Determining a strategy for how you address the future of work can be daunting. Here are some ways to simplify the task while allowing input from those it will affect.
One of the great things about working in consulting is that much of my time is devoted to thinking about big, complex problems, and considerations around the future of work most certainly fit in that category. However, we as consultants also tend to overcomplicate some of these challenges, preferring grand, multi-year strategies to pragmatic advice at times. However, defining the future of work for your teams need not be a complex endeavor.
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The past several months have served as the ultimate laboratory for the future of work, forcing companies to test everything from remote working, to non-traditional schedules, to new and novel staffing arrangements. Now that we have a moment to catch our collective breath, it's worth considering how you approach the future of work in a more disciplined and diligent manner without turning it into an overly complex endeavor. Here are three tips to simplify your organization's march towards the future of work:
1. Keep experimenting
Perhaps the greatest gift of the COVID pandemic was a renewed zeal in testing, learning, and refining. Too many companies had grown overly risk-averse, and would spend months planning a new initiative only to ultimately abandon it or add it to the endless "we'll get to it later" list. While there are many aspects of the pandemic that we all look forward to putting behind us, don't allow your organization to lose the ability to develop a half-baked notion on how you can keep your people connected and productive, and rapidly launching it to see the result.
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There are certainly times and situations that call for careful and detailed planning, but many aspects of the future of work benefit more from experimental results than slides and spreadsheets. If you're uncertain whether one of your teams can continue to be productive while allowing them to set their working hours, define the objectives for the team, solicit a few volunteers and try having a team set its hours for a month. In the time it would take to get a kickoff meeting scheduled with all the right leaders, you'll have real data about whether the work gets done and whether the workers find the change beneficial or burdensome. Unless lives are on the line, experimentation is almost always cheaper, faster, and ultimately a better indicator of success than analysis and hypothesis.
2. Ask, and customize
I'm always surprised by the richness of data and perspective one can gather in a 45-minute interview versus a fifty-question survey, especially when considering an uncertain future state. There is a time and a place for large-scale surveys, but teasing out how, when and where your teams want to work and the variations and permutations of their expectations is the wrong task for a survey. Spend the time to identify various personas of the workers at your company, considering demographic factors like age, geography and family size, as well as the different roles and job types they perform. Execute in-depth and free-flowing interviews with a couple of people that represent each persona, and you'll gather a rich set of data and likely find several surprises along the way.
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Outside of specialized roles, few companies would tell their employees how to dress and demand they all wear the same clothing. Similarly, don't be surprised to find that many of your employees have unique desires and expectations around their work's how, when and where. Rather than a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach, create options that can be mixed and matched and establish guardrails that set clear expectations.
3. Shift from input to output
Perhaps the greatest tension point I've seen and heard is around in-office work. Managers and some leaders have expressed a desire for all staff to spend all their working time in the office, with nice-sounding language around ad-hoc collaboration and the catch-all bucket of "culture" cited as a driver for this demand. Mandating in-office work might have passed muster in 2019, however, the last 18 months have proven without a doubt that many companies can continue to perform at a high level without everyone spending the same 40-hours in the same physical space.
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What in-office advocates are actually saying is that the input of time and place are more important than the output or quality of the work. There are indeed proven benefits to having people in the same physical space; however, if you shift the focus to the output that is required, your teams are likely intelligent enough to determine when in-person time is required based on the output. If you set the expectations on output, does it really matter whether that output was produced through 40 hours spent in a cubicle, or 10 hours spent at the beach, as long as the quality is the same?
While the future of work can be daunting and a bit frightening, we've already had a crash course in experimentation and flexibility. By spending the time to talk to your people and shifting expectations from inputs to outputs, you'll not only be well-prepared for the future, but you and your teams will help define the standards of the future by your actions today.
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