work-from-home post-pandemic work - group of colleagues walking in an office with masks on

3 Big Things You’re Getting Wrong about Post-Pandemic Work

3 Big Things You’re Getting Wrong about Post-Pandemic Work 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

We’ve officially entered the part of our pandemic journey where we can start planning for how our teams or organizations will work once this virus is under control. To wrestle through sorting out what changes to keep and which to discard as we try to find a new equilibrium.  

This is particularly true for teams whose employees have been working from home for the past year or more. The debate over whether to bring people back to the office or continue a distributed work-from-home strategy will only grow more urgent and heated over the coming months. 

As I’ve had discussions with people about this, I’m worried that there are a few things decision-makers are overlooking. Here are the big ones.

1. You aren’t really in control of this decision.

In the pre-pandemic world, organizations and managers might have been able to get away with requiring people to work in an office to satisfy their need to “see” people working or based on some misguided idea about how ineffective people are when working from home. That lie has been revealed.

People now know what is possible. They know they can work effectively from their homes, often even more effectively than in the office. They know that many of the limitations placed on where they worked pre-pandemic were not based on any real reasons beyond leadership preference or a lack of desire to satisfy employee preferences.  

If organizations force people into working in ways they don’t prefer, they will vote with their feet (or laptops) and leave. Your work-from-home employees have more job options today than before because they can work for anyone, anywhere—from their home. These same people are frequently some of your valuable and expensive as well. 

If you aren’t putting them at the center of the decision-making process about how you move forward, you are putting your team and organization at great risk. 

2. Put an asterisk next to any feedback where employees tell you that they love or hate “working from home.” 

I’ve been working out of a home office on and off for over a decade now. 

Pre-pandemic, working from home meant having an office or space in my house that served as my primary place to store my work stuff, take video meetings, or make virtual presentations. But, I also spent much of my week working from coffee shops or meeting people in person for coffee or lunch.  

I would get up early to do some writing or other focus work for a few hours before helping get the kids ready and off to school. Somedays, I’d head to the gym after that. Others, I’d move to a different couch to do more writing.  

I didn’t like working from home for the first few years because I was still approaching it using habits and mindsets I’d picked up working in offices my entire career. It took a few years to learn how to make WFH work for me. 

And when the pandemic hit, even I had some pretty significant disruptions to how I “work from home.” No more coffee shops. No more gyms. No more in-person coffees or lunches. And, no more travel to provide a change of scenery.  

Here’s my point. Those employees who were forced into working from home for the first time during the pandemic don’t have a complete picture of what working from home could look like without the shackles of pandemic restrictions. 

If you ask employees to provide feedback right now on whether they want to work from home or return to the office, you’re probably getting tainted data. What they’re reacting to is working from home during a pandemic versus working from the office before a pandemic. It’s choosing between two unequal options. 

Instead of obsessing about where people are going to work, it would be far more productive to investigate what people found valuable and satisfying about working from home, what they missed or craved about working from the office, and then marrying that up with the needs of the work and employee.  

3. Face-to-face interaction is important, but it’s not a justification for requiring people to work in an office. 

Just this week, I reconnected with a friend who was sharing with me how she’s desperate to get back into the office. She craves the face-to-face connections and random chats that only happen when we share a space. 

She hates working from home (during a pandemic) because she’s been stripped of all her face-to-face interaction. In her mind, working from home equates to isolation and loss of relationships. 

Years ago, when I was an executive recruiter, most of my clients and candidates were people I’d never meet face to face. I’d spend hours with them on the phone, but because of geography and the way my employer viewed this work, I didn’t have the opportunity to go see them in person. 

But once in a while, I’d have a project or a client in Omaha, where I lived. And I would try to meet with those people in person. What I learned was that even a short meeting in person completely transformed the relationship. It was as if our relationship got a trust injection. In fact, 20 years later, I’m still in touch with some of these people, which is not something I can say about the phone-only relationships I had. 

In his book, The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, Scott Berkun describes how he took on managing a global team that had no office. One of the things that stuck with me about his journey was the importance and power he described of bringing that team to a common location for a week to work and play together. 

According to his account, that one week of face-to-face time together provided the foundation for them to work together exceptionally well the rest of the time despite being spread across geographies and timezones. 

Face-to-face time together matters. But that should not be a justification for requiring people to return to an office every day where they know they don’t do their best work (or that requires hours of commute time). 

Instead, in-person facetime together should be carefully and intentionally designed into the work experience for every employee and team, regardless of where they work. If we aren’t going to pay for as much office space, we can reinvest that money into opportunities for distributed employees to come together with a purpose.  

Also, for employees like my friend who equate working from home with isolation, we need to encourage and design social connections into how we work. I used to spend many of my lunches with colleagues even when we worked together in an office. Why wouldn’t we meet for lunch or coffee now? 

It’s not about Work From Home or Return-to-Office. 

We are getting trapped into debating and choosing between false choices. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that our lack of imagination and courage constrained the way we were working pre-pandemic. These cannot be our excuses moving forward.

Instead of wringing our hands over whether to bring people back to the office or let them work from home, dig into what we’ve learned about how and where work can happen. Spend time with your people finding out what’s working, what’s not working, and together, envision what an optimal future might look like. 

The only thing limiting us today in reinventing work for the better is our ability to let go of the past and embrace that the future must be different. If we can be brave enough to keep exploring and trust our people, the possibilities are endless. 

 

Related Reading:

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

How Has Employee Experience Changed?

Why Employee Well-Being is Vital to Work Performance

Management Needs an Upgrade: The Cultivation Mindset

 

 

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