As we officially wrap up 2021 and look to the new year, I’m feeling incredibly grateful for all that’s been accomplished by our organization – and across our entire industry – as we’ve pushed to innovate through disruption. Over the last 21 months, the workplace has changed dramatically amid the chaotic shift to remote and hybrid work. Millions of employees around the globe have made career changes, sending the clear message that the next chapter in the ‘Work from Anywhere’ era has begun.
If one thing has become resoundingly clear, it is that the future of work will remain ambiguous for the foreseeable future and, in 2022, we need to look at workplace infrastructure – and its effect on the employee experience - entirely differently. To fully embrace, and perhaps even benefit from, the shift that is underway, employers need to re-examine the broader implications of having a widely distributed workforce and redefine what the ‘workplace’ looks like.
On the surface, ‘The Great Resignation’ that continues to dominate headlines may look like a battle for escalating compensation and employee perks. But, if you probe a little deeper, what you learn is that this is more about employees feeling disconnected, having lost their personal connection to your company and to the meaning in their work. Individuals are making deeper choices about what kind of work they want to do, and how that fits into their broader lives.
Pre-pandemic, we all remember occasional experiences of being the only remote voice on a call; it was the feeling of watching a conversation, not actually being in one. Then came the shift of more than 90% of work happening in an office to almost 100% digital remote collaboration. Suddenly, every interaction looked like a 2-dimensional engagement that offered productivity, but lacked true human connection. Limited face-to-face interaction, new teammates and leaders who shifted since employees were sent home, difficulty absorbing the mission, and a frustrating digital experience has become the perfect formula for potentially losing valuable people.
If that is your core work experience, you should assume employees will find this unsatisfying… and will move on to find an employer who ‘gets it.’
Prior to 2020, just 7% of employees worked from home most of the time but after 2020, 96% of companies are willing to offer employees a flexible work schedule. But, going back to physical offices in some shape or form is poised to actually accelerate employee frustration levels as we move from an equitable ‘One Screen’ remote experience to a fragmented one.
In this new world, whether fully remote, in-person or some combination of the two, we have to treat the digital experience as the primary experience. Even when there are people in the room together, our focus must be on achieving a common experience for everyone, regardless of their physical location. Otherwise, the employees logging in remotely are bound to feel like they are watching a meeting rather than participating in one.
In this new year, the focus needs to be on building ‘work spaces’ instead of traditional ‘workplaces’ and on creating opportunities for employees to come together digitally as well as physically. This cannot be relegated to a conference room they can sign out once a quarter for a team meeting. Connection and collaboration must be a consistent, daily event.
This is where a strong lead-by-example comes into play. We as leaders should model how to connect and engage in a hybrid world. If the entire leadership team is in the office all the time, your remote employees may feel as though they are being told one thing, but clearly shown another. Turn your camera on, use both digital and physical collaboration spaces, and put the energy into both sides of the experience.
As we transition to hybrid working, we need to recognize that the experience – by definition – is poised to be a disjointed one. And one significant, though unintentional effect may be forcing employees to choose whether they trek to the office in order to stay visible, or stay home but endure a frustrating digital experience that leaves them feeling unseen and disconnected. Neither of these feel like great choices.
Fast forward a few years: Will your remote/hybrid employees feel like outsiders? Passed over for promotions or projects because the connection is just not there, or because their productivity just doesn’t look the same as those onsite? Have we introduced an entirely new (unwelcome) opportunity for bias? Those who opt to work remotely or flexibly may feel the fear of missing out, or that they are being potentially overlooked for valuable opportunities for those who choose to return to the office full time.
This is a key argument – perhaps the most important point - for why it is imperative to get the digital experience, the connection piece, right. You need to ensure that you have designed an environment where all employees can thrive regardless of location. And, you need to address the employee as a whole person… understand their short-term and long-term goals, both personally and professionally, and what will empower them to be a high-functioning, valuable member of your organization. In order to benefit from an inclusive, truly ‘Work from Anywhere’ culture in 2022 and beyond, you’ll need to be ready to customize the employee experience in a thousand different ways.
One final thought as we move full steam ahead into the new year is that the world health crisis we’ve endured for two years seems to be coming with us. Things are likely going to get more difficult before they get easier, and the ‘Work from Anywhere’ era is shoring up to be ‘Work from Where You Are.’ But, that doesn’t mean that we should wait until we are mobile again, or things are back to ‘normal,’ to try and make amazing things happen. Amazing things are happening right now.
It is possible to create rich experiences, even in the face of uncertainty. You can take advantage of the benefits of in-person collaboration, and the efficiencies of being remote, and still build a high-functioning, highly engaged team without compromising.