4 Trajectories That Are Changing the Workplace: Rethinking Your Leadership for What Comes Next

In March 2020, almost overnight, our oldest daughter’s workplace reinvented how they work. All employees from head office moved to working from home. Jess says it took some adjustment, but now she appreciates not having the daily commute and actually puts in a longer day. She’s more productive and appreciates the flexibility to work from anywhere.

Fast forward to this past September when she chose to pack up her laptop, big screen, keyboard and a drawer of files and come over to work from our dining room for a week. It was lovely! Working from home is standard for me, but now I had a buddy to drink coffee and go for walks with when we needed a break. This type of mom-and-daughter-working-together scenario was unheard of pre-pandemic, but now it’s doable!

Jess’s organization is still using this work model, although anytime an employee wants a change of scenery they can book an office, and her team reserves a meeting room every few weeks for in-person meetings. The company has decided this hybrid work model has been a success, employees are happy, and this is how it will stay!

As many of our clients and organizations we’ve collaborated with are reintegrating back into the workplace or adapting entirely to a more flexible, hybrid work model, there are some key trends we’re seeing. I’d call them trajectories, because they appear to be changes that will stick as we go forward through and beyond the pandemic.

Trajectories We’re Seeing

Hybrid Work

Hybrid work has become part of our new normal. Extensive data and surveys have revealed that most people want these arrangements, and finding the right balance for organizations will be key!

As the pandemic drags on, some employees say they miss those daily interactions with colleagues, and the learning opportunities that emerged from the “water cooler chats.” When we worked entirely on Zoom pre-vaccine, I often spoke with managers about how important it was to dedicate connection time in those online meetings before getting down to business. People need a laugh, a smile, an opportunity to share a story … this is what develops that camaraderie amongst coworkers. Recreating the “coffeetime in the lunchroom connection” was more challenging on Zoom, but crucial!

At the same time, many people are willing to forgo the office banter if it means they don’t have an hour+ commute each day. And, people who consider themselves more introverted—meaning that they get their energy by working alone—often find they are much more productive and less drained with a work-from-home option.

Jennifer Moss, syndicated radio columnist and author of The Burnout Epidemic, writes that the ideal scenario is one “where teams come in at the same time and are out of the office at the same time. That can mean three days in and two days out. It can be once a week or month—even just a few times a year if teams work in different parts of the country or even the world. The point is that investing in consistently reconnecting and finding time together as a team is critical to combatting loneliness at work. Technology can then be used to augment—versus replace—existing relationships.” (Moss, 2021)

For the first time in work force history, leaders will need to ask themselves a very important question: Where is the middle ground with hybrid work?

The Mass Resignation

Over the last several months, there has been an acceleration in what economists are referring to as “The Great Resignation.” That is, millions of people choosing to leave their jobs. Why? Put simply: Covid has made us re-evaluate our lives—and how we are spending our time.

In his article, The Great Resignation is Accelerating, Derek Thompson says, “quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers. But this level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, “We can do better.”

I agree—as leaders—we can do better!  We can be the leader that create the type of work environment people don’t want to leave. Through over three decades of working in this field, the stories of dissatisfaction I have heard from employees about their toxic work environments—about feeling undervalued and overwhelmed—is disheartening. And now that many of those people have been offered the opportunity to “do better” that is just what they are doing.

This mass resignation has brought about some positive things. The hourly wage for low-income workers is rising faster than any time since the Great Recession, according to Thompson. And leaders are more open to flexible work options. Given that so many people are working from home, some organizations are also doing better with setting boundaries between work and home.

It would be remiss not to note that many of the employees exiting the workforce are women. Roughly one third of all working mothers have left the workforce (or scaled back their jobs) since March of 2020. For them, says Moira Donegan, leaving work has nothing to do with self-discovery or a better work-like balance, but rather because they have nowhere to put their kids. “This moment of worker power—a social good—has been in part subsidized by the expulsion of mothers from the workforce—a generational tragedy.” (Donegan, 2021). Daycares and schools continue to face interruptions, quarantines and closures, leaving many families in stressful situations when scrambling to take care of their children.

This highlights even further, how important it is for leaders and managers to be compassionate and understanding and offer flexibility to employees.

“Doing better” as employers means creating a culture where people can flourish and contribute their best. It is in your best interest to be that workplace.

If the requests I am personally getting lately from leaders to help them with creating these kinds of cultures in their teams and throughout their organizations is any indication, there is a trend toward building back better, and incorporating flexible working. It is exciting to see and be a part of!

A Spotlight on Mental Health

The pandemic brought the importance of our mental health sharply into focus. I summarized some of the recent studies showing the fallout in our collective mental health due to the pandemic in my Nov 12, 2021 blog. It intensified many unhealthy workplace conditions that can lead to burnout.

Burnout, as the World Health Organization now recognizes it, is “…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • “Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.” (WHO, 2019).

Burnout experts Micahel Leiter and Christina Maslach stress that “burnout is a workplace problem, not a worker problem.” Their research highlighted six main reasons people tend to burn out (workload, perceived lack of control, lack of reward of recognition, poor relationships, lack or fairness, and values mismatch). All of these areas have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Challenge of Reintegration

This past summer, I worked with a team at a university that were reintegrating back into the workplace after more than a year of working from home. It was clear that some were feeling run down and disengaged after working remotely and trying to keep up with the demands of their work. Others were fearful and anxious about returning to work.

People remain unsettled about what “back to work” currently looks like, and how long it might last. What happens if there are Covid surges? How will vaccine mandates impact them? Social relationships have changed. Some people are happy to vaccinate and be maskless in the office. Others, still want to wear a mask and “isolate” at their desks. This is unchartered territory, and of course, it’s unsettling!

So, if you, or members of your team are having a hard time with the transition of going back to work, you are not alone!

In her article Why You’re So Anxious About Going Back To The Office, Alice Boyes discusses reasons why this is a challenging period. But above all, she suggests we give ourselves a healthy dose of grace and self-compassion as we embark on this transition.

What Can We Do As Leaders?

As we adapt to these workplace trajectories it is vital to focus on the culture of your team or organization. Ask the question: “What is the culture we need in order to positively move through this transition?”

And then determine what practices need to be adopted to build that culture. For example, do you need to develop new guidelines for how the team communicates while some people are onsite and some working at home? Do you need a communication plan that ensures those at home are not being excluded in any way? Do you need to establish a separate meeting that focuses solely on how your team is functioning, where you develop ways to improve teamwork? What guidelines do you need to reduce tech fatigue? How can you make your meetings more positive?

Listen Before You Act

Reintegrating back into a physical workspace requires a lot of communication and negotiation. Start with some of the questions above and listen to the answers. As a leader, one of the most important questions you can ask is, “How can I help?”

It is paramount that we are not implementing policies and handing out wellness perks, without doing the research into what our employees want and need. In my post You Can’t Pour From An Empty Cup: How To Keep Inspiring Psychological Well-Being At Work, I share an inspiring story about Zoom, the video conferencing company that experienced unprecedented growth during the pandemic, and how the CEO asked the very simple, but insightful question: How can we help our employees?

This is everything! Put in the time to find out.

When I was writing my book, A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture, I interviewed Dr. Michael West, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the Lancaster University Management School. Something that stood out for me was his recommendation about not trying to make big shifts in culture all by yourself. He suggests pulling together a small group of committed people who share your vision, and through this group, articulate a small number of clear messages about the kind of culture you want to achieve.

If we want to bring about profound change, his advice is that we need to “listen with fascination” to others, to understand their situation. I love that idea.

How can you “Listen with fascination” to your team members today so that you understand their challenges and move smoothly through the transitions to come?

Be Flexible and Open-Minded

Most leaders I have spoken with recently recognize that a transition is occurring in the workplace unlike anything they’ve experienced before and are trying to be adaptable as it unfolds.

One organization I work with has implemented a one-year pilot where those who wish to continue working at home can do so. They will monitor how well this works over time, and continue to gather employee feedback as they determine what the long term structure will be.

Flexibility with technology is also something to consider as working from home continues to become the norm. Professor Christina Gibson of Pepperdine University has found that, “the secret to developing and maintaining the human connectedness is technology agility—knowing when to use which technology and when to switch from one technology to another.” Gibson’s research has shown that employees who were adept and strategic at selecting appropriate technology for certain tasks, were more productive and higher performing. (Aruda, 2021)

How can you support your hybrid teams in selecting the technology they need to be effective?

Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, sees flexibility as key for the success of businesses going forward. For a long time, as Covid grounded travel to a halt, headlines mused Is this the end of Airbnb? Yet Airbnb experienced unprecedented growth during this time because people from a wide range of businesses chose to make their “work-from-home” location be a warm locale or a more remote setting. During a recent interview with CNN, Chesky shares how he sees the intersection of home, work and travel (as reflected in current bookings), being a real boon to his business! Covid has given people a great deal more flexibility in their lives, and they like it!

“I think ultimately, we as leaders are going to need to compete for the best talent. And after compensation, the next most important benefit will probably be flexibility. And so, I do think that ultimately employees are going to drive the future, not employers.” (Chesky, 2021)

We also need to be open to how offices can be designed and utilized. “How should leaders rethink office spaces for in-person work?” is one of the questions that Tsedel Neeley addresses in his recent HBR article. Neeley says hybrid work is transforming the physical design of office spaces, encouraging them to be places that promote connection, collaboration, and innovation. He suggests that a key feature of these offices should be fluidity: where rooms can be reconfigured for client meetings or brainstorming sessions, bookcases can be on casters to become movable walls, and smart boards can move in and out of spaces as needed. (Neeley, 2021)

Keep an open mind. Try new things. Be receptive to feedback.

Make Well-Being A Priority

In February of 2021, nearly a year into the pandemic, Ed Prideaux wrote an insightful, compelling piece for the BBC about the trauma of Covid, and its ripple effect on society. “Our most complex social extensions, and the building-blocks of our personal realities, have been coloured indelibly.” (Prideaux, 2021).

It is important that leaders acknowledge the sustained trauma and stress that has become a reality for millions of people worldwide, as we plan the future of organizations in the hybrid era.

Vince Molinaro says, “very few companies actually had thriving cultures before the pandemic, and today, given all the disruption we’ve seen due to the pandemic, and the ongoing changes in the way we work, every company’s culture is under pressure.”

I agree. The time to act is now! We know that people are leaving the workforce en masse, and our collective mental health is at an all-time low. We need to create places where people feel supported, and where they can flourish at work, or we will continue to see evidence of mass burnout.

Jennifer Moss, author of the new book The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, says that employers need to stop blaming employees for not being resilient enough and instead focus on changing workplace cultures that are often instigators for burnout.

In the organizations I have been working with this fall, we are focused on developing new practices to reinvent how team members can support each other through this transition, and how leaders can better support their people. Some of these practices include developing new team guidelines (especially in the new world of hybrid teams), creating shared vision, and fostering more trust within teams. We are working to merge the best parts of working-from-home with the best parts of office-life.

Reintegration back to the workplace is a topic I’ve also been speaking about lately in my workshop on The 4R’s of Teams Amidst Covid-19: Reintegration, Reinvention, Reflexivity & Resilience.

Be A Compassionate, Empathetic Leader

During a large-scale crisis, demonstrating visible, caring leadership becomes even more important. Your employees need to know you’re listening to their needs at this time, that you’ve got their back, and that their mental health matters. Without that, teams eventually fall apart and people break down.

Studies continue to show that compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement in their teams. And another quality that ranks highly is empathy. Increased empathy from leaders has been shown to increase innovation, engagement, retention, feelings of inclusivity, and management of work-life balance within the workplace.

How are you modeling empathy and compassion? As a leader, you are well positioned to serve as a role model to raise the profile of kind, caring acts within your organization.

Check in with your team regularly, ask questions and take cues from your employees about what they need. Express your gratitude. Become well-versed in your company’s supports for mental health so you can provide information about resources for additional help.

The Tale I Want You to Tell

While Covid has undoubtedly created some stressful, traumatic realities for all of us, there are some reasons to feel optimistic.

The quote by Dickens at the very beginning of A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind as I conclude this piece:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Don’t his words truly summarize where we are at, right at this time? Covid has forced so much upon us—so much stress and uncertainty, and yet so much possibility too. We are trying to marry two very different workplace scenarios; one that existed pre-pandemic, and the one that is being reimagined, crafted, and trialed as we speak.

As a leader, what you do now really does matter. Your response to people, how you listen, how you emphasize, how much you prioritize positive mental health (and model it yourself!), how you offer flexible solutions… this all speaks to what kind of organization you are building, and where you and your team are headed.

When all is said and done, what is the workplace tale you want to tell?

Will it be the story of how—when so many employees were leaving—yours wanted to stay?

Make it be the story of how you sought to become the best type of leader for your team, during one of our very worst, and most unusual, times.

Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

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