Breakdown provokes a space of possibility precisely because things don’t work – Donna Harraway
The pandemic is our invitation to reconstruct work. To courageously face what’s breaking down in our organizations so we can innovate into a more inclusive future. With employee morale and well-being hanging in the balance, how we choose to move through this unprecedented certainty is what will define us as leaders and organizations.
According to a recent McKinsey study, 68% of executives say they have no detailed plan in place or on the horizon for handling hybrid work. Even though the same group of executives is committed to shifting to hybrid work for all roles that aren’t essential to perform on-site.
Sitting at a stalemate is leading to a high degree of anxiety. The same study cites 47% of those surveyed feel a lack of clear vision about work in the post-pandemic world is a cause for concern. By contrast, organizations that have articulated specific policies and approaches for the future workplace have experienced measured improvements in employee health and performance.
If we know having a clear and well communicated plan about distributed work supports our employees to live well and work well, why are we waiting so long to craft and communicate this plan? What’s getting in the way?
Stepping into the unknown starts with a mindset shift. Rather than asking: “How are we going to return to work?” We can ask: “How do we create the conditions so that regardless of where we work — at home, in the office, or a hybrid of both — we can do our best work?”
Individuals and organizations who will succeed in the future will step toward ambiguity, rather than away from it. Innovating into new ways to perform well at work — to create the flexibility, autonomy and choice we all crave — means choosing creativity and curiosity over certainty.
From fixed plans to flexible plans with the 4Ws
The 4Ws framework is a new way to shift our old mindset; from crafting the perfect plan to experimenting with a fluid strategy that allows us to adapt and adjust as we learn and discover more. A strategy that sets us up to do our best work, no matter where we happen to be doing that work.
If you’re stuck in fixed plans, the 4Ws will help you make the move toward flexibility.
1. Work: What is the work that needs to be done now in our organization? How has that work changed over the past 18 months? What are our desired outcomes? What are the stories we want to be true as we move into the future? How will we achieve these outcomes and honor employee well-being? How will we fully integrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) into our systems, ways of working, leadership, and decision lenses as leaders?
In nearly every organization, the nature of the work itself has shifted. And not just in volume. In variety. Consider categories of new work added. Consider accountability for the way in which DEIB plays a part. Consider the connection between the work that needs to be done and the outcomes you aspire to deliver.
2. Workforce: Who needs to do the work that needs to be done? When, where, how, and with whom will we do that work? What skills does our workforce need to be successful? What do we need — as individuals and as teams — to be healthy and well? What are the highest aspirations of each member of our workforce? What percentage of our workforce needs to be full-time, part-time or flex/contractor? What would make our company an employer of choice for our ideal workforce?
Amidst the Great Resignation, these answers — and the actions taken towards them — are critical differentiators.
3. Workplace: where does work need to happen — in our company's offices, home offices, co-working spaces, or a custom hybrid? Under what circumstances and use cases will our workforce come together in person? How will we keep our workforce safe when we come together in place? How will we engineer equity and inclusion into our time together? What roles have the authority to make these decisions? How can we create alignment across the company with flexibility, autonomy, and choice rather than compliance, rules and policies?
As Brené Brown asserts, “Unclear is Unkind.” Blanket statements like, “We’re all coming back to the office all the time,” are unclear to our workforce because they fail to answer one critical question — why? Our workforce wants clarity about the expected outcomes of coming to the office and why those outcomes differ from what they’ve proven they can deliver virtually. Rather than hiding behind policies and rules, we need to have honest and brave conversations about why we’re struggling to trust people to do their work autonomously.
4. Workflow: How will work move from place to place? How will we enable asynchronous work? What tasks can we automate to make workflow easier? How can we be more intentional and purposeful about how we do our work so that we are deliberately integrating better flow?
Knowledge sharing across cubicle walls was ad hoc at best, even with our entire workforce in the office. Consider how information can be accessed more easily in the open and flow more consistently to and through the organization.
Startups like customer communication platform Front know the critical role adaptability and experimentation play in shaping a new idea of work. In an effort to ease the well-being burden, the company is experimenting with a weekly flex day that employees can use as they see fit. There is no expectation for employees to be online, and the obstacle of scheduled internal meetings has been removed. Over six months, the company will innovate and adapt into the new system.
Even at the start, Front has acknowledged the inefficiencies in the way they currently work. They are accepting that trends like the four day work week may not be a fit for their workforce and are choosing to adapt through innovation and experimentation.
Front has implemented some processes to clear the much-needed space for their employees. They recognize it will take time to effectively reshape surrounding systems and assess whether the strategy has been beneficial. So far, with freedom of choice, 89% of employees say they are happier at work. And 95% of employees claim they have seen no impact on collaboration with colleagues.
Designing our future
Examining what's breaking down in our organizations strengthens the foundation upon which to innovate into a new way to work. And not just in response to the pandemic, but in an effort to design our future.
The future of work is ours to design and to construct. Shifting our mindset from fixed to flexible — and stepping into the uncertainty — makes it possible to reimagine and redesign what it means to do our best work, no matter what.