post-pandemic work

5 Words to Help You Master the Future of Work
5 Words to Help You Master the Future of Work 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Some of the best advice I ever got came almost 30 years ago. I was in high school. 

Being a bonafide band nerd, I was spending a week of my summer vacation at the Clark Terry Jazz Camp hoping to polish my trumpet skills enough to become king of nerds—First Chair Trumpet. (Not sure that’s how I would have described it at the time, but I digress). 

As a high school trumpet player, getting to spend the week hanging out around and learning from accomplished professional jazz musicians was a head trip. These musicians seemed like musical gods to me at the time. 

That might be why I can still vividly remember a piece of life advice offered to me by one of those musicians (not coincidentally, a trumpet player)  so many years ago. 

A few of us were standing around in the hallway talking. And while I don’t remember what specifically was said that sparked the offer of advice, it must have involved one of us youngsters making some bold declaration about our future. 

What this trumpet player said next has stuck with me ever since:

Never say what you ain’t gonna do.” 

I can still hear him saying it. 

He went on to share how when he was younger, he said he was never getting married. Then, he got married. He said he was never going to have kids, then he did. 

He had a whole list of things that he’d been certain about as a young man, but that had gone a completely different way later in life.  

The real wisdom has grown with me over the years as I’ve thought more about his words. 

Our human instinct is to try to bring certainty to the future. So we make declarations about what we’ll do or not do and who we’ll be. 

If the future were a person, she would likely smirk and think, “good luck with that.” 

What does this have to do with the future of work?

Most organizations and leaders have spent several months trying to sort out what to do with the workforce they sent home in March of 2020. 

Bring them back to the office? 

Make work from home permanent?

Or pursue the mystical third option, the “hybrid” arrangement (whatever that means). 

This feels like a big decision, particularly given the increasingly hot job market and threats of a looming “Great Resignation,” where hoards of people will quit their jobs to move on to new, more fulfilling adventures. 

It’s unclear what the future holds. It’s hard even to get clarity about what’s happening right now. 

One survey will tell you 85% of employees want to return to the office. Another will say it’s only 10%. So, which is it? 

In all of this uncertainty after a year defined by uncertainty, it’s our natural human tendency to grasp for clarity and make declarations (just like the young camper in my story). 

Twitter was among the first to declare they are going to a work-from-home-forever policy. And on the other end of the spectrum, Goldman Sachs is requiring everyone to come back to the office

This is where the advice I received about 30 years ago is worth considering:

Never say what you ain’t going to do.

We don’t know what the future holds. And, we don’t really know what our employees will want or need going forward. 

Instead of grasping for certainty and making declarations, we should instead learn to use these five words to help us navigate the path forward:

I don’t know. Let’s experiment.

The future is unknowable. It hasn’t been written yet, and we play a vital role in shaping what it will look like. 

Sorting out what is going to be best for your organization or team is going to be complicated.

Chances are you’ve got employees within your organization who have very different needs and preferences regarding how they’d like to work going forward. And, you probably also have business units and teams that have different needs and requirements based on what they do. 

You don’t know the right answer now. 

Making some declaration today about what your forever policy is around “where” your employees can work might feel good in the moment, but you’ll inevitably end up having to revisit and change that decision in the future. 

Instead, when attempting to answer the question of what to do next, try saying this:

“I don’t know. Let’s experiment.”  

Employees crave certainty, so they’re probably calling on you for a decision. But, they also crave trust and flexibility, which you may inadvertently diminish by rushing to a conclusion.

Let’s admit that we don’t know what’s coming or what will work best. Then, let’s invite our employees to experiment with us. Nothing says you have to solve this riddle today. You just need to be working on it. 

You just need to think like a scientist. 

How to Experiment at Work

If it’s been a while since you’ve been exposed to the scientific method, that’s okay. I’m here to help. (Fun fact: I have an undergrad degree in biology). Here are the basics you need to know to create a meaningful experiment.  

1. Start with a hypothesis.  

A hypothesis is simply a proposed explanation or theory that you can test. Creating your hypothesis is a critical first step of any experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to prove or disprove the hypothesis.  

You likely have some insight into your employee’s preferences regarding where and how they work. And you have some ideas about what’s needed to get work done the best way. Unfortunately, those two things may be at odds. 

A hypothesis is your best guess at how to create the best possible win-win solution given both sets of needs. 

An example of a hypothesis related to work location could be, “We think the best way to optimize employee performance and engagement is to work two days a week onsite and three days work-from-anywhere.” 

2. Test your hypothesis.  

This is what we typically think of when talking about experiments. You design a way to test if your hypothesis is correct. There are many ways to approach this at work. 

One popular way is to run a pilot. You might identify a division or two and ask those managers to implement the work plan you are testing (two days onsite, three anywhere). This allows you to test the approach with a smaller group to see how it goes.

If your organization is large enough, you might be able to run pilots testing multiple hypotheses at once. Every experiment gives you new information about what the right solution may be. So running several of them at once can be a way to accelerate towards a solution.

If your organization is smaller, another way to test is to deploy the solution to the entire organization for a fixed period of time. In this case, you’d communicate that as an organization or team, you were going to try out this approach for the next 60 days and then re-evaluate. 

3. Measure results and gather insights. 

The purpose of an experiment is to learn. So, it’s critical to determine upfront how you will measure the test outcomes against the hypothesis.  

In the example I’ve been using here, there would be two obvious ways to measure the test’s success. You could track measurable employee performance over the trial period. And, you’d want to gather employee feedback.  

If performance holds steady or goes up and employees are happy and engaged at the end of the test, then it seems like your hypothesis has proven correct. If one of these indicators goes the wrong way (i.e., employees hate it), your hypothesis fails. It’s back to the drawing board.

4. Go back to step 1 and begin again. 

Experimentation is a process used to solve problems and find truth. One experiment informs the next, and so on. It frees us from a need for certainty and gives us the means to explore our way to an answer.  

Master the Future of Work

By learning to embrace and use these five words, “I don’t know. Let’s experiment,” you equip yourself to successfully navigate forward into a wildly disrupted future of work. 

When you let go of the need to know the future and instead use what you know about the present to shape informed hypotheses that can be tested through experiments, you will find your way to success regardless of what the future holds.

 

Related Reading:

The Simple Way to Avoid Being a Bad Boss

No. The Future of Work is NOT Work From Home

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

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

 

 

Jason Lauritsen