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How to help leaders manage the shift to the “new normal” of permanent flexible working

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided organizational researchers with the greatest mass experiment in remote working in the history of the workplace. And it will take a lot of time for all the data to come in, be properly analyzed and contextualized, and for us to truly appreciate and understand just how dramatically the workplace paradigm has shifted.

Until then, what we do know is this: the workplace has fundamentally changed, and at least some aspects of working from home /virtual / flexible working are here to stay, especially for those organizations who can successfully integrate them into their business models.

In some ways, Covid merely accelerated a trend that had already been evident: the move toward alternative ways of working and activity-based workplaces. Prior to Covid, this was mainly visible through significant changes to office spatial layouts and designs. Particularly in cities with sky-high commercial real estate costs (e.g., Hong Kong, New York, London), layouts were increasingly moving away from closed offices and cubicles to open plan environments. These redesigns often proved controversial with employees, as they involved significant knock-on effects in terms of lack of privacy, increased noise, and decreased productivity, even as people were able to collaborate more.

High quality, peer-reviewed research on activity-based workplaces was still a bit esoteric before the pandemic, with some of the best research coming from corporate real estate journals, and only occasionally appearing in mainstream business publications. Likewise, there was a rich vein of research into virtual teams, which appeared in a handful of psychology journals, again never making much of an impact in the mainstream. The research that was available raised quite a few red flags around how these moves impacted individuals, teams, and office culture, but also shared several strategies and approaches which could mitigate the risks. What was surprising to me, as an organizational consultant working on communication strategies related to office redesign, was how little senior leaders were aware of, or cared about the research that was available - not when they had the glimmer of potentially millions of dollars of cost savings in their eye.

But Covid has changed the calculus completely. And the disruptions to the workplace have been momentous - from what it means to work in an office, to how where we work impacts the work we do and the relationships we have.

Even so, many organizations and managers are clinging to previous ideas of what “the office” was, even if the promises of collaborative office work were seldom realized.

Recently, there has been a spate of high-quality journalism exploring the new office reality (some of my favorites in the past couple of months are [1], [2] and [3]). I've noticed how the authors of these articles emphasize that we need to shift the paradigm in terms of how we think of work – moving away from notions of presenteeism and busyness - toward looking specifically at outputs, trust, productivity levels, and quality of life. This is no doubt true. And while the days of hyper-commuting and having an unhealthy relationship to email may not be over, there is a consensus emerging that we need to focus more on virtual management and leadership, how to build more meaningful relationships with each other despite a lack of physical proximity, and how to have healthier work and life boundaries. It is high time we stopped treating these aspects of our work like they're the lowest common denominators in the employment equation.

However, I've also noticed that these articles tend to gloss over the critical point of how to help managers and organizations shift their thinking, and what that process even looks like. It’s no small task for leaders and managers to move from looking at working from home with suspicion and fear, to being able to genuinely embrace and implement successful work-from-home programs. And I believe that at least part of the solution is adaptive leadership.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linksy, in their seminal book [4], famously argued that a common source of failure in organizational change initiatives stems from using technical fixes for what are essentially adaptive challenges. To recognize and contend with the adaptive challenges around flexible working, we need to not only name the elephants in the room – mainly fear and loss of control – but help managers navigate those elephants. And that is much easier said than done, especially since fear and loss of control trigger significant threat responses in the brain. It's not as though we can just snap our fingers and magically believe that managers and organizations are going to implement new ways of working. This is going to be a process, and it's going to involve learning and unlearning – and in many cases, unlearning the previous paradigm of work that we held very dearly. It will involve loss.

It will also involve mistakes. A big part of the philosophy of adaptive leadership is recognizing that we may make some mistakes along the way and giving ourselves permission to make those mistakes and learn from them.

It is also important to remember that there really was no grand heyday of collaboration when everybody was in the office. As Laura Empson [5] pointed out in a great FT piece, work has changed a lot. Having a breakthrough on a project while chatting at the watercooler, going to offsites to brainstorm or plot out a master strategy, and actually having the time and courage to work on peer and manager relationships - those halcyon days seem far in the distance, if they ever really existed at all.

And we know, from many examples in the real world, that online collaboration not only happens, but sometimes to a greater degree than we ever thought possible. One need only look at some of the true crime documentaries of recent years (such as Don’t F#ck with Cats, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) to see startling examples of collaboration between strangers (amateur sleuths) that can take place on the internet, sometimes with remarkable results. Amateur sleuths may not sleep well at night (nor did I after watching those documentaries!), but they are making the world a safer place.

What will our new flexible workplaces have in common? Some important clues might be found in Dan Coyle’s book The Culture Code [6], where he talks about effective organizational cultures as being those where people feel connected, have a shared future, and sense they are safe. And you don’t necessarily need a shared office space to make any of these things happen.

Managers will need training, support and encouragement to navigate and successfully lead in the new office normal. And this is not bad news, but actually a genuine opportunity. As Kathin O’Sullivan pointed out in a wonderful new blog [7], the post-pandemic period offers a rare opening, a chance to “wake up” out of the seduction of chronic and compulsive busyness, and engage with work, as with life, with more ease, joy and impact.

[1] Newport, C. (2021, July 9). How to achieve sustainable remote work. The New Yorker. [2] Jacobs, E. (2021, April 21). The new frontiers of hybrid work take shape. The Financial Times. [3] Mattu, R. (2021, July 12). Covid uncertainty means permanent change for managers. The Financial Times. [4] Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. [5] Empson, L. (2021, July 19). Leaders’ love of offices is based on an outdated fantasy. The Financial Times. [6] Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. New York, NY: Random House. [7] O’Sullivan, K. (2021, July 9). A new kind of re-entry: Waking up from busyness as we return to the office. Cultivating Leadership blog.

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