re still not having frequent contact with teams that are one step removed from their own teams, like HR, Finance, or Legal.
During COVID, people said they felt a stronger connection with their own teams, but missed their interactions with people from other teams. Many are still feeling that sense of loss of their “casual” connections, especially if different teams come in on different days.
When everyone worked virtually, people would IM each other often throughout the day, as though knocking on the door to say hello as they passed. But now, with some in the office and some remote, it gets confusing about which doors to knock on, and when.
How have team communication preferences and styles shifted since COVID?
A better question might be, how haven’t they changed?! Over the last two-plus years, teams have had to completely rethink how and when they communicate. And now that some are returning to the office, teams need to rethink it yet again. Communications preferences and needs depend on where and when people work, their interaction with others, and the level of responsiveness needed between them and their team members. We urge leaders to work with their teams to agree on some core principles, as a start.
For example, many teams are being overwhelmed by excessive emails or a steady string of Slack notifications. Teams need to agree how email, IMs, team portals, texts, etc. are best used and under what circumstances. Agreeing on the timing of communications is also important, especially when team members span multiple time zones. Is it okay to send emails or IMs during off-hours? Is it okay to wait to reply during your own work hours?
What are the most important steps leaders can take to prevent the “great resignation” and retain top talent in their organizations?
We are on the precipice of tremendous change and even more destabilization, which started before COVID for many industries. We advise leaders to think in terms of the “great attraction” and the “great retention,” instead of simply making defensive moves to keep people from spilling out the exits.
Companies can do a better job making new hires glad to be there from day one. Consider what you can give and do for new employees to affirm their decision to join, at the end of their first day, first week, first month, and first quarter. LinkedIn is full of photos showing off gift packages posted by grateful new hires.
Companies also need to do much more to retain their current staff, including matching new hires with buddies, mentors, guides, curators of organizational knowledge, thought partners, and others who can help create a sense of belonging.
Maintaining consistent communications with team members is key, especially as teams are forming. One leader we know who hired half of their current team during COVID holds daily standups, multiple weekly huddles, frequent social gatherings, and makes herself available outside of hours at set times, if urgent.
She also sends team members thoughtful gifts. For example, instead of sending a gift card from a national coffee chain, she researches their favorite local places. Door Dash gift cards make it easy for people to order from wherever they want. Not all leaders have the budget for gifts, and sometimes the sheer number and locations of employees makes it almost impossible. Where people must work onsite (e.g. production lines, facilities), some organizations that were offering free meals during COVID are continuing to offer at least one free lunch each week. The key is to extend similar privileges to many, regardless of role or location.
Leaders need to start thinking of working in the office as the new off-site. Be intentional about how, when and why they ask people to come together. Make coming into the office a destination, an experience. When employees work onsite, they should sense a positive buzz they can’t get on Zoom and feel glad they came, instead of seeing a “tumbleweed town” with voices echoing through empty halls.
If they want to retain their top talent, leaders shouldn’t be forcing people to come in against their will or auditing badge swipes. You want employees to associate the office with a positive experience with sense of community, relationship-building, learning, sharing and having fun, rather than a place they dread going.
What else can leaders do to help make employees feel they’re valued and that they belong?
Let employees know that you see them as a whole person with a life outside of work. When they or their family members are sick, or they need extra flexibility during an especially traumatic week, don’t ask how they plan to get their work done. Let them know you and their colleagues have their backs and ask what they need from you. Such accommodations should be extended to salaried employees as well, whenever possible.
Hire enough people so the team can continue to function well even when someone leaves the team temporarily, whether due to vacation, illness, job rotation, or personal time off. Cross-train a group of floaters, part-time employees or contractors who are ready to fill the gaps.
Have a solid strategy for succession planning, beyond executive leadership positions. How can organizations make it easier for employees to gracefully transition to retirement with enough lead time to retain their valuable institutional knowledge? (You may need up to six months or more for replacing people at certain positions, allowing time for shadowing, training, making the needed handoffs, thus ensuring that the legacy of the departing employee is protected.) Many organizations have faced disastrous consequences when they failed to stop decades’ worth of knowledge from walking out the door.
What skills and aptitudes do leaders of successful virtual/hybrid teams need, now more than ever?
They need emotional intelligence, compassion, the ability to manage ambiguity, and the willingness and ability to be flexible. Organizations must find ways to hold managers accountable for honing and practicing skills by reflecting them in their performance reviews, based on feedback from managers, employees, clients and colleagues. Of course, they have to hit their performance numbers as well, but not at the expense of taking care of their employees.
Many leaders have been operating like dinosaurs, quite frankly, wanting things to be done the way they have always been done. That mindset prevents the leader, the team and the whole organization from growing and responding to change.
We’re all experiencing a confluence of changes that have no precedence in the history of work. It’s not easy to adapt and respond to so many changes at once, but we have no choice. At the end of the day, it’s a welcome change – the world is different, and the world of work is finally catching up.
What are some unanticipated logistical challenges as people return to the office?
With some people working remotely on some days and some in the office, it can be hard, for example, to know what food the company cafeterias need, how much security staff each building may require, and how to ensure card access for all who need it. All of these logistics have to be carefully managed if we want employees to have the optimal experience when they return to the office, wherever that office may be this week.
Pre-pandemic, the open concept office was the mainstream standard with lots of collaboration spaces out in the open and hoteling spaces for people traveling in. We’re finding that the open spaces are not meeting the needs of those who require large, private conference rooms to be a homebase or huddle room for the group. We’re also discovering that many conference rooms are not well-equipped to handle hybrid meetings. Many office spaces need major alterations or complete overhauls.
Realize that an organization’s “culture” as we know it is really about how people work, how they collaborate and communicate, and the values, principles, and norms that support that ability to work together to achieve shared goals. Today’s leaders have a chance to redefine their organizational culture in a way that inspires, energizes and motivates their teams, making it hard for them to imagine working anywhere else.
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