Authored by Erik Kubinski
If we look back at the business challenges of the past year, IT leaders, business managers, and employees all have something to be proud of: We made remote work work, and at impressive speeds. We proved our mettle by coming together to keep our businesses running, even while being forced apart.
IT rounded up the necessary equipment and built new remote infrastructures, business managers pivoted quickly and adjusted their strategies, and, together, we found creative ways to get things remotely. Meanwhile, employees figured out how to manage individual capacity and adopt a new work-home life. These were big challenges to overcome, and we surmounted them with impressive speed.
But now that things are slowly—and somewhat ambiguously—returning to pre-pandemic states, we’re left asking, what now? There have been moves to reopen offices, but the research clearly indicates that a full return to “normal” is not in the cards.
A recent report written by Nick Bloom, a fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPER), concludes that hybrid working arrangements are our future. As amenable as it sounds, this raises concerns for the C-suite and leadership around how best to guide and sustain these major shifts. How do we align business objectives and employee needs? How do we set precedents for success and overcome new challenges? We can’t simply reject change, so we must prepare ourselves to manage effectively within a new environment.
Remote today, ??? tomorrow
When they first sent us home from offices with the promise of returning in two weeks, a lot of us thought, “no way we’re coming back that fast.” Some people remained optimistic, at least for the first stretch, but eventually, we all started settling into our work-from-home lives.
By now, working from home has become the new normal for most of us—even if it’s not preferred. It would be too hasty to suddenly switch the horse and move everyone back into the office. And perhaps people have had enough change for the time being: Bloom’s research shows that in a projected totally-post-COVID world, 79% of employees would prefer to keep working from home at least part of the week, with 32% hoping to stay at home full-time. Those are significant numbers for management to consider, even if they see things differently.
Why stay home?
There are several advantages to at-home work, the primary one being time. Eliminating the travel necessity gives workers up to hours of their day back, and also cuts out the sometimes-wieldy costs of commuting. These extra hours in the day are beneficial to those who were previously struggling to meet the demands of their home lives, or even to carve time for leisure, exercise, and hobbies.
Some employees also work more efficiently from home, without the office politics and fly-by distractions. The ability to spend focused time in a comfortable environment can help workers get more done quicker. It turns out flexibility and efficiency can also pay dividends for the enterprising: The Wall Street Journal reported on a recent phenomenon of work-from-home employees doing double jobs on the sly, sometimes drastically boosting their incomes.
Meanwhile, on the employer side, many are embracing the morale boost that comes with giving employees more flexibility, as well as the reduced overhead. Instead of continuing to pay for massive office space, they can opt for far-downsized or more flexible environments. Remote work also drastically widens the talent pool for hiring. Of course, employers are workers as well, and as people, they certainly experience the same benefits of more time and added efficiency.
Why go back?
While the numbers speak to widespread employee support for working from home, it’s important to acknowledge that ALL situations are not equal. Not everyone benefits from the same working styles, and not every person’s home situation is ideal, or even conducive to working efficiently.
As for business leaders, there are some compelling reasons to advocate moving back to the office. The office offers branding status—it’s an extension of the company and the culture, and in recent years the office has increasingly become a strategy in itself to attract high-end talent. In fact, much of Big Tech leadership is pushing for a move back to the office. However, these companies benefit from more robust hiring practices and better resources than most small-to-midsize companies can support. Not to mention, many tout custom-built, notoriously attractive “campus”-like work environments, which represent major monetary investments in the employee experience.
At a basic level, a big reason that employers across the board want to return to the office is that they don’t feel fully in control anymore. They lack the rapport they’re used to. They’re missing the traditional cues they use to gauge cultural health and productivity: the context clues, the personal anecdotes, the unfettered access to more people and more information, generally. The shift to remote work can be an emotional issue as much as a logistical one, especially for those who perceive a challenge to their traditional roles.
Management’s responsibility in a new work environment
In 1992, management thought leader Peter Drucker heralded a huge paradigm shift for society that would be marked by the rise of the knowledge worker—a transition, he predicted, that would reach its apex by (you guessed it!) 2020. Managers today may feel out of control without a direct line of view into their employees’ work worlds. But this fear-based outlook overlooks the inherent self-awareness, self-reliance, and proven productivity of today’s knowledge worker.
Drucker considered the increasing productivity of knowledge workers to be “the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century,” and advocated for a new approach to employee management: “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves,” Drucker advised. “They have to have autonomy.”
Which brings us to the overarching lesson for business leaders on the precipice of hybrid reality: We can’t blame the system or wholesale reject the new paradigm. Instead, we have to align management to the environment we’re in and assimilate new techniques for maintaining effective teams remotely.
The first step towards this goal is acknowledging that there’s no one-size-fits all approach. We have to properly assess the business objectives and gauge the sentiment of our organizations before laying out a strategy. For example, in one SIEPER study, respondents were widely split in regards to how many and which days they would prefer to work from home. This leaves businesses with the option of either a) offering an “open” policy, giving employees the freedom to choose when they work where, or b) developing a set schedule where employees show up on pre-designated days.
In the latter case, it’s critical for managers to shepherd the change by adhering to it themselves, from the CEO down the ladder. As Bloom’s report points out, if top managers start coming in on non-designated days, managers below them might feel pressure to win their bosses’ favor by coming in too. That behavior trickles down through the organization until the whole system is dismantled.
On the other hand, if you’re giving your workers the autonomy to designate their own schedules, managers must be prepared to manage an unpredictable change in office dynamics. Employees who choose to work from home may begin to feel isolated, tension could form among in-office and at-home groups—or worse, lack of synergy may become a widespread scourge on productivity. Managers should be equipped with the tools and training to mitigate these risks, foster engagement remotely, and handle previously unforeseen types of conflicts.
Transparency will also be a critical managerial trait in these new hybrid environments. If open communication wasn’t your organization’s MO before, you may want to reconsider your approach. People want to feel in-the-know, no matter where they are, and it’s important to communicate things that you have exclusive knowledge in that may impact people’s work-life decisions.
For example, there is evidence that in hybrid environments, work-from-home employees get passed over for promotions more often than their in-office counterparts. This is important information for a manager to communicate, even if you don’t have ultimate control over those decisions. This may be one of many considerations that employees take into account to make an appropriate decision aligned with their own needs and goals.
Transparency breeds trust, and trust is critical to a healthy culture, especially in a less visible work environment. Trust also pays off in terms of employee retention: There is less risk of lowering morale when you are honest and upfront with your reports.
If we are really in the “new era of the knowledge worker” that Drucker aptly predicted, then innovation is more critical than ever. Otherwise, he writes, “the knowledge-based organization will very soon find itself obsolescent, losing performance capacity and with it the ability to attract and hold the skilled and knowledgeable people on whom its performance depends.”
Either way, one thing is certain: the old paradigm is out, and a new paradigm has already been set in motion. There is nothing worse for motivation—and, by proxy, innovation—than giving people something and then taking it away from them. Change is here to stay, and as leaders and managers, it’s incumbent on us to adopt new ways of thinking and better management tactics.
This doesn’t mean you have to jump from A to Z or mimic what some other organization is doing. Hybrid work will exist on a spectrum, and where you land will depend on your business and your employees. Every company is different, every situation is different, and the first thing we have to do is make an effort to understand the full range of needs involved. Then and only then can we come up with sufficient, sustainable, and flexible solutions to make this new work world work for everyone.
About the Author
Erik Kubinski, CIO, Encierro Technologies
Erik Kubinski is the CIO and Head of Technology Management at Encierro Technologies in Austin, Texas. He has over 25 years with hands-on technology implementation and senior IT management. He has run hospital IT departments in large and small hospitals all around the world. His expertise includes eHealth strategy, developing high-performing teams, and big-impact innovation.