Life Beyond Lockdowns
A year ago, the switch to working from home (WFH) was abrupt for both companies and employees. For most of us, the office represented routine and conformity; however, it has become a source of economic uncertainty and heated dispute. Around the world, employees, business leaders, landlords, politicians and governments are trying to decide if their offices are required in their pre-pandemic form and are coming to radically different conclusions. The evolution of work in the post-pandemic era holds promise and brings threats, not least to company culture. Recently, we caught-up with Sukhendu Pal, an advisor to CEOs and Boards, of some of the world’s most valuable companies, as well as to founders of many promising start-ups and unicorns. Sukhendu is also a lead mentor to Funding London’s 140+ portfolio of high-growth start-ups. We asked Sukhendu several searching questions, which many companies and their employees are grappling with; about life beyond lockdowns. Here is what we discovered.
Everyone talks about the “new normal”. What will the “new normal” world look like?
The year 2019 was all about the “old normal”. In 2021 and beyond, thanks to vaccines, we’ll have to retire the “old normal” and get used to a “new normal”. Which, confusingly, will bear some similarities to the “old normal”. We now need to determine which parts of the “old normal” we will incorporate into the “new normal” to have the best of both! Put simply, there are no clear answers for what our “new normal” world will look like. We can only guess, hope and wonder. However, conquering our anxiety and braving the new world that lies ahead means being intentional about what we think and how we react. We can find multiple paths of self-discovery within our minds if only we stop and take a look.
How do companies retain their unique cultures and team spirit if they embrace WFH practice?
I prefer looking at this problem practically and not politically as may experts with vested interests do. As today wasn’t yesterday, tomorrow isn’t going to be like today. Therefore, it isn’t going to be yesterday’s “going back to work and working 9-5” or today’s exclusively “working from home”. Neither of these extreme will be the default mode of working in the “new normal”. Instead, it will be a hybrid working model, combining the best of two extremes. You have to choose the model that is right for your company from a handful of hybrid models. Your decision will rest on the factors that you want to optimise or improve. Is it the office/facilities cost? Is it improving employee productivity? Is it access to talent? Is it the employee experience and convenience? Is it to maintain the existing culture?
No matter which hybrid model you choose, your task will be to manage the organisational norms which matter most. Approached in the right way, the new hybrid working model can help you make the most of talent wherever it resides, at the same time lowering costs and making your company’s performance and culture even stronger than before.
Will companies’ salary-by-location set a precedent for businesses in the “new normal”?
It is treacherous ground if you pay people less because they live somewhere that costs less. Many years ago, all international software companies had differential pricing structures for their products in various world regions (North America, Europe, Middle-East & Africa and Asia-Pacific). However, when customers realised that these companies are ripping them off using differential regional pricing, they decided to buy from the cheapest region, affecting company revenues. A similar situation will arise here – if people are the companies biggest assets, they had better compensate for their competencies and talent regardless of where they live.
As my good friend, Steve Garnett, reminded us recently, “business travels at the speed of customer success”, which is propelled by companies talent, and talent is location-less and timeless.
The future of work is not what we thought it would be only a few months ago – so, how do you see work in the “new normal”?
History tells us that how we work normally decides how we live. As businesses step into the post-coronavirus future, they need to balance what worked before and what needs to happen to succeed in the new normal. I see many changes to how we are going to work and therefore “what is the new normal”:-
- From ‘sleeping at the office’ to WFH.
- From command and control management practices and siloed work to collaboration across silos and teamwork.
- From just-in-time to just-in-case supply chains.
- From managing for the short term to long term.
- From making trade-offs to embedding sustainability.
- From e-commerce to contact-free commerce and economy.
- From merely going back to work to reimagining work.
What will a profitable business look like in the post-pandemic world?
Profitable companies in the post-coronavirus world will emerge with sound balance sheets, caring leadership and genuine compassion. Those that do will be celebrated, rewarded and cherished. Companies who demonstrate a lack of empathy, who don’t stretch themselves to serve others, who remain silent on gender inequality/racism or self-serving, whose leaders refuse to share in the economic pain, will risk finding their brands and reputations permanently damaged. There is a growing cry for more responsible and compassionate C-suites. Perhaps, just perhaps, our post-pandemic world will be shaped by a kind of reverse Darwinism: survival of the kindest and most compassionate, rather than the most ferocious and self-obsessed.
What will be the office of the post-pandemic world?
There are two parts to this question. One has to do with the somewhat objective aspects of the evolution of work. The second is based on an organisational culture and core values. Once we answer these, how we design the workspace will change. Of course, offices are changing in response to Covid-19; however, many of these changes aren’t necessarily new, and not all will stick. What is increasingly clear is the pandemic has accelerated the natural evolution of the office away from a productivity space to something else — both a learning space and a space to solve complex problems. Think about what is happening with a Sky/BT/Virgin TV subscription: If we think of the office as a bundle of space applications like, for example, a Sky TV bundle of channels, then the contents of the bundle are changing — and the pandemic is pushing that change farther and faster than it would have otherwise.
It means, in future workers may come into the office once or twice a week to meet colleagues and clients. That would allow companies to downsize or close offices: weekly team meetings could be held over brunch in a café or rented space. Some companies might bring staff together for a couple of days a month in a country house or resort. That would be nicer and cheaper than permanently renting city premises. Then workers would have the best of both worlds: the alchemy of face-to-face meetings plus the flexibility of WFH. Cities would gain cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions. Central business districts in many cities may well remain dedicated to offices. As rents fall, companies that previously couldn’t afford these prime locations might move there. Office buildings in many locations might be converted into homes, just as derelict factories became lofts in the 1980s. The losers from this transformation will be owners of commercial property and their lending banks. The winners will be their former corporate tenants, liberated ex-office workers and the planet. Always remember: work is something you achieve, not somewhere you go!
How can business leaders create a new world of work that will keep employees both happy and productive post-Covid-19?
Too many are asking if we will go back to normal. To me, the problematic word is ‘back’. There is no going back to pre-Covid-19 times. The only way is forward – to a new and uncertain future that is currently presenting us with an opportunity for thoughtful design.
Covid-19 introduced dramatic changes in how we worked, forcing people to work remotely. This brought benefits, and it brought challenges. We are social creatures who need to be together to feel connected and to generate new ideas and solutions. However, employees and business leaders should reconsider whether a complete move to remote work is a good idea. It risks taking us from the coronavirus pandemic to a loneliness pandemic, with potentially terrible costs. The question from now on is not whether remote work will continue, but rather, does exclusively remote work make sense?
Designing future work arrangements needs to be based on what the work requires from us, not on our preferences or the length of our commute. For some companies, work is conducive to a mix of home days and office days. However, a hybrid approach will not work if it’s left to individual choice; it must be structured, so people are together in predictable ways for the parts of the work that present the most interdependence. Therefore, conceptual simplicity gives rise to operational complexity, to sort out the mechanisms for deciding and designing new arrangements which provide us with joy and productivity alike.
To get started, business leaders need to tell the truth about what the company needs while engaging people in the hard work of creating solutions together.
Do young people need the office?
Examining how workers’ needs change as they age and develop professionally is vital. It has seemed during the pandemic that the office has become invested with magical powers -transformed from a white-collar factory to the answer to every work problem from apprenticeship to creativity. It’s as if all we have to do is open the office doors and everything will be OK.
Must young workers go to the office to ear-wig senior colleagues hoping their skills will rub off? Young people used to complain about the lack of feedback and on-the-job learning before the pandemic. The office may be an oasis for many middle-aged workers when the home is dreary, dysfunctional and claustrophobic, however, when schools, cafés, and co-working spaces open, the world will be very different.
A hybrid future means equipping workers with the skills to navigate a career which includes remote working. The idea that proximity to experienced colleagues enhances junior workers’ skills is a pure and utter myth. I know many workers aged 21-35 who prefer working remotely because they no longer have to deal with tasks senior workers dump on them when in the office. The result? They can get on with their actual job and learn so much more.
No doubt the office will continue to feature in young peoples’ world of work — at least part-time. The pandemic is an opportunity to reappraise its function and re-examine working patterns.
Will WFH policies make middle managers unnecessary or more critical?
Middle managers are the most misunderstood, misdirected, misguided and poorly trained members of the workforce. Companies have been delayering and eliminating middle management jobs to be more agile. Then the Covid-19 pandemic came along, accelerating a trend toward WFH policies. The crisis required all of us to retreat from the offices from which we practised our management crafts. We had to find new ways to communicate; fortunately, the tools were already available. WFH has given middle managers incentives to use technologies to enhance their roles and communicates with every individual in the organisation.
WFH policies also make middle managers more critical than ever in coaching, mentoring, advising and overseeing people working away from an office setting. However, it is vital companies provide middle managers with the training and support necessary to help them succeed in this new environment.
How will companies improve the engagement and productivity of their remote employees?
With the Covid-19 epidemic, many employees and their managers find themselves working out of the office and separated from each other. Fortunately, there are specific steps that managers can take without significant effort to improve the engagement and productivity of remote employees. First, it’s essential to understand the common challenges, from isolation to distractions to lack of face-to-face supervision. Then managers can support remote workers with (a) regular, structured check-ins; (b) multiple communication options; (3) opportunities for social interactions; and (4) ongoing encouragement and emotional support.
Will companies embrace the global talent pool to drive growth, regardless of where people call home?
At the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, talent literally left the building, and we now realise in many places, it is unlikely to come back. Technology is moving humanity away from the office and back into homes across our nation every day. We are building culture outside of office buildings, with work that supports life on a more even playing field, with talent that can come from anywhere. As we look to the post-pandemic era, it’s time to unleash these new ways of working for the long-term, focusing on well-being, equality and productivity that can work for both employers and employees long after this crisis ends. It is time to embrace the truly global talent pool available to drive growth, regardless of where people call home.
When will most people be back at the office?
Most employees have adjusted their expectations for when they are likely to repopulate their desks. Given the inconsistent pace of vaccinations, even that may be optimistic. Companies have also had to adjust their expectations. When people do come back, mask-wearing and social distancing will have to continue for a while. Even if they legally can, few companies will force their employees to get vaccinated, not least because of the furore this might arouse. Another problem for companies is that employees have become less loyal as the pandemic has progressed. However, when the economy opens up again, there may be a rush for the exit. All this presents challenges for leaders who are planning a return to “old normal.” They may have to redesign their offices to create more distance between desks and develop a system for allocating space to employees who may turn up for just 2-3 days a week. They need to recreate camaraderie within their teams and make sure their best employees do not head out the door.
With the continuation of WFH protocols in the post-pandemic world, how can leaders increase their colleague’s ability to deal with adversity and help build resilience?
To make it to the post-pandemic world and operate effectively in the ‘new normal’, companies and their employees will need to be highly resilient. The good news is leaders can help create the conditions which make this possible, even when team members are WFH. The key is to focus on two things: people and perspective.
Any crisis is an opportunity to build resilience among colleagues. Resilient companies will learn how to adjust to new ways of working together by focusing not only on tasks but also on relationships. Three factors predict whether colleagues will have resilience: high levels of confidence in their abilities, disciplined routines for their work, and family support. Leaders already have a good sense of how their team members stack up, especially the first two. Leaders can also strengthen their team’s resilience by displaying compassion for the last factor. The fear and anxiety narrow our ability to see our future and envision creative solutions to our problems. Leaders can remind their colleagues they can rely on and collaborate with others. If leaders focus on people and perspective, as I suggested, they may find their colleagues not only bounce back from these difficult times but emerge stronger as people and as a team.