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When the transition to virtual work began over a year ago, few people expected to still be conducting video calls from their living rooms all these months later. Work-life issues that preceded the pandemic have intensified, and the emergency measures implemented in early 2020 are finally wearing thin.
As leaders grapple with plans for employees to return to offices, they will need to take a hard look at both the psychological and physical needs of their employees and consider how to address them going forward. Planning the return to shared physical workspaces offers an opportunity to transform lessons learned during the pandemic into a sustainable model of work.
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Mere Survival Is Not Enough — We Need to Thrive
Pandemic concerns prompted companies to make sudden changes and countless adjustments that were not intended to be permanent. This kind of uncontrollable disruption to daily life can trigger our survive response, driving anxiety and sending the body into overdrive. When stress hormones (cortisol, dopamine, and adrenaline) are released, we react quickly — more from instinct than from thoughtful reasoning. This biological and psychological hardwiring might explain the high levels of productivity we saw during the first three quarters of 2020, when productivity remained on par with or above pre-pandemic levels.
The fourth quarter, however, tells a very different story. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent productivity data, the last three months of 2020 saw a 4.2% decline in productivity — the largest quarterly drop in almost 40 years — suggesting that the high-stress survival response we’ve experienced for over a year is no longer sustainable. Continuing to operate in this overheated state is like trying to sprint through an entire marathon.
Prioritize sustainable work models. Planning our return to physical workspaces offers an opportunity to intentionally activate the thrive response within employees. Unlike the stress-induced survival response that limits critical thinking, the thrive response stimulates curiosity. Our brains release chemicals (oxytocin and vasopressin) that predispose us to social engagement, resulting in greater trust and collaboration and allowing us to look for opportunities instead of hazards. Per Richard Boyatzis’s intentional change theory, leaders should trigger the positive emotional attractor (PEA) — a self-regulating state of positive emotions — to enhance motivation, effort, optimism, flexibility, creative thinking, resilience, and other adaptive behaviors. Leaders can arouse the PEA by engaging in conversations with employees about what has been most effective since the transition to virtual work and what they might desire in an ideal work environment. They can then incorporate some of those aspects into the organization’s future plans.
Sustainable work models are best defined by the people working within them. Consider involving many more individuals than usual in the process of designing a post-pandemic workplace. Not every employee can be involved in every decision, but in order to activate their thrive response, everyone needs to feel heard and supported via transparent communication. Leaders can help their teams activate a thrive response by uniting them with a shared mission, supporting their mental and emotional well-being, and leveraging individual talents. Thriving as an organization results from employees taking pride in their work, feeling empowered to follow their passions, and progressing steadily toward a clear goal.
Skyrocketing Burnout Levels
According to a December 2020 study of more than 1,100 working American adults, 76% of employees are experiencing burnout, a syndrome recognized in the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. Job insecurity, increased work responsibilities, strenuous living situations, and increased home schooling or caregiving demands were cited among the top contributors to burnout. This study confirms what leaders may already see on the ground: Burnout has become rampant in the workplace.
Women have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. A staggering 2.3 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic began last March, compared with 1.8 million men in the same period. The reason for the discrepancy is not that more women want to leave the workforce than men; it’s because women are receiving insufficient support — at work or at home — to allow them to stay employed. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, in many households, the distribution of domestic responsibilities remains unequal. Working mothers are more often expected to sacrifice their careers than working fathers, even though studies show that female business leaders increase profits and company performance.
If your home and workspace are one and the same, where does one end and the other begin? Some have started to question, “Do I work from home, or do I live at work?” The simple truth is that we’re burning out, and something needs to change.
Focus on employees’ well-being — and their output. So much has been celebrated about our individual and collective success in shifting to a more virtual world that we’ve lost some perspective. As virtual work has become the “new normal,” many organizations have become blind to the gradually increasing toll this new environment is taking on our employees. Even worse, leaders are looking for ever-better results, and middle managers are demanding even more of employees. In some cases, people are reporting work hours far exceeding their pre-pandemic levels.
Like frogs unaware that the pot of water they’re in is slowly being brought to a boil, we may not recognize that our current reality is unsustainable until it is too late. The drop in fourth-quarter productivity should be a wake-up call. To retain talent (particularly among female and diverse populations) in the face of these challenges, revisiting work policies and their implementation is a good place to start.
Executives must have honest conversations with leaders about how to best support employees with extra responsibilities at home — and they may be surprised by the creative solutions and support systems that emerge from these discussions. Managers at all levels should be trained to look for signs of burnout in their employees, who in turn should be encouraged to be honest about their workloads and well-being. Expectations, when unspoken, can easily supersede written policies regarding the availability of flexible work hours or additional time off.
Begin the Journey to a Post-COVID World
Picture us all living on a remote island that will be uninhabitable for the long term. Then we see another alluring island on the horizon. The dilemma for leaders: deciding when to begin building a boat for the journey to the new place and planning a new life for us there. Simultaneously, they must determine how we can continue to safely exist where we are until the trip is possible.
Work-from-home arrangements were prompted by a virus and consequent safety concerns, forcing leaders to be more flexible and accommodating. The transition to new work models will be driven by a less urgent but no less important desire to safely collaborate in person, which may dictate reduced flexibility and accommodation.
To avoid catching employees off guard and triggering another unsustainable survive response during the transition period, leaders must proceed carefully and communicate transparently. Shifting from individualized accommodations to a more uniform workflow model will inevitably ruffle feathers. Just as some employees may have been unhappy with work arrangements before the pandemic, others will likely take issue with the post-pandemic work order. Activating a thrive response will be easy for people who are thrilled to be back in a shared workspace; for others, the loss of flexibility could have the opposite effect.
We all know that it’s impossible to make everyone happy. The best thing to do is lead through the changes with empathy and transparency.
Build a future that incorporates the best of both worlds. The problem with creating a new normal lies in the word normal, which implies standard, usual, or typical. Seeking a new form of the old norm may result in an overreliance on past patterns, limiting our ability to imagine something truly new and potentially better.
Nobody enjoys unexpected change, especially if they could have been prepared for it ahead of time. Moving forward, we will need to help employees understand why the emergency policies that dictated our remote-work transition were temporary and to grasp how everyone will benefit from a more standard, sustainable set of expectations. Collaboration can help you get there; be open about future plans, fully communicate them ahead of time as best you can, and invite others — lots of them — to offer input.
Embracing collaboration can go a long way toward building a stronger company culture and creating a more effective workplace design. In the long run, it will save time and energy through greater buy-in. In the short term, active collaboration may require a longer lead time to incorporate more feedback into the design. Getting a head start on this process will help leaders maximize the advantages of collaboration. While there are many unknowns about the post-pandemic world, it is best not to wait until you have all the answers — especially if your competitors are moving ahead.
Lastly, challenge yourself to build a future that incorporates lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience, which has highlighted the need for greater speed and agility. Use this experience to turbocharge the effort to be more flexible, agile, and collaborative. With this approach, your organization could emerge from the pandemic with a dramatic rebound in productivity, a stronger customer experience, and a highly energized and loyal workforce.