S+G Blog

Ways of working predictions and hopes

Liz Olsen
July 2020

We are experiencing a global crisis. It’s of a significance that most of us have never known and will change our lives in myriad ways – not only in its midst but long after and on multiple fronts.

Our world of work will be one such front of enduring change.

I am a strategist at a consultancy with a long history of creating impactful brands and experiences for organizations across sectors and geographies. We regularly use the lens of brand to think about organizational culture and ways of working. We create employee experiences to engage and inspire, and as such as we are privileged to see the daily realities inside many organizations.

“Life in the office after the crisis” is a conversation certain to be ongoing over the coming months. I’d like to offer perspective and predictions from experience of corporate cultures over the years and some recent, incredibly honest chats with our clients about work in the time of Covid-19.

When the apex of the pandemic has passed, business “as usual” will return, perhaps tentatively, but then with gusto. It won’t look the same, which is something to embrace. As a business leader, if you can make space to start getting your head around this accelerated change-path, you can perhaps meet your new normal with a little more assurance amidst considerable uncertainty.

Remote work and collaboration

It’s an obvious starting point, seeing the out-of-necessity adoption that’s happened – but what does it mean for business-back-to-usual?

Remote working will be widely embraced and embedded broadly across functions and industries. The blueprint that’s now created for “just doing it” will carry on. No more excuses, technologically or culturally.

“The new virtual” will extend to large, formerly in-person events. We’ll travel less, especially flying, to attend ad hoc events and usual business – we can’t and shouldn’t stand in the way, for reasons environmental, commercial or otherwise.

In the current state of remote teaming and decision-making, we’ve observed less informality in organizations that are typically quite consensus-driven – the incidental chats and back and forth of collaborative cultures happening less. It might be more efficient, as anyone who’s ever had too many voices around a conference table will know, but it also bestows a greater weight to formally defined hierarchies. When we go back “in,” we’ll have learned some good lessons from all this, but we’ll forget them quickly with the re-emergence of office culture.

What you can do:

Get ready to make more flexibility possible, having seen that productive working can still happen when employees are fully remote and juggling more-than-usual family and other commitments in an upside-down world.

Leverage the learnings your org has had, around decision-making or otherwise. Write them down and formalize to maintain any efficiencies. Know that it is an uphill battle to change culture via behavioral shifts – never easy, but doable with consistent efforts.

Significance for physical experiences

We are wired to be social and seek out face-to-face contact, and even with an increased prominence of virtual working, this won’t change.

We’ll see a new gratitude for the in-person interactions of employee experience, from the day-to-day to more episodic L&D, celebration, and inspiration. This doesn’t mean we can slack on quality experience design itself, as the increased value placed on physically shared time comes with expectations for its usefulness.

What you can do:

Set up employee events and experiences with clear and authentic objectives, ideally tied back to larger business strategy or organizational purpose. This doesn’t mean everything has to be serious: Informally or playfully building community and connection is an important goal too.

Demonstrating value to the business

The economic downturn is in progress and inevitable. I’m not equipped to comment on trajectory and duration, other than to say it’s undoubtedly uneven across industries, geographies, levels of corporate preparedness and resilience. Fundamental realities of fewer jobs, a widespread need to cut costs and people, means a new pressure as an employee (or team) to demonstrate value.

There will be a heightened need to link individual and team actions and outputs to business strategy and value creation. Most of us will feel this pressure, across functions and levels. For some people, the anxiety will be a significant challenge, for some company cultures, the pressure a strain on daily working that can derail the very focus it’s meant to create. Leaders will have tough decisions ahead.

What you can do:

Revisit the basics of making big decisions in trying times. Think through your priorities for reaching business objectives while remembering the people realizing them. Keep an authentic communication style, and take responsibility for the choices you make.

Empathy and well-being

The pandemic has seen us plunged into crisis together, no one unaffected (nor everyone affected equally). A heartening trend, a prediction and also a sincere hope: Increased empathy and attention to well-being at work.

Emotional memory and experiences are durable. We will emerge from the pandemic, having made a higher priority in caring for our colleagues after greater (often literal) glimpses into each other’s lives. This uptick in attention to physical, mental, and emotional well-being will be lasting. It will fade gradually, as we forget the upheaval, fear and tragedies, but we can consciously maintain learnings and new behaviors.

We’ll see continued focus on health and minimizing the spread of illness. People will stay home when they’re sick (or be compelled to do so), via a new appreciation for infection control and keeping healthy, especially knowing now that the vulnerability of others around us can be invisible.

What you can do:
Hold yourself and others accountable not to forget where we’ve come from – a time of “world upside down” where we had to re-remember that we’re all human and in this together. Take the extra time to ask on an individual level how people are doing. Inventory your health and well-being programs – it might be a good time for a tune-up or full overhaul, and it won’t go unnoticed.

The upshot: Further change and challenge ahead in post-crisis office life, accelerating technology to work virtually, and redefining the in-person, the personal, perhaps even our roles as employees.

The opportunity: Leveraging the pandemic’s learnings that have been foisted upon us for all the good we can.

The hope: In the time of “now what?” before us, treating our colleagues and ourselves with kindness and understanding, maintaining an authenticity about how we have experienced an extraordinary time in the world, together.

 

Liz Olsen is a Senior Strategy Director on our London team.

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