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The pandemic has forced companies to adapt quickly to new realities, including shifting to virtual work arrangements and rethinking short- and long-term business priorities. It has also amplified the role of managers to help employees shape their work lives in effective and healthy ways.
In the office, we socialize on the fly, flit from meeting to meeting seamlessly, and establish routines and patterns that not only work for us but jell with those of others. One of the important decisions that managers confront now, as working remotely becomes standard practice, is how to use technology to recreate these dynamics. Should they attempt to replicate life as it was in brick-and-mortar offices, or does the drastic switch to virtual work necessitate that they try something different?
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As the initial shock of the pandemic begins to wane, now is the time to consider how to balance strategically what work used to be and what it is now. We provide a series of ideas for managers on how to approach these considerations as remote work becomes the norm for the foreseeable future — and perhaps even permanently.
Recreate or Repurpose Office Life?
One of the authors of this article, Eliana, studied the post-bankruptcy reactions of former Lehman Brothers bankers. She found that disruptive events that profoundly alter work circumstances often prompt people to feel a sense of loss and void, akin to what people feel when they mourn the loss of a loved one.
At a minimum, the shift to virtual work has left workers bereft of a common place, of unplanned interactions with their coworkers, and of the vicarious learning opportunities that colocation promotes. As one senior manager at a large educational institution explained to us recently, “I miss bumping into people I do not directly work with, catching up with them in the hallway. … For me, now it’s just not the same. I feel I’m missing context. It’s almost as if I do not know my colleagues as much anymore.” Another employee we interviewed, who started her new job just days before switching to remote work, told us, “I’m trying to learn what I’m supposed to do as best I can. I miss shadowing my colleagues who have more experience.”
Workers all around the world are grieving a host of aspects related to how, where, and when they used to work.
The study of former Lehman Brothers employees found that in the face of void and loss, workers — even those on the same team — may mourn unexpected loss differently. The Lehman employees approached their post-bankruptcy work lives in two distinct ways. Some, Recreators, craved the safety of their former work lives. These bankers tried to revive what they had at Lehman by pursuing similar work opportunities — often with some of their former colleagues — and holding on to the close-knit relationships they had developed while at the company. Others, Repurposers, craved the control that they had over their former work lives. These bankers held on to the spirit of what they had at Lehman but did not try to replicate it. Rather, they repurposed the skills and knowledge they had acquired and pursued different careers, often as entrepreneurs.
These two approaches provide important clues to how managers might try to better understand and manage their now remote employees.
Consider Alicia and Dan. Before going virtual, their days looked approximately the same. Today, both are performing at the same level, but their work situations are very different. Alicia is a Recreator. She currently holds the same schedule as before COVID-19. The only difference for her? Instead of meeting face to face, she meets her colleagues and clients via Zoom, from her home. She even has virtual drinks with her coworkers at the end of the workday. Now consider Dan, a Repurposer. He checks in with his colleagues and clients via email and text periodically throughout the day but completes most of his actual client work at night.
Recreating and repurposing fulfill different needs for employees, especially in times of grief. For Alicia, recreating provides a sense of safety in a time of uncertainty. By keeping the same schedule and regularly meeting with colleagues virtually, she preserves the rhythms of the daily life she had before COVID-19. For Dan, repurposing is about reimagining the execution of tasks to separate the “what” from the “how.” Adjusting and time-blocking his new schedule ultimately provides him with a sense of control over his work life.
Companies and managers are seeing these mechanisms play out for their employees in different ways. For example, if face-to-face team meetings are about checking in with one another, Repurposers might maintain some meetings but transform how they happen: They might, for instance, institute asynchronous discussion boards for their teams, as opposed to arranging synchronous virtual calls.
So, how should managers make the choice of recreating or repurposing?
Understand Employees’ Needs and Constraints
Remember that people are coping with sudden, unexpected loss in individual ways. What employees need most from their managers and colleagues, and what they are finding most challenging, will vary from person to person. Have honest conversations with your own employees about what they most miss from being in the office and what their current constraints are. Do they miss the safety and regularity of routine? If so, work with them to recreate certain aspects of their work lives. For example, they might have started each morning with a cup of coffee and small talk in the break room. Offer to host a virtual morning break room with your team to simulate that routine. Do they miss the ability to control their work environment and to concentrate without other family members around? If so, work with them to repurpose. For instance, allow them flexibility in when they work (for example, before or after their children go to bed) and how (for example, reduce asynchronous meetings during the daytime).
Balance Recreating With Repurposing Through Technology
Working virtually allows employees to choose whether to repurpose or recreate their office lives. Rather than leaving this choice solely in their hands, such that each person on a team may approach his or her work differently, consider setting a company or team strategy that offers guidance. To do so, you might brainstorm with your employees about the aspects of office life they individually miss, and then help them either recreate or repurpose such aspects. A framework for such a conversation might be as simple as these two questions: Is there anything from your work life pre-COVID-19 that you no longer have but would help you meet your professional and/or personal goals? How might we incorporate that based on your current life?
It is also important to recognize the limits of recreating and repurposing. Giving employees complete autonomy over recreating or repurposing may ultimately erode their ability to form and maintain regular cadence with coworkers. The second author of this article, Beth, researched virtual workers and found that having consistent cadence with coworkers — being able to predict the time and mode of interacting — determines the quality of remote workers’ relationships. To foster such cadences, consider instituting virtual collective routines, such using collaboration tools and discussion forums to clarify when employees are available and when they are not.
Finally, recreating is unlikely to bring back the face-to-face office experience, and it may be difficult (or even impossible) when individuals are trying to balance additional duties — such as home schooling their children. Setting realistic expectations for a recreating strategy is thus critical. Because repurposing shifts the focus of work from process to outcomes, recreating can be particularly challenging to enact when work is highly collaborative and interdependent — especially when there are Recreators and Repurposers working together toward the same goal. Communicating expectations, deadlines, and processes clearly is thus especially critical.
Honor That We Are All ‘Novice Experts’ Right Now
It takes thousands of hours of practice — and constant feedback on performance — to become an expert at anything, including being a virtual worker. As you and your employees navigate this monumental switch, think of yourselves as “novice experts” — people who are expected to have mastered being expert virtual workers without the requisite experience of being an expert. This means that although you may have a general strategy to repurpose or recreate, preferences might shift from repurposing to recreating and vice versa as employees better understand the pros and cons of each approach. As a manager, being patient and supportive when preferences shift and mistakes happen will foster a psychologically safe environment in which your employees will likely better cope with their uncertainty and grief.
At its core, dealing with sudden and unexpected loss is about holding on and letting go. Having honest conversations with your employees — and setting a clear strategy for recreating, repurposing, or a combination of the two — will help you manage through this uncertain time and prepare more effectively for this new age of virtual work.