As the number of Covid cases falls, anticipation is rising…but, for what, actually? For everything to return to the way it was before the pandemic? For a return to the old office space, hours and habits? Some recent surveys, in which companies announced the return to the old working models as soon as the worst is over, suggest that the New Normal will not be so new after all. Other companies, however, have already announced a 100% work-from-home option for everyone. So what will the world of work look like after the pandemic? Has it brought us closer to New Work? To what people really want?
One thing is clear, the pandemic has changed us all. We aren’t the same people we were a year ago. And also the working world has changed irreversibly. A New Normal will therefore most likely take place somewhere between the two extremes of “mandatory presence” and “100% remote”. A hybrid working world thrives on a variety of working models and environments that employees can choose from, depending on their needs. It also thrives on contrasts, on the coexistence of very different ways of working.
We work in an asynchronous yet simultaneous way
For many people working from home, the occasional zoom call with colleagues became the social highlight of the workweek. Others, on the other hand, buckled under the abundance of online meetings, after which they hardly had any energy left to perform their actual tasks. Companies need to find a better way for employees to get the information they need even without attending every meeting. Good written communication and documentation that allows everyone to keep up-to-date regardless of time or location is important. For certain topics and occasions, it makes sense for employees to continue to meet simultaneously, whether virtually or in the company offices. Developing new ideas, brainstorming, defining goals, or resolving conflicts – these are most likely still best done together. Managers can support employees in finding out which structures work best for them. Freedom of choice is the be-all and end-all in the hybrid working world, along with a skill set that enables employees to work in different constellations and with a variety of tools. This requires appropriate learning opportunities within companies. These can be provided by the company. At the same time, organizations should enable their employees to learn from and with each other, exchange ideas, and try out new things together. In the end, a good “we-feeling” only develops when each individual feels seen and heard with their topics, challenges, and wishes.
Many managers will have experienced a rather steep learning curve during the past year. Suddenly, they had to manage employees who not only worked at different times and in different places, but also faced entirely new challenges, for example home-schooling their children, suffering from anxiety, or having difficulties adjusting to the new virtual collaboration. Being responsive to the individual needs, concerns, and wishes of employees, while at the same time supporting them in their further development, will remain an essential part of new leadership. However, managers have had to and continue to have to learn to let go and trust that employees will do their work well even when the manager is not around. To do this, they need clarity about the company’s goals and shared values, such as: How do we want to work together? How do we treat each other – internally and externally? What is important to us? Managers should think big about their role! Not as the personified “Big Brother,” but as “enablers,” as those who create the framework in which employees can become the best version of themselves and develop their talents and abilities to their fullest potential while also knowing that their manager is available for them and has their back.
A hybrid work environment gives the individual more freedom to shape their role. If the overarching corporate goal and the personal goals are clear, employees can theoretically just run with it and find ways to achieve these goals. In a corporate culture characterized by openness, collaboration, and appreciation, they will always follow these paths with exactly the right colleagues at their side. Changes in team constellations, in areas of responsibility, and roles are a natural part of a lively network organization.
This reorientation toward more personal responsibility and self-efficacy is most successful when employees perceive their organization as a protected space, as a place where they can try things out without being punished every time they have a setback. And as a place where they can be themselves, with their professional skills and interests, but also in their role as a father, mother, or caregiver. It must be possible to develop professionally and take on responsibility, but also to shift priorities in every phase of life. For this to succeed, managers are called upon not only to preach a culture of humanity and togetherness but also to actively set an example while at the same time creating the necessary freedom within the company.
It is to be expected that more and more people will actively demand this in the future – and otherwise leave the company if they do not get it. Current studies, including a Stepstone survey of 28,000 employees in Germany, point to a massive wave of layoffs that will hit companies after the pandemic. People-friendly structures are no longer a nice-to-have but are becoming a must-have for companies to retain talent. A return to old ways not only means a reduced quality of work and life for the individual employees, but also a massive loss of talent for the organization as a whole.
Therefore no Comeback
Comebacks often follow a pattern that can be roughly divided into four phases:
- Phase 1 – Joy: Wow, they’re still around? And they’re coming back? That’s great!
- Phase 2 – Romanticisation: They sang really well. And the choreography…I had a huge crush on Robbie. And you?
- Phase 3 – Disillusionment: Oh my, they look really old. I remember his voice being nicer. And what’s with the synchronized jumping about? Pretty embarrassing. (And Gen Z is like: WTF is this?)
- Phase 4 – Looking ahead: Okay, it was nice back then. But in your early 40s, pining over a group of gray-haired dads with beer bellies is somehow not the same anymore. Let’s remember them as they were for us back then. Warmed up is not hot. Now others are taking over, and that’s a good thing.
After more than a year of pandemic, working from home between kids, zoom, and kitchen, it is all too understandable that many people are still in phases 1 and 2 and long for some of the old normal. A bit of office life, a chat with colleagues over coffee, the separation of workspace and living room. But the colleagues have also changed in the past year. We have all seen what is possible when we are courageous, trust each other, and use digital tools pragmatically. This realization and the feelings it generates can no longer be undone. If the old structures make a comeback, disillusionment will follow soon after.