The latest surge in Covid-19 cases generated by the Delta variant is throwing a wrench into plans to have employees return to the office. How can leaders deal with the uncertainty? This article offers six principles: 1) Continue to prioritize employees’ well-being; 2) Be adaptive; 3) Massively step up your communications; 4) Rethink your biases about work; 5) Learn from Zoom natives; and 6) Don’t rush to declare the future.
Just as companies are preparing to bring remote employees back to their offices or institute a “hybrid” arrangement (a mix of remote and in-the-office work), a once-again spiking infection rate due to the Delta variant is driving many of them to put their announced reopenings on hold. This latest twist in the Covid-19 pandemic is one more on a long list — and it may well not be the last. In light of this reality, here are six principles that executives can apply in their reopening decision-making and communications.
1. Continue to prioritize employees’ well-being.
Vaccinated people are at a far lower risk of contracting Covid-19, including the Delta variant, and are less likely to suffer serious illness if they do. Still, recent data has drawn attention to rare breakthrough cases, and the risk to unvaccinated people and those with compromised immune systems remains high. Meanwhile, many employees have new or enhanced challenges in areas such as childcare, elder care, and mental health.
Reopening without consideration to these can have profoundly negative effects on morale and retention. So as leaders continue to prioritize employee well-being relating to minimizing Covid infections in the workplace, they should also consider ways in which they can help employees through these challenges by providing flexibility, support, or benefits.
2. Be adaptive.
Employees desire clear direction, and leaders gravitate towards providing it. It is not uncommon for managers to fall into the trap of “symbolic plans” for dealing with a crisis — plans that look good on paper but are useless when you actually try to implement them. When the future is unpredictable — as it continues to be thanks to the pandemic — it makes sense to keep options open.
As leaders share their decisions about reopening timing and the mix between remote and onsite work, it is important to be upfront and honest about what they don’t know. They should also ensure they have contingencies in place with clear assumptions and thresholds for when they might need to change course.
3. Massively step up your communications.
The challenge, though, with being adaptive is that it can increase anxiety among employees who have already been through a tremendous amount of change during the pandemic. Leaders need to recognize this anxiety and communicate in ways that help defuse or reduce it, rather than feeding it. For instance, we know of a large financial services firm whose leaders have told employees that while they don’t know what the future will bring, they will notify them at least six weeks in advance of any changes to work-from-home policies.
Another way for leaders to avoid increasing employee anxiety is to hone their listening skills to parse the nuances in what employees are asking for. Leaders truly need to walk a mile in their employees’ shoes to understand what they are looking for and how they will react to decisions.
Setting up employee advisory groups to review and even co-create recommendations on the future of work, frequently pulse checking employee sentiment, and soliciting suggestions are all important ways to ensure communications are two-way.
4. Rethink your biases about work.
The proportion of employed people who worked at home almost doubled during the pandemic. This shift demonstrated the viability of remote work for many types of jobs. Still, many leaders remain worried about moving permanently to remote work, and some harbor concerns about the impacts on productivity, innovation, or culture. While there may certainly be risks in each of these areas, there are some offsetting benefits, too, if remote work is done right.
Take productivity. The major problem that has hurt productivity during the pandemic is not remote work; it’s that we just replaced all our interactions with video conferences and then added more meetings into the mix.
Leaders of organizations need to rethink forums of interaction and replace synchronous (thus inflexible and inefficient) meetings with asynchronous tools such as GoogleDocs (which we used to coauthor this article). When a real-time discussion is essential, well-run video meetings often can orchestrate more effective collaboration than in-person meetings can. This does require thoughtful meeting facilitation and using video platforms to their full potential (e.g., digital whiteboards, survey tools, breakout conversations, and so on) and not just as a bland substitute for heads around a conference table.
Likewise, the belief that innovation necessarily requires in-person interaction is flawed. Consider how, during the past 18 months or so, we all figured out how to serve customers, develop products, build relationships, and solve problems while working remotely. Those solutions did not come from centralized innovation labs; instead, they were the product of team members coming together to find creative solutions. Leaders would do well to learn from this experience and focus on ways to unleash their teams’ inherent creativity.
Corporate leaders are justifiably worried about losing the ability to forge a strong organizational culture and engender shared values especially among newer cohorts of hires. But they need to realize that the decisions they make around flexible work and how they communicate those decisions also have a tremendous impact on organizational culture.
Insisting on bringing people back to the office just so they can be supervised more closely has a counterproductive effect by displaying a lack of trust. Conversely, letting teams decide together what works best for them will help build a culture of trust and mutual accountability. Taking the high ground here can have a terrific impact on corporate culture, something Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM, clearly recognized when he signed and promoted a pledge to support his colleagues working from home.
Leaders need to recognize that many of the fears that working remotely will reduce productivity and innovation or weaken an organization’s culture are either overstated or can be mitigated through careful design of interactions, values-driven communication, and upskilling of managers. The good news on upskilling is that the teachers likely exist throughout your organization. Every organization has managers who have innovated, engaged, connected, and delivered throughout the pandemic. Find them and determine what knowledge, skills, attitudes, routines, and tools they deployed to make it work. And then have them teach their peers how to do what they do.
5. Learn from “Zoom natives.”
This is not to say that there are no risks to remote work. Observers have pointed out that the loss of social interaction at work could hurt happiness and, for many people, working at home may not be preferable to working in the office for various reasons.
There are ways to counter some of these downsides, and a good place to look for them is recent college grads who started their careers during the pandemic. They spent anywhere from a couple of months to more than a year attending college remotely. Consequently, they are experienced in truly forming social connections remotely, going beyond the Zoom box to build meaningful personal connections. For instance, many of them have become comfortable engaging virtual meeting participants in private sidebar chats much as they did during class.
While senior leaders or older employees may have mastered the remote meeting, they may still be wired to believe that the only way to build a real relationship is in person. One remedy is reverse mentoring: pairing them with younger employees and explicitly charging the “Zoom natives” to mentor them on the social aspects of remote and asynchronous interactions.
6. Don’t rush to declare the future.
We have collectively learned a lot about how work can get done under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic. However, this is an ongoing process of discovery, and conclusions about the future of work are premature. It will take a while to mine the learnings from how the pandemic impacted our work environment. The right answer for the long term will vary by context, specific working styles, and the preferences of team leaders and members.
So, as we go back to work premises (or not) we need to take an experimental mindset and be willing to learn our way there — or better yet, shape the future together with our colleagues.
As pressure builds on leaders to make decisions relating to getting office workers back onsite or letting them work remotely either part time or full time, they face a minefield. We hope these principles will help guide choices that are optimal and will enable leaders to approach this dilemma in a way that improves morale, retains employees, maintains or improves performance, and strengthens the corporate culture and employees’ affiliation with the organization.
Nikhil Bhojwani is a founder and managing partner at health care consulting firm Recon Strategy. His HBR article with Atul Gawande was the blueprint for CIC Health, a national leader in Covid-19 testing and mass vaccinations. He serves on several boards, the advisory committee of Brown University’s Healthcare Leadership program, and the executive program faculty of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Deborah Lovich is a Boston-based senior partner and a managing director of the Boston Consulting Group. She is a global leader in BCG’s People and Organization practice and focuses on leadership, talent, culture, and the future of work.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.