The global COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted virtually every aspect of life has also created an unprecedented opportunity to profoundly transform the way we work, how work shapes our lives and what productive, effective – and equitable – work looks like. To make the most of the moment, even in the midst of ongoing uncertainty, at the Better Life Lab (BLL) at New America, we analyzed work trends, combed through the latest evidence-based research, interviewed business leaders and leadership and management experts and sought out case studies of emerging best practices. From this, we put together a practical toolkit to help guide managers and leaders in designing equitable, high results, flexible cultures of trust and well-being in this uncharted new era.
The time is now. There is a growing consensus that work will never be the same, and managers need new tools to make the most of the changes. “The idea that we’re ever going to go back to work like we did in 2019 is a myth. Flexibility is here to stay,” Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said at a gathering of future of work experts.
Leaders who once resisted “distributed” digital or work-from-home work styles were either forced to adopt it literally overnight in spring 2020 or have come to embrace it as productivity has risen, even under difficult to near-impossible circumstances, especially for women and caregivers once schools and child and eldercare facilities shut down. Workers across industries have been voluntarily quitting at rates never seen before, even as millions of jobs remain unfilled in what’s being called the Great Reassessment, the Great Renegotiation or the Great Migration. Workers want time for their lives. Workers with care responsibilities are demanding more control over their schedules. Many workers of color report less stress and more emphasis on their performance rather than appearance in a digital setting. Young workers are redefining their relationship with work and prioritizing value and meaning over pay and climbing the career ladder. And work-related stress and burnout – already high before the pandemic – has surged to crisis levels. Workforce well-being has become a business imperative.
This is a moment of great opportunity for workers, businesses and our society. Survey after survey shows that workers prefer some type of hybrid work situation – making the most of the networking and collaborative work that in-person work makes possible, as well as the ability, with digital work, to control one’s schedule, cut out an often-onerous commute and concentrate and move project-based work forward in a quiet, uninterrupted setting.
“If we can make it work, there’s some really tremendous gains to be had – new types of roles, advancement for women, particularly in global leadership,” Sharon Hill, professor of management at George Washington University, told me. “These are things that have tremendous, tremendous possibilities.”
What comes next in a “Corona-normal” future of work is uncertain. There is no work redesign playbook right now. And one size will not fit all companies. Organizations continue to feel their way forward as new virus variants emerge and recede, and as public health guidance shifts, there remains much confusion, anxiety and uncertainty. And just as there is great promise for workplaces, so is there great peril that this opportunity could be missed without intentional and inclusive planning, designing and implementing.
Yet one thing is clear: There is no going back. Many of us have seen each other’s bedrooms, laundry rooms, children, partners and pets in the background of Zoom or Teams calls. We’ve become digital nomads and moved around the country. Leadership skills once thought of as “soft” or “feminine” – of building relationships, listening to and collaborating with workers to enhance productivity and performance – are now seen as vital for good leadership in any setting – digital, hybrid or in person. COVID-19 showed us that the future of work is already here. And that’s a good thing. We can finally make it work – make it equitable and effective. Here’s how.
Making the Most of Hybrid Digital and In-Person Work
Avoid Creating a Two-Tier Workforce
Hybrid work presents a particular challenge for equity. If, as surveys show, most managers prefer more in-person work, and women, caregivers, workers of color and those with ability challenges prefer more digital work, there is a real danger of creating a two-tier workforce as organizations transition to hybrid work. With proximity bias and always-on, always in the office “ideal worker” stereotypes already strong in most American workplaces, managers – the majority of whom are white men – could fall into the trap of rewarding workers who come into workplaces and overlook those working in a digital or virtual way. One study found virtual workers had a 50% lower promotion rate than their in-office counterparts, regardless of performance.1 The answer, as Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley says, is for organizations, managers and workers to learn to “be awesome” at both in-person and digital work.
Have a Hybrid Plan
Don’t just expect hybrid work to happen. Work with workers, managers and teams together to decide how best to get the most important work done. How many days in the office? When? Organization-wide? By team? Experiment and iterate. Listen and adapt. At Slack, which, like many organizations, has adopted a hybrid future, some teams require more regular in-person collaboration every week. Others schedule one week of being together per quarter. The key is each team has the autonomy to figure it out for themselves, based on the work they do.
See the Office as a Tool
As Neeley, an expert in distributed digital and hybrid work strategies, advises, think of the office as a “tool, not a destination,” and leverage the best of both virtual and in-person settings. In the office, focus on purposeful, “hyper social” connecting, meetings, networking, collaborative work and brainstorming. During digital work time, focus on quiet, concentrated work, writing, research and written communication. Some companies are using the switch to hybrid work to completely rethink the office. Microsoft, for example, is redesigning its space with people who aren't in the office in mind.
Deloitte, the global audit, consulting, tax and advisory professional services network, is transforming from an in-person to a hybrid workforce, said Denise Shepherd, the company’s U.S. workforce strategy and solutions leader. Hybrid’s virtual element opens up new possibilities beyond geography for networking, connections and mentoring, for instance, she said, and it levels the playing field for many employees, including caregivers, who may need more flexibility in their schedules, or who may prefer working digitally. Hybrid forces teams to think through the life cycle of a job and decide when they really need to be together to move projects forward, Shepherd explained, and when it’s better that they’re doing head-down concentrated work on their own, a philosophy Deloitte calls “Together When It Matters.”
“Our lens is always, the combination of these two things – virtual and in person – can actually drive a result that’s better and more equitable,” Shepherd said. “I’m super hopeful.”
Build With, Not to, the Workforce
“Sometimes organizations have a tendency to think about change from a top-down lens,” Deloitte’s Shepherd said. “We flipped that. One of the things we’ve learned is if you start from the perspective of what our people think, and use their collective knowledge and wisdom, you’re helping yourself on the back end, because people already know what you’re trying to accomplish, and it limits the risk that you’re going to introduce something that’s not going to work. We learned that lesson from our clients.”
Use Data to Monitor, Assess and Adjust
Use data to track how tasks are assigned and promotions decided, and assign tasks intentionally, not just to the person who happens to be walking by the boss’s office at the moment. Data can also shed light on who tends to talk in meetings and for how long to create awareness and open the door for more inclusive conversations and ideation – which Boston Consulting Group research shows leads to more innovation.2 Deloitte is using data in its newly created Hybrid Workplace Index to watch for any potential bias. “We’re trying to drive this equitable experience,” Shepherd said, “so people feel good regardless of whether they’re in the room or not.”
Leaders Set the Tone
Hybrid plans are likely to fall apart or result in a two-tier workforce without leaders modeling effective hybrid work and communication styles. If managers are always in the office, more junior workers, or those who can, will likely follow suit, which is likely to reinforce confirmation bias and reinforce “good old boy” network patterns of promotion and hierarchy. Some companies, like Synchrony Financial, have decided that no one, including the CEO, can work in the office five days a week in order to counter proximity bias.
Zoom One, Zoom All
To leverage how screens can be a great equalizer, some hybrid organizations are sticking with all-virtual meetings and collaborative work settings, where all have access to the same information and communication tools, and it’s easy to see and include every participant. Managers can mention they’ll be hanging out online for another five to 10 minutes for anyone who’d like to have a more informal “hallway chat” – that way, digital workers are less likely to be left out of any after-meeting huddles where ideas are shared or decisions made. (Which, in fact, is not where ideas should be shared or decisions made. Remember meeting hygiene: discussion, debate, decisions, collaboration and ideation all should happen during meetings. If not, you need to ask, why are you meeting at all?)
Build Connection with Onboarding, Mentoring and Sponsorship
Intentionally use in-office days to set up meetings and informal coffees or lunches for new or younger employees, who may be feeling the need to belong. Connect them to those more senior in the organization and help build relationships and better understand organizational culture as well as get them and their work “noticed.” Do the same with women and caregivers and workers of color who may feel marginalized or stressed in office settings.
Manage in a New Way – Train for Performance and Output Management, Not Attendance and Hours
Too many offices and managers rely on “input” management styles, using long work hours and face time – virtually or in real life – as a marker of good work. That’s reinforced biased notions of who a good worker is and who gets promoted, typically men and those without care responsibilities. Manage instead by outputs. That will require dissecting jobs into tasks and setting clear priorities, expectations, standards and goals, being flexible and adaptive to changing conditions and managing excessive work demands.
Design Systems that Promote Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Especially now, when millions of women and those with caregiving responsibilities – particularly women of color and single mothers – remain out of the workforce because of a lack of childcare, make sure that you prioritize making flexible digital work work for everyone. Systematic, evidence-based approaches to hiring and retaining employees, assigning tasks and growth assignments and promoting employees can break down the confirmation bias – leaders favoring those who think, look and act like them – that is so rampant in workplaces and help companies build the best, most effective workforce. Where possible, use blind resume review, structured interviews and base reviews and promotions on clear performance metrics and expectations.
Training managers to manage in new ways for equity is a skill to develop, not just something people will instinctively know how to do. “Managing distributed, hybrid and remote workforces requires more intentionality – which, frankly, should have been there in the first place,” said Christy Johnson, founder of the strategic consulting firm Artemis Connection, which itself is a distributed, remote-first company. “Good managers set smart goals based on outcomes, and it doesn’t matter where people are. We aren’t there yet. Many managers still manage by face time.”
And in a hybrid setting, that can mean long hours in the office or “virtual presence” – long hours logged in or late-night or weekend communication. Johnson says that manager training is “highly variable” and ranges from good, immersive programs that develop concrete skills, like motivating a team or giving good feedback, to “edutainment” with a motivational speaker to nothing at all. “Management training isn’t exciting. And there isn’t a quick fix,” Johnson said. “But we should be equipping more managers with the skills to manage this new way of work. It’s just going to take time.”
To read more about BLL’s research and the Toolkit, see https://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/reports/designing-equitable-workplaces-for-a-post-pandemic-world-a-toolkit-for-digital-hybrid-essential-work/. This excerpt focused on hybrid work; however, the Toolkit contains insights and practical advice for digital and essential work as well.
1 “Evidence from a Chinese Experiment on Working from Home.” National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2013. https://www.nber.org/digest/sep13/evidence-chinese-experiment-working-home.
2 Lorenzo, Rocío, Nicole Voigt, Miki Tsusaka, Matt Krentz, and Katie Abouzahr. “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.” Boston Consulting Group, January 23, 2018. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation.
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