It has been almost two years since we were all thrown into the new normal, in one way or another. As the world starts to open up, many organizations and leaders are faced with a challenging question - what does the new way of working look like?
Emergy® partners Jarkko Rantanen and Ira Leppänen both get asked about this more often than not. “Organizations are clearly waking to the time after ‘remote working only’, and what would be the best way to approach it” Ira describes. “This certainly is a topic that evokes a lot of emotions and strong opinions and there is no ‘one size fits for all’ model so interesting discussions are taking place at work places. And I see this as a great opportunity to introduce improved ways of working, taking into account the diversity in individuals, teams and client situations.”
Everyone needs to feel seen, heard and listened to
Harvard Business Review (HBR) article ‘How to do hybrid right?’ points out that it is important to design the new work arrangement with individual human concerns in mind, not just the organizational ones. “Start by asking yourself what are your needs and expectations, and continue then to ask the same questions from your team” Jarkko confirms. It is also very important to remember that everyone has different needs and wishes but we all share the same psychological needs, we all need to be heard and seen, especially after such a long period of remote time. “Some people have enjoyed remote working whilst others have been waiting for the return to the office since the beginning of the pandemic” Jarkko continues.
Ira agrees. “Everyone has a different perspective on things and you cannot fulfill everyone’s wants - and that is not even the goal. In order to have people committed to the new normal despite the differing hopes and wishes, fair process should be considered.” ”It is never too early to open up a dialogue with your team and ask them what is it that they hope or wish for in the future. As we start to hear the various viewpoints and wishes (that in many cases differ from our own views), we automatically start to adjust our preferences towards a more compromised end-result. “It is also essential to lead by example and show your team that it is OK to have various different emotions about the future and there is not such a thing as right or wrong” Jarkko continues. “The role of the leader is hugely important in creating psychological safety, especially now when the teams are facing something completely new again. Stepping from the full remote mode to a hybrid one will be a cultural change again” Ira says.
Many remote encounters are purely task-focused and largely free of emotional connection.
According to HBR it has been shown that face-to-face encounters are crucial for our well-being and for building trust - we need to see people also in person. These real-life encounters allow for empathy, emotional connection, and nonverbal cues to complement what is actually said. Microsoft also recently surveyed its employees about how they have been dealing with the pandemic related working remotely. One of the most cited effects was an increase in the number of (shorter) meetings needed to solve a problem as people could no longer stop by a colleague and as a result they felt they actually spent more time in meetings than they did before the pandemic.
The future of the workplace
“The past year has widely proven that offices are no longer needed to get things done. However they do play an essential role for cultural space and social contact,” Jarkko says. “As such, we should consider regular real-life meetings for nurturing relationships and social connections”, Ira adds. HBR concludes similarly that the post-pandemic office has an important role in providing workers with a social anchor, facilitating connections, enabling learning, and fostering unscripted, innovative collaboration.
It is also vital to remember that a flexible working model can be, at best, boosting productivity and the employee satisfaction but at worst it can also be isolating and introduce constant disruptions to your focus via various remote meetings and calls.
“It is part of the leader's job to see the bigger picture and whatever the new way of operating is for each company or a team, it should support the company culture and its values” Jarkko says. People still need in-person touch points that provide opportunities to clarify and align expectations, to refresh rules and work practices, and to build or revive trust. Also, many things can be shared via technology, in fact it may be faster this way but there are some things that cannot be trained or taught remotely such as the company culture.
It is a missed opportunity if we expect to go back to how things were before the pandemic
To make any new operating model successful, you need to consider how the work gets done. This also offers a great opportunity to look into your ways of operating to see if there is something that can be changed, altered or removed altogether. “Some things that weren’t available or possible prior to the pandemic have become part of our daily life and this is exciting” Jarkko says. Ira agrees “This offers a great opportunity for improving our ways of working and introducing new rituals that better fit the client, project and team needs. It is a missed opportunity if we expect to go back to how things were before the pandemic”.
It is an evolving process
“One of the key things to remember when designing the post pandemic worklife is to remember that this is an evolving process and it won’t happen overnight. It requires patience and consistency, open dialogue and constant feedback to see what is working and what is not. If the team doesn’t have one yet, it would be important to establish a regular catch up with everyone to see how they are doing, and to make the progress transparent: what we have learned and where we have developed. What works for our team and what could be improved?” Ira says. “The important thing is to have each of us consider: how do we best organize the work to support our team, client project or organization-wide goals.
Be empathetic with your team members and assertive with the facts
There are as many ways to deal with this as there are organizations and leaders but if you take one thing from this, may it be that you encourage open dialogue with your team members and create a safe environment for them to express their different feelings and thoughts. “The new normal is something that definitely evokes emotions. Be empathetic with your team members but stay assertive with the facts” both Ira and Jarkko conclude. “Make sure you lead by example and show your team that it is ok to socialize, in fact, it is almost essential.” When in the office, they shouldn’t feel obligated to be in meetings or on their computers all the time. In its article ‘Designing the hybrid office’, Harvard Business Review also says that “if coming back in means only individual work and task-focused meetings, the positive lessons from the pandemic will have been lost, and the organization’s performance and culture may be jeopardized”.
“The fact is that during the pandemic the feeling of relatedness has deteriorated and at the same time the human need for connectedness is something many of us have been craving for. This is a good time to remind us all why we have organized the work in teams and not as individual solo artists in organizations. Everyone is responsible for the attitude that we bring with us: am I willing to make choices that support the team’s success even if it means that I need to adjust my preferences on how the work is organized” Ira reminds.
Have a think about what is the minimum time that you all should meet to increase the sense of belonging, whether it is in the office or over a picnic and make that time happen. For individuals, teams and organizations to succeed in the long run it is a priority to create and maintain social touch and contact also post-pandemic.”
Whatever your organization’s or workplace’s future looks like, there are a few steps that are universal regardless of the size or the type of your organization.
Acknowledge the cultural change the post-pandemic worklife design is introducing. This is a topic that evokes a lot of emotion and many have strong opinions about how the work should be organized.
Tune in emotionally and hear out the various feelings, viewpoints and expectations related to post-pandemic worklife. Be prepared to address all kinds of reactions and remember that everyone wants to be seen and heard.
Lead by an example and reinforce the psychological safety to create open conversations within your team for sharing the differing opinions. Share your own thoughts and emotions related to the topic.
Be fair and transparent. Communicate. Make the decision process visible so that your team members can see what is happening and that we’re making progress - this strengthens internal motivation and the commitment for change.
Implementing the post-pandemic work life is an evolving process and it won’t happen overnight - but it offers a huge opportunity for introducing improved ways of working, taking into account the diversity in individuals, teams and client situations. What kind of emotional climate are you creating around it: how do you talk about the post-pandemic work life and how do you encourage change? Are you awakening curiosity for seeing the new opportunities or spreading your own frustration and doubts? Remember, emotions are contagious and at the end of the day, it is the emotions we evoke that decide the outcome. They either give fuel for the change or create a show-stopper for progress.
Harvard Business Review: Designing the hybrid office
Harvard Business Review: How to do hybrid right?