Gearshifts: From Return to Work to Realign to Work

By Lisa Slayton; part one of a series. Reprinted from The Wholeness Journey.

I learned to drive a stick shift in 1976 in a light blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. For anyone who remembers learning to drive a four- or five-speed, you know that sound that occurs when the gears grind. It is a bad sound, kind of sets your teeth on edge. And it happens a lot in those learning curve weeks. This is the place we find ourselves in as workplaces re-open and new, unknown conditions emerge that feel grinding and unfamiliar. that as leaders, we must address with what often feels like insufficient data.

What follows are four Shifts I believe we need to consider in the coming months as we seek to lead, manage and catalyze change in our workplaces.

In an earlier post,  I asserted that the “Return to Work” paradigm was actually a fictional narrative that leaders were creating to help normalize current conditions. Evidence does not suggest that we will be returning to working environments as they were pre-March 15th and that we all must be prepared for significant changes.

 This requires a re-imagining of work life that goes beyond simply tactics and logistics. I suggested four significant shifts we must make if we are to address the current environment unfolding before us, which is largely uncharted territory. In this post I will publish more detail on what will be necessary to consider in the first of these 4 shifts.

The four shifts are:

·      Shift 1: From Return to Work to Realign to Work

·      Shift 2: From Guiding Principles to Grounding Principles

·      Shift 3: From Employee Engagement to Employee Well-Being

·      Shift 4: From Problem Solving to Sense-Making

The implications are profound as we (attempt to) make our plans and new information is surfacing almost daily to inform how we think through how this will impact our workplaces and contexts. On June 12th the CDC published new guidelines for interacting in work and social contexts. There is already evidence that cases are spiking up as states re-open businesses and organizations. There is much to consider as we look at the first shift.

Shift 1: From Return to Work to Realign to Work:

Leaders must do some deep, empathetic listening to their people to discern where they need to re-imagine work flow, work environment and workplace habits and requirements, while also considering new health and safety guidelines emerging.

  • Physical work spaces: Many employers are restructuring work environments to create safety and to meet new health standards around physical distancing and human contact. This is necessary. But if it assumes that all your people will want to return to your physical work space, then check your assumption. We have already seen announcements from tech companies such as Twitter and Google that their employees need never return to a corporate building if they don’t want to.  Many are drafting plans based on the phased re-entry of red (where we have been) to yellow (where most states are now or are headed) to green (when we will freely be moving about the country). But it is unlikely, even in the green zone, that all your people will be returning to offices full time. And there is much critique surfacing about the open office floor plan that overtook hip working environments in the last 15 years.  Not so hip (or safe) anymore. Of course, this is greatly dependent on your industry and the actual work requirements. Human services, trades, manufacturing and many other kinds of work require physical presence, but workers are going to need real assurance that their safety and health have been carefully considered and addressed.
  • Work from home is really work from anywhere: In this recent article by Tech Crunch, the author contends that its less about WFH (although Covid-19 has sequestered many of us in our homes for the last 10 weeks). It is really about work from anywhere, including office spaces. Physical workplaces become one of several options workers will have and may utilize based on their specific roles and job requirements. Physical workplaces may become gathering and collaborations places, and for some portion of their workforces, the daily location. But for many, work from any number of places, including their homes, is now the standard, not the exception. How does this impact the unique requirements of your particular work and how much flexibility will you offer your people? We also expect that this will become a critical consideration for job seekers of the future.
  • Teams: While some collaboration in physical gatherings will start back up very soon, many teams have learned how to be exceedingly effective and efficient in virtual collaboration. Expect this to continue indefinitely. How do you allow for this freedom and also set reasonable expectations about physically gathering? Every kind of work has different considerations and requirements. This is a major realignment that will occur in many workplaces. And there are some things that simply cannot be reproduced in virtual environments and that requires in person human interaction to accomplish. We are in uncharted territory here, and will learn in the next few months what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be adjusted.
  • Performance management: Traditional means of performance management, already becoming obsolete in many environments, are difficult to maintain in the current environment. Many HR professionals wisely recommended suspending all performance management during the crisis for reasons of psychological safety and the well-being of already stressed workers. In addition, the trend away from the dreaded (and often ineffective) annual performance review process looks to be accelerating. A recent SHRM article offers valuable insight here, as does HBR article “How to Do Performance Reviews Remotely”:
    • “For starters, think about why you’re conducting these reviews in the first place – because, as the Covid-19 crisis trudges on, you’re not necessarily looking to weed out poor performers or decide who gets a raise. Rather, it’s to strengthen your organization’s culture and reinforce its values. “How the company treats its employees in this situation will make or break the culture,” says Tavis. So, think hard about what you aim to achieve with these evaluations. “Performance evaluations are one of the strongest anchors and artifacts of your corporate culture,” and you should use them wisely, says Mortensen. Talk to your boss and colleagues about the company’s near-term and long-term goals. Work together to figure out how to communicate those to your workforce as part of the evaluations. “What leaders do and say now in these times is going to be remembered,” he says. Show your managerial mettle. “Tend to your flock.” And remember, your primary objective hasn’t changed: “You’re still trying to help your employees become as strong as possible.”

Finally, make your plans. And be ready to ditch them or revise them dramatically in real time. What is not predictable here is human behavior and how your people are already re-aligning to the fast-changing work environment in ways no one could predict. If we can be helpful as you navigate these shifts, please email here to schedule a 30 minute consultation.

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