Work Has Always Changed

It’s the time of the year where futurists make predictions (we really need more follow-up on those) and big proclamations are upon us.  Among these I’ve been reading are, “Work has changed forever!” and “Is this the end of the 9-5 workday?”

The implications of the 9-5 workday are two-fold:

  • Once the US moved from a manufacturing economy to a service one in the late 20th century, buyers began to expect 24/7 service. Obviously, that’s not conducive to a single work schedule.  While this led to some outsourcing of many service positions (and the infrastructure that supports them), it led to many different work schedules onshore as well.
  • For non-service positions, this phenomenon is more closely linked to the autonomy provided during work from home. But, even this was taking place pre-pandemic via the gig economy.  Once office workers got a taste of the value of controlling their own work schedule they have decided that they don’t want to give that up and the continuing Great Resignation has given them the leverage to keep it.

So, the 9-5 workday has been eroding for many years.  I am not going to predict where it is going, but I think the trend is that we will continue to see fewer 9-5 jobs, even as some employers are insisting on more traditional schedules due to return to work edicts.

I don’t know if the pandemic and resulting economic implications changed work as much as it changed how a lot of people feel about work.  When your employer (or the government) decides that your job is “essential,” but you don’t feel that your compensation is reflective of your essential-ness, you are going to have a more transactional approach to that relationship.  This had led to unionization in sectors which had not had them before and increases in wages and working conditions in restaurants.

For office workers (and management), the pandemic revealed some other new truths:

  • You don’t have to go to an office everyday to be productive.
  • Things that were thought to be a part of work that were not great (e.g., commuting, inflexible schedules) are bugs, not features.

The current low unemployment rates will continue to provide people the opportunity to flex their autonomy regarding how they want to work so that they feel better about it.  The current levels of this won’t last forever, but I think it is realistic to think that the rates of job switching will stay high relative to future unemployment rates in the near term.  People now understand that they do not have to put up with what they feel are not great working conditions.  This additional turnover could provide people with more options, even when unemployment rates creep up.

Change is every present.  It’s hard to predict, but easier to understand and adjust for if we seek to understand the causes.  The bigger mistake is assuming (hoping?) that things will go back to the way there were.  That just is not realistic after such an impactful event as the pandemic.  Regarding employment trends, we are much better off looking ahead, even if that doesn’t include making predictions from a crystal ball.

Thinking of RTO as Organizational Change

Since offices have been opening back up, some, but certainly not all, employers are coming up with various schemes to get people to return to the office (RTO). Per usual, companies are looking at this more so from their perspective than that of their employees. But, what they should be doing is looking at why resistance is so high before coming up with ideas. There are several reasons why some people are avoiding RTO. They include:

Loss of Autonomy

More so than anything else, work from home (WFH) has given people a level of control over their day-to-day lives that they had not previously experienced as adults. In the past we heard a lot of talk about “being your own boss” and “make decisions like you’re the CEO.” Well, this is that time. When people have been able to successfully manage their work time around the rest of their lives, that is going to be hard to give up. For these people, companies will need to find a way to allow them to make RTO choices and have flexibility over them. Hybrid environments may speak to this group, provided that employees get to choose which days to come in.

New Habits Are Hard to Break

Pre-COVID, we had developed routines for our every day. It’s these habits that make us (somewhat) resistant to organizational change and (partially) keep turnover low. People who now WFH have new habits that they don’t want to break. They have a schedule of when they make calls, return e-mails, take lunch breaks, etc. Companies would be wise to let employees coming back to the office know that they can keep many of these habits and that management won’t be dictating their schedule as much.

Life at Home is Better

Let’s speak some honest truths—not commuting, working in whichever clothes you wish, being around when the kids come home from school, spending more time with pets, saving money on gas/lunch, etc. are perks for those who WFH. By the way, the idea that people are abandoning pets they got during the pandemic is an urban legend. These are all reasons why people do not want to RTO. While come companies think that free coffee and snacks will make the work environment more enticing, it won’t. Would you commute for coffee? Companies should emphasize those things which are better, in a meaningful and not a nice-to-have way, about working from the office when encouraging workers to come back. These could include face-to-face interactions with other adults, more reliable technology, and support for administrative tasks. As with any change, employees need to know what is in it for them.

People who are used to and enjoy WFH are unlikely to respond to gimmicks. I would suggest that organizations think about RTO as an organizational change effort and not a mandate. This means looking at how encouraging people to work at the office fits into your strategy and quantifying what benefits are to be gained. Additionally, this means analyzing why employees are supportive/resistant to RTO and planning the change effort accordingly. Apply the same rigor to changing work schedules as you would implementing other enterprise wide initiatives.

While WFH happened quickly, we are past the point where people are adapting to it. For many it is now a way of life, just as going to work every day was pre-pandemic. Expecting people to change overnight is not an effective strategy. For any form of RTO to successfully take hold (e.g., without increases in turnover or decreases in engagement), with minimal negative consequences, it needs to be part of a plan.

Changing Behaviors, Not Just Attitudes

Events of 2020 accelerated companies’ interest in all things around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).  This has brought out a lot of “experts” in the field and a multitude of unconscious bias training (UBT) programs to address the problem of discrimination in the workplace.

The idea behind UBT is that a change in an attitude (bias) will lead to a change in how people act (prejudice) so that they will show behaviors that promote DE&I. This is very different from typical development programs which focus directly on behaviors. And, while it is fair to say that our understanding of the effectiveness DE&I programs is at an early stage, there has been research done which is fairly sobering on the topic.

This report outlines what seems to be effective in the DE&I training space.  The relevant key findings are (emphasis added):

  • UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit Association Test (IAT) (followed by a debrief) or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops.
  • UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it.
  • UBT interventions are not generally designed to reduce explicit bias and those that do aim to do so have yielded mixed results.
  • Using an IAT and educating participants on unconscious bias theory is likely to increase awareness of and reduce implicit bias.
  • The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behavior is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behavior change.

I emphasized that last bullet because I believe that is where we need to focus.  If behaviors do not change then we cannot achieve DE&I.  Organizations should not spend money on DE&I programs (UBTs or otherwise) that do not show these changes.

The report hedges a bit in noting that valid measures of behavior were not used in the research studies.  Rightly, this puts the onus on organizations to define the actions that need to be changed.  For instance, use of appropriate language, giving others the opportunity to share ideas, etc.  Note that these are different from organizational goals (e.g., representation in management positions), which should be measured, which are outcomes of D&EI behaviors.

Once the behaviors are defined, then a method for evaluating them needs to be implemented.  A 360 feedback instrument is likely to be effective for interpersonal behaviors.  When well designed, these encourage raters to evaluate what they observe in others rather than giving opinions.  This provides the opportunity for those being rated to be given meaningful feedback and gives those responsible for designing UBT programs information on areas that still need more work.  How to provide this feedback is a topic for another post.

There can be objective individual measures as well.  For instance, the diversity of a person’s LinkedIn connections or hires/promotions that she/he/they was involved with.

We should always remember that any organizational change begins with people acting differently.  The important starting point in a successful DE&I initiative is understanding what are the behaviors that you want to impact.  That will be more effective in designing meaningful programs than hoping that insights from an IAT will be sufficient.

Making Work From Home Work

OK, let’s all take a deep breath and say it out loud, “Work from home is not going to be temporary.”  There, we did it.  Now let’s talk about it.

We need to acknowledge that WFM is not going to be one size fits all from an organization’s standpoint.  Some companies will look for as many people to return to the office as soon as possible as their CEOs swear that productivity and creativity can only occur face-to-face.  Others, after realizing the cost savings of reducing their office footprint, reduced stress of employees not commuting, and maintained productivity will encourage it going forward.

Eight or so months into WFM, we also need to acknowledge that it is not for everyone.  Some people (well organized introverts) thrive in the environment while others (people with a high need for affiliation) struggle in it.  And there are many who are in-between.  They would like to interact and work with others a few days a week, but appreciate those days where they can work with fewer distractions and in a safer environment.

Given these variables, how can we adapt to WFM or make it work for organizations and employees?  Let’s walk through some big steps and see where the key points are.

  1. Organization Design.  This is the time for companies to look at their WFM experiences and make policy decisions.  Some of this should be business driven (Are we productive with what we are doing now? Do COVID-19 impacts on our business support how much space we have?). There should be employee input via a survey, or some other method, that allows everyone to have his/her/their voice heard.  Don’t assume you know what everyone wants and be sure to stay away from just a couple of anecdotes.  From this info you can then develop go forward policies.  Oh, and don’t worry—not everyone is going to like the new policies.  Just like before COVID-19 when there were people who wanted to work from home but were not allowed to.
  2. Implementing Change.  Most WFM policies I’ve seen have been done on the fly—which is not a criticism.  Rather, most employees saw the impact of COVID-19 so there was not the resistance to change that we normally see when organizations choose to pivot.  However, as you transition from a reactive state to the new normal one, you’ll need to use your change management techniques, such as:

    a. Be transparent—describe to employees the data you gathered and why WFM policies are either going back to pre-COVID-19 or changing.

    b. Describe the benefits of the change from an employee’s perspective.

    c. Have resources (technical, informational, skill development, etc.) available that support the change.

    d. Measure the impact of the new policies so you can make future decisions based on data.
  3. Recruitment.  Once a WFM policy is in place, you’ll want to be able to describe it clearly when attracting new talent.  Your WFM requirements, or lack thereof, will be attractive to some and repellent to others.  And that’s OK.  Just be sure to let people know what they are in for.
  4. Selection.  Remember before when I talked about which people thrive or suffer in WFM?  This is important information to use when selecting new employees going forward.  You will want to review your job descriptions and competency models to be sure they include any changes that would come from your WFM policies.  For instance, if you are moving to a model that allows or mandates a lot of working from home, you will want to include characteristics like need for autonomy in your selection protocols.  Be sure to validate any tools you use to measure this and other skills/abilities/personal characteristics.
  5. Training and Development. Despite the occasional video conference faux pas, I think most of us were pleasantly surprised how quickly people gained skills at using this software.  Those in the learning and development area have also adapted their materials and approaches to video.  You should be providing training on how to get the most out of not only video conferencing technology, but other tools that allow people to collaborate across distances.  In a WFM environment, some people will benefit significantly from instruction on how to be productive in a home environment.  Also, continue to keep up with professional and leadership development so that people do not stagnate.  There are a lot of great online training experiences out there and without travel expenses the true cost has gone down.
  6. Performance Management.  An employee concern about WFM has been, “How will I get promoted?”  The manager’s concern is, “How will I get productivity?”  Of course, these two things go together.  WFM has exposed poorly designed performance goals and objectives.  It is likely that your business has changed post-COVID.  It is a good time to revisit your performance standards and measurements as well.  As before, develop S.M.A.R.T. goals, but now with an extra emphasis on measurable, especially if people are participating in WFM.  This helps to minimize lack of face time issues as employees can more easily demonstrate their performance. 
  7. Coaching and Feedback. WFM minimizes spontaneous interactions between employees and their managers.  This means that they both need to make additional efforts to schedule conversations to stay in touch.  This will help with the visibility employees want and the accountability managers are looking for. There should be some structure to these conversations so that they cover current performance as well as career development.
  8. Managing the Change.  Whether you think we are closer to the beginning or the end of the pandemic, we can all agree that there are going to be more changes to business and WFH before it is behind us (e.g., another wave of cases, kids going back to school or back to distance learning, etc.).  Just as you want to gather employee and other stakeholder information when forming policies, you will want keep track of how attitudes towards the policies, the pandemic, and the business shift.  Acting on these issues as necessary will help you maintain or increase employee engagement and make policy adjustments.

Our work lives have always involved managing change and COVID-19 has made this more pronounced.  It is now time to do so in a more thoughtful and forward looking way.  We can do this more effectively by recognizing that some changes, including WFH, are not temporary adjustments, but are permanent in one form or another.  HR benefits employees and organizations when it recognizes the wide-spread impact of WFH and adjusts its practices and manages the change effectively.

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