How to Shape the Future of Work NOW

How to Shape the Future of Work NOW 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve been struggling the past couple of weeks to write.

Every time I sit down in front of my keyboard, I feel conflicted. The range of issues facing people leaders and organizations varies so widely.

On one end of the spectrum are those employers whose primary challenge is supporting the employees who moved from an office environment to working from home. Their biggest issues revolve around supporting work from home, engaging remote employees, and maintaining culture in a virtual working environment.

At the other end of the spectrum are those organizations that employ those deemed “essential workers” in today’s world. Things are very different for those in this group. Issues of safety and wellbeing are paramount. While they may have a few people working from home, they have far more who are putting their health and lives on the line each day to show up to work. The problems of the first group of employers I mentioned sound like luxuries to them.

The day-to-day realities of these two groups are very different. What’s helpful to one group, sounds almost trivial to another.

So, I’ve been a bit more stuck than usual.

Then I realized there was one conversation I’ve been having over and over with people who work at organizations that exist in all areas of the spectrum. It’s a conversation about our opportunity to change the very nature of work through this moment in time.

I’ve heard people say things like “the rules are out the window” and “everything is being hacked.” These same people talk about how things under discussion for years, which would have taken months, if not years, to get done in the BC (before COVID-19) world, are now getting done in days or weeks.

Things that executives had always resisted and thought not possible are currently happening.

The common thread in all of these conversations is that a window for innovation has opened wide. How we work, when we work, what we do to support and care for those who do the work, and many other issues related to work have been completely disrupted. Those who lead and manage people are being confronted with challenges they’ve never encountered before.

New problems demand new solutions.

And while the future remains volatile and uncertain, one thing is sure: Normal as we knew it for work is gone. We can never go back to the way things were before. And why would we want to? For decades, employees have suffered through a status quo experience of work that was most commonly disengaging and unsatisfying. Why would we want to go back to that?

What lies before us, regardless of the challenges currently at hand, is an opportunity to completely rethink and reshape work in a way that serves everyone better: employee, manager, customer…everyone.

Normal as we knew it for work is gone.

But we need to move swiftly and with clear focus on what matters the most. From my seat, that means breaking and replacing inhumane processes with those designed for humans. We must take advantage of the open minds and lowered guards from those in power to usher in a new era of work that truly works for humans.

Here are a few thoughts and recommendations for where we can make the biggest impact.

The Role of the Manager

From its inception over a century ago, the role of management has been oriented toward control. Employers tasked managers with ensuring that the company was getting its money’s worth out of the dollars they paid to employees. Unfortunately, even as the nature of work has shifted dramatically over decades, the role of manager hasn’t moved with it. Historically, this has been a sticky problem. But things are different right now.

Never before have managers been forced to think about and care for employee wellbeing more than they do right now. If you manage essential employees, you have to be dialed into how safe or scared they feel at work. You have to pay close attention to how the stress is affecting them because it obviously impacts their performance. 

If you manage a newly remote team, avoiding conversations with your employees about how they are balancing their family obligations and other distractions could have significant consequences to both their work performance and commitment.

In this moment, managers must have a heightened awareness of the humans who are doing the work. Partly that’s because we are all experiencing our own human challenges. This is creating greater empathy. In addition, the consequences of not attending to these issues are highly visible. The role of the manager in today’s working world is to cultivate human performance. I write at length about this in my book, but the short version is that people have a natural inclination toward performance and growth. When we have what we need, and our paths are free of obstacles, we will find a way to succeed. 

Managers must have a heightened awareness of the humans who are doing the work.

A manager’s responsibility to her team is similar to the gardener’s responsibility to her garden: to ensure that those miraculous living things have what they need to thrive and promptly remove any obstacles that might get in their way.

The opportunity in this moment is to orient management practices around checking in with the human first. One powerful example is to redefine and structure manager checkins with employees. I wrote a post about how to do this a couple of weeks ago that you can reference for more detail. It’s also a great time to focus on the education of our managers and leaders about issues of wellbeing so that they can better provide support to employees as they need it.

Managing Performance

It’s no secret that performance management is broken. And it’s never been more clear that managing performance through a once per year appraisal is ridiculous at best. Given all the concern about maintaining performance while employees are either under duress, working remotely, or both, now is the time to introduce and bolster processes that are foundational to effectively managing performance. Start with the fundamentals.

Clearly Articulate and Regularly Calibrate Expectations 

Given how quickly things are evolving and changing right now, managers should be in an ongoing conversation with employees about expectations. Each employee needs to be crystal clear about not only where they should be focusing their effort right, but also what expectations exist about how they get their work done. The key to all of this is what I call the golden rule of performance planning: “If it matters, write it down.” These written expectations can then be validated and renewed on a weekly or monthly basis to ensure alignment and clarity.

Have Regular, Ongoing One-on-One Conversations

Managers holding one-on-one meetings with employees has always been important, but right now, it’s vital. When you don’t have the benefit of in-person drop-ins or hallway conversations, having a regularly scheduled forum to check in about performance is extremely important. Using a regular agenda of questions to guide the conversation is a powerful tool to ensure that this time is used in the most valuable way. Some examples:

  • What have you been most focused on since the last time we met?
  • What kinds of obstacles or challenges are you running into?
  • What can I do to best support you right now?
  • What are you planning to focus on over the next week/month?

Coach, Don’t Criticize

In every interaction with an employee, managers should be providing some appreciation. Everyone is adapting right now and doing their best. Finding ways to provide some acknowledgment of the effort into making this new reality work will go a long way. At the same time, be careful not to use feedback in a way that kills morale. Instead of criticizing an employee for something that may not have gone well or for a mistake that was made, try to think more like a coach. Talk with the employee to understand what happened and why they made the choices they did. Then, provide some recommendations and guidance on how to get a different outcome the next time they face that same situation. Orient coaching toward improving future performance rather than dissecting past mistakes.

If we can build these processes, approaches, and skills into how we manage performance through this moment in time, there’s a good chance these practices will become habit. They will inherently become part of how we manage going forward into whatever the “new normal” looks like in the future.

Unnecessary Policy and Practice

Given how suddenly the shift from in-person to a distributed, work-from-home work environment happened, many traditional rules and policies were relaxed or even overlooked to make it happen. The focus, by necessity, had to be on how to get the work done and how best to support employees through this transition. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that some things that used to get more attention and energy are now missing.

For example, how has expectations of dress code or working hours changed? How has the view on managing work time changed in the past two months?

Most organizations are rife with policies and practices that have no real value or purpose.

There are probably a host of ways that work is happening differently now than it was before this pandemic. The critical question to ask is “why?” Many of the policies that have gotten bent or broken in this transition may not have been needed in the first place. Most organizations are rife with policies and practices that have no real value or purpose. They were probably written into existence as a response to one bad experience (i.e., one employee showed up to work dress inappropriately, so we wrote a policy instead of dealing with the one person).

Use this time to seek out and identify the wasteful and unnecessary practices and policies that have been revealed. Pay attention not just to policy but also busywork (i.e., weekly reports that no one was actually looking at) and unwritten rules (i.e., leave your personality at home when you come to work). Now is the time to actively identify and destroy these things so as we create the new normal, it is free of this unnecessary and harmful baggage from the past.

Seize this Moment to Shape the Future of Work

While I wish the price wasn’t so tragically high, a powerful opportunity to change work for the better is at hand. For those of us who believe that work can and should be a fulfilling and nourishing experience for everyone who does it, this is a moment where we must take action. If you are a leader of people, then use this time to show what is possible. If you support those leaders, equip them with new tools to help them develop new habits and mindsets during this time.

What we do at this moment will shape work for the next decade. Let’s make it count.

 

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