The Four-Step Process for Redesigning Work

Fear of failure weighs heavily on many leaders tasked with managing new workplace expectations. Seeing the challenge as a process is the way forward.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve expanded our workplace skills, workplace assumptions, and workplace habits. But after the initial excitement of discovering new ways of working, deep fears are emerging.

One executive in a major food company asked me, “Is it fair that office workers are now experimenting with working from home three days a week while factory workers are still in place doing their normal shifts?” There’s a growing worry as well that hybrid schedules will result in a fall in productivity, particularly employees’ levels of cooperation and creativity. As I heard from one executive, “We know that our open-plan offices were noisy and distracting, but they did create a space for people from across groups to meet up.”

These fears have only increased as the Great Resignation has left leaders hypersensitive to issues of retention and unsure what accommodations, if any, will attract and keep talent. They are also apprehensive about what their competitors are doing.

This has a ripple effect: Because of the fear of failure, I’ve seen leaders begin to stumble on issues of inclusion, belonging, and identity. Rather than being bold and adopting an experimental mindset, they are falling back to familiar ways of operating and becoming less empathic to what others want. When we fear failure, we retreat to the known.

But some leaders have been able to confront these worries. I’ve worked closely with executive teams of more than 30 companies since the beginning of the pandemic. Tackling uncertainties begins by seeing these challenges not simply as binary judgments (for example, office or home; full time or part time). Instead, by seeing their task as managing a process of redesign and change, senior leaders can address legitimate fears about the complexity of getting the employee proposition right and create a practice of embracing change that is fair and inclusive.

A Way Forward Through Redesign

When leaders are feeling anxiety and fear, making top-down judgments is natural. But this works only when a leader knows exactly what to do — and in the current moment, most do not. On the other hand, leaving decisions in the hands of individual managers inevitably leads to feelings of mistrust and bias across employee groups, something I have seen in many organizations.

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