Image: Shutterstock/rfranca

There’s no going back to pre-pandemic days when it comes to work. Expectations, experiences and attitudes have changed too much over the last year to return to the normal of 2019.

The delta variant is delaying many return-to-office plans. Companies that want to keep digital transformation projects rolling and hold onto employees should take this time to review attitudes and assumptions about work. Consider these seven ideas from HR experts and talent managers and adjust your thinking as needed.

There’s no link between in-person work and innovation

Many executives justify return-to-the-office requirements based on the idea that innovation relies on an in-person workplace. This idea turns out to be a lot like recommendations to drink eight glasses of water a day and take 10,000 steps: Theories without a lot of evidence to back them up. People who study work habits have found “no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration.” Harvard Business School Professor Ethan S. Bernstein studies the topic and told the New York Times that the idea that random conversations in the breakroom are especially productive is “more fairy tale than reality.” Bernstein’s research found that open plan offices reduce face-to-face interactions by 70% because people “didn’t find it helpful to have so many spontaneous conversations so they wore headphones and avoided one another.”

Also, there’s plenty of evidence from the last 18 months that succeeding with complex projects in a 100% remote environment is possible. EY led a proof-of-concept blockchain project that spanned multiple continents as well as government agencies, financial firms and all the major public cloud providers. The technical work started just at the pandemic hit in early 2020 and the team did everything virtually.

The 40-hour workweek is over

Lester Mclaughlin, vice president of operations at Blue National HVAC, said the pandemic showed us that the era of the traditional 40-hour workweek is over because people can be equally, if not more productive at home.

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t punish people for being more productive and faster at their job by forcing them to stay at work for eight hours,” he said. “If they’re done, they’re done–let them go home.”

Maya Levi, a marketing manager at ReturnGO, an AI-driven returns management platform for retailers, said managers should understand that more working hours does not translate to increased productivity.

“Nowadays, it’s more on the quality of the work than the quantity of work hours that matters,” she said.

It’s not your employees, it’s you

Yordi Smit, sales manager for spacehuntr, said that part of the resistance to remote work is that old habits die hard.

Managers tend to reflect themselves onto their team and if a manager doesn’t like working remote, she or he will likely be less open to having their teams out of sight,” he said.

Companies are thinking more about the employee experience and part of that is taking into account what work settings employees prefer.

You have to trust people

Alison Bernstein, founder and president of Suburban Jungle, a service that helps home buyers identify the right neighborhood, said the future of management in the new world is trusting your employees.

Suburban Jungle encourages employees who are not feeling well to take time to recharge by taking a nap midday or simply attending a Zoom meeting with the camera off. This gives people the flexibility to balance productivity and personal wellness.

She said her company has completely revamped the idea of regular working hours, including the formal sick day.

“On one day you may need to take it easy and on the next, you can be working in turbo mode,” she said. “We leave it to the employee to manage responsibly.”

You need a remote-first culture

A hybrid approach seems like a good idea; maybe a mix of in-person and remote workers can provide something for everyone. In reality, managers need to make a deliberate choice about a company’s work culture. Sonatype’s SVP of products and engineering, Mike Hansen, said mixing co-located and fully remote models instantly puts remote workers at a disadvantage.

“It’s simply human nature for co-located members to end up forging stronger communications channels while the channels with remote members weaken,” he said.

SEE: 6 changes leaders need to make to get better at managing remote teams (TechRepublic)

He said that many leaders without remote experience are missing the material upside benefits of a fully remote environment.

“One huge advantage is that it is just as easy to communicate with someone on your team as it is someone on another team or someone in a different department, or even the CEO,” he said. “Everyone is equally disadvantaged in not having ready access to high-bandwidth face-to-face interaction.”

Some tasks are better in a virtual setting

These days sharing your desktop with a colleague is as common as joining a Zoom call. This is only one example of how workers can develop new habits and use technology to improve collaboration.

Lucid’s Chief Evangelist Bryan Stallings said the global shift to remote work resulted in some surprisingly positive outcomes for many organizations.

“Teams discovered that virtual solutions beyond videoconferencing, like virtual whiteboards, could promote improved remote collaboration beyond what was possible previously,” he said.

SEE: 5 collaboration tools you should know about (TechRepublic)

Stallings said these tools can make the workplace more inclusive and efficient than in traditional in-person settings.

“Well-facilitated remote collaboration levels the playing field, allowing everyone the same opportunities to contribute ideas and be heard,” he said.

ThoughtSpot converted its annual hackathon from an in-person event to a virtual one in 2020. The event resulted in a cloud-based version of the company’s data management software, which has exceeded revenue goals in less than a year. Lessons learned from the event motivated company leaders to build a remote-work culture, complete with asynchronous meetings and a new emphasis on communication skills, according to Ajeet Singh, co-founder and executive chairman of ThoughtSpot.

Managing people is the work

Early on in the pandemic, I spoke with a software engineer who led a large team. He liked coding and managing and was good at both. Early on in the pandemic, he found that instead of spending an hour or two a day on the phone talking with remote team members, he was spending almost the entire day on the phone. This made it impossible for him to do the technical work he enjoyed. This was the right response to the conditions on the ground.

SEE: Tech workers list burnout and bad managers as biggest motivations for finding a new job (TechRepublic)

Many managers have both people responsibilities and project or product responsibilities. When the people part of the job requires more time, something has to give. It may feel like managing is taking up too much time, but the reality is that this part of the job was being neglected all along. Managing remote workers is not taking away time from other tasks. It’s forcing managers to improve communication and organizational skills that probably needed more focus all along.

Eden Cheng, co-founder of the software company PeopleFinderFree ,said that the last year has shown that many managers were sorely lacking the necessary skills needed to lead teams in any environment.

“Managers are now realizing that they now need to place more emphasis on the relationships and the overall mental well-being of their teams,” she said.

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