Opening Doors: Redefining “Back to the Office”

May 16, 2022

It’s going to take creative thinking to map out our new normal

For the last two years, most of our clients have been very busy and quite task focused with little time to think strategically or to really connect with their teams. Leaders are keen to get their people back into the office and get things back to “normal”, whatever normal means.

But now is actually a crucial pivot point. We’re in that sweet spot that Kurt Lewin described in his three-stage theory of change management – “unfreeze, change, refreeze”. We have an opportunity to make positive changes that will impact the way we work for decades to come. And a hybrid work model isn’t creative enough.

To be truly effective, we need to think about underlying needs. What does the organization need to fulfil its purpose? And what do our people need to fulfil theirs? Both sets of needs are important, and we’ll need to solve both sides of the equation to succeed.

The big opportunity: breathe new life into our work environments

Before the pandemic, we were using a one-size-fits-all model for work that had everyone in the office from nine to five. But it also came with long commutes, hours that didn’t work for everyone equally, mental health issues that were swept under the rug, and money wasted on office space for many employees who could just as easily work from home. The model wasn’t optimal for everyone, but most companies followed it, so it persisted.

Then came COVID, which “unfroze” our habits, rituals, and everything we were accustomed to thinking about how we work.

Today, we’re at that point where anything is possible because we’ve already done the hard work. We’ve unfrozen and unschooled ourselves from what we knew and were comfortable with. We’ve unravelled the habits that kept us tied to a model that didn’t really work that well.

Now we can rethink, change, and breathe new life into our work environments. Bring more joy to how we spend our days. Acknowledge that each person is unique and brings singular talents and perspectives, along with specific preferences for work that help them perform optimally. It would be a shame to lose this opportunity and go back to the way things were.

People have missed out on collaboration, connection, culture

We also have to recognize what we’ve lost. Through the pandemic, employees have lacked the vital professional development that only in-person mentorship, teamwork and collaboration can deliver. They’ve missed out on the bonding and personal connection that only face-to-face interactions bring. And they’ve not had the chance to be part of a culture that makes them feel they’re contributing to something greater than themselves. All three of these things help people perform optimally and contribute to the success of their organizations.

We need to get all of them back and it’s going to take work and creativity to make it happen. And we need to come out of this better and stronger.

Innovative models exist – and they work

The good news is none of this is new. We can learn from companies all over the world that have been using creative work models successfully for years.

Take tech companies, like Mozilla, that have workforces dispersed all over the globe. Mozilla has two in-person conferences every year, called “All Hands”, that bring everyone together to hear about the company’s strategy, collaborate, learn from each other, and feel part of  Mozilla’s strong culture. Mozillians are devoted to the company and its cause.

Or look at franchise companies, like Canada’s Nurse Next Door, with business owners and caregivers all over North America and Australia. The organization connects personally with its people, encourages them to think about what brings them joy, and then collaborates with and helps each individual pursue their dreams – at work and personally. Their engagement is through the roof.

Many other companies have built professional development into projects, so it’s part of the fabric of the work each employee does. They bring coaches in to help facilitate the professional development so every individual benefits, at the same time the teams benefit, and the organizations complete their projects. So development isn’t separate, it is part of running a project and gives project teams time to learn and connect together.

Focusing on individuals more means we’ll need more leaders or need to simplify what leaders are doing. They can’t do it all.

Seeing employees as individuals and understanding what they want and need to flourish is going to be critical to our path forward. Our leaders will need to dedicate more time for conversations with employees to help with bonding, relationship building, understanding what makes them happy and, equally, recognizing the signs of mental health issues. It also means we’ll need more leaders to take on all this extra effort in individualizing work for each employee, to create this more personal approach to leadership.

Or we need to take some work off their plates. Some companies are using AI, for example, to streamline leaders’ more mundane tasks, like scheduling, project management, and budgeting. Other organizations are taking away project work altogether so leaders can focus on people management only. And they’re investing in coaching to support the people work. Providing coaches to leaders or training leaders to be better coaches themselves can also help with bandwidth. Coaching can guide leaders to ask the right questions and have great career conversations with their people. And it can help companies develop these new skill sets in all their high-potential leaders, so they’re ready to take up the new normal, head on.

Going “back to the office” in the same way won’t work and hybrid work arrangements aren’t innovative enough. We have an incredible opportunity right now to look forward, not back, and find thoughtful, inventive, and creative ways to make our work lives better. Building a brighter work future that surpasses the pre-pandemic model is possible. All we need is the courage and creativity to try.

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