Rethinking The Way We Work

To attract and keep talent, organizations must design ways of working that satisfy employee needs for autonomy, flexibility, and balance.    

Employees are looking for flexibility, autonomy, balance a say in the way they work.

Employees are looking for flexibility, autonomy, balance a say in the way they work.

The Coronavirus pandemic is the bearer of many lessons. Two, in particular, are empowering workers and forcing companies to rethink their relationship to employees:

  • Employees have learned that autonomy and flexibility are essential to their lives now
  • Companies have come to realize their dependance on employee partnership

Employees don’t want to return to pre-pandemic working norms

The “Help Wanted” signs taped to store windows and the persistent recruiting challenges faced by organizations are powerful indicators of COVID-induced retirements and supply chain disruptions. The all-time high US quit rate is forcing companies to confront the reality that they are beholden to employees willingness to work.

The problem is that willingness is based on an outdated, unwritten exchange of value – a day’s work (typically on site) for a day’s pay – a model that COVID-19 disrupted and is keeping in flux. Workers aren’t thinking only about returning to the office; they’re considering a larger context and rethinking the significance of work in their lives. Working strictly for a paycheck is so 2019. Workers – no longer willing to be interchangeable cogs in the business machine or to perform “essential” work for insufficient wages – are flexing their individual power.  

Employees are looking for flexibility, autonomy, balance – a say in the way they work. Yet many company leaders continue to operate with pre-pandemic mindsets and push pre-pandemic working norms.

Employees are looking for flexibility, autonomy, balance – a say in the way they work. Yet many company leaders continue to operate with pre-pandemic mindsets and push pre-pandemic working norms. They are trying to coax their employees to return to the office without considering or addressing employee preferences or what they might lose if they do.  

Leaders may still think working at the office is the norm, but employees aren’t buying it.   

The pandemic has debunked the myth that working remotely undermines productivity. During the early COVID siege, employees were congratulated for their productivity as they worked from home. Not only could they be trusted when left to their own devices, many studies – from those conducted by Stanford University to the Great Place to Work organization – have shown employees to be more productive and responsive when working remotely. And, in the process, workers also discovered freedom and balance in remote work they hadn’t experienced “at the office.”  

Now, as the pandemic moves into a yet another phase, employers, using pre-pandemic notions of productivity, are telling these same workers they “need” to be back in the office to better perform. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and many workers are choosing to spit it out. Workers are balking at what feels like heavy handed and unfeeling reasoning. At the end of 2021, 38 million workers had quit their jobs and 10.6 million job openings remained unfilled.   

Build the employee partnership: Focus on what’s in it for them.

Strong-arming employees into a value system that is no longer relevant or beneficial to them is clearly not working. In fact, this kind of rigid management thinking can prolong the disruption and negatively impact morale, and, eventually, organizational performance as well.  

Regardless of your industry, company size, or structure, creating and delivering business value right now requires a new partnership – one that centers on employee needs and their attitudes about their experience of work.  

“What’s In It For Me” (WIIFM) is a concept central to change management based on the recognition that organizations cannot successfully change unless their employees are willing to change also. The WIIFM considers all stakeholders and seeks to align employee needs to organizational goals for mutual benefit. Designing ways of working that center on employee preferences benefits the organization in numerous ways. 

WIIFM informs (or should inform) the design and narrative around implementation of new ways of working. Without it, this kind of change becomes an authoritarian proposition. And as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms, nobody likes being told what to do.  

Focusing on the employee WIIFM is an effective way for leaders to shed outdated mindsets and move toward the parity that employees are looking for.

Focusing on the employee WIIFM is an effective way for leaders to shed outdated mindsets and move toward the parity that employees are looking for. When they are encouraged to voice preferences on how, when and where they work, employees exercise the autonomy and flexibility they want. In return, employers receive an engaged and outcome-focused work force willing to take responsibility and accountability. Both the organization and the employee work toward the same goals and both benefit.   

To build the employee partnership, leaders will have to engage employees more often than either are likely accustomed to. This requires leaders to: 

  1. More actively and thoughtfully solicit feedback and ideas:
    • Seek team engagement versus talking only to select individuals. 
    • Reach beyond seniority and functional areas. Ensure the people you invite to the table reflect the diversity, equity, and inclusion vital to your organization. 
  1. Take stock of how the new ways of working will impact culture and the working environment: 
    • What has to change? (What do your employees want to change?)
    • What can’t change? (What do you want to preserve? What do employees want to preserve?)
    • What is changing whether or not you or the employees like it?
    • What does good look like now? (Going back to what was done before is no longer an option.)

“Because I said so,” doesn’t work anymore.

Finding what works for both employees and the business varies by company. That said, we have gleaned two constants from our experience helping organizations through this transition:

  • Employees want concrete reasons behind the design of the working models they’re being asked to adopt.
  • Employees want specific, documented plans that take their preferences into consideration.

However, the pandemic has assured us that our best laid plans will surely go awry. So, when you communicate with employees, you need to be specific when you can, transparent when you can’t, and flexible all the time.  

Employees need answers related to their concerns about:

  • SafetyWhat protocols is the organization currently following? What are the mandates driving those protocols? Will they change? When?
  • Options for new working modelsIs inperson attendance always necessary? When do remote and hybrid models work better?
  • Wellbeing and engagement guidelines, standards, and expectations Can working hours be flexible outside of scheduled commitments?
  • Considerations of culture and behavioral normsDo the new models and protocols allow for building social currency and connection that employee engagement requires
  • ResourcesWhat technology or digital tools are being provided to accommodate new working models and to support new behaviors and business needs?
  • Environment – Since gas emissions contribute mightily to global warming, some employees might want to add this perspective to returntotheoffice conversations.

Reframe the way forward: Think in terms of begin dates

The ReturntotheWorkplace (RTW) tug of-war being waged today between employers and employees assumes that only binary solutions are possible. While the pandemic spotlights differences between employees and employers, the conflict has long been a multi-faceted and nuanced business quandary. Employers want their company to be able to compete and to meet business goals. Employees want meaningful work and to be heard, respected, and valued while doing it 

Employers have traditionally held the power, but, now more than ever, employees are wielding some of their own. It’s up to leaders to shift their focus, face the limitations of conventional thinking that COVID exposed, and work with employees to co-create new ways of working for the future. Understanding employee needs and incorporating them into how business gets done begins to build the mutual respect upon which employee partnerships depend. 

Instead of return dates, employers and employees can plan for and celebrate begin dates – those dates when organizations will be ready, willing, and able to embrace the lifestyle needs and challenges employees are increasingly looking to their employers to help them meet and overcome.