As we gradually recalibrate the parameters of the 2022 workplace dynamic, the question business leaders are really grappling with is this: How do I get the balance right?
On the one hand, many executives want to embrace the possibilities of the brave new world of hybrid working, but on the other, they’re really keen to make up for lost time and re-ignite the collective sense of purpose, belonging and ownership that can often shape the DNA of a successful workforce.
Two years since the start of the global pandemic, it’s fair to say that employers and employees are renegotiating the rules of engagement in real-time. It’s a little bit like a dance move – who leads and who follows? And how do we find the ideal combination to ensure that we’re moving in the right direction?
Based on my recent conversations, the workplace dance of 2022 is far from straightforward. In fact, it often feels like the employer wants to Waltz whilst the employees have started to Samba. We’re all dancing to different tunes at the moment. So, who makes the first move?
The traditional view would be that the more experienced partner, generally the boss, takes the lead. But with ambition, agility, and different skillsets all hallmarks of our talented future leaders, it’s clear that the direction of the dance lies partly in their hands.
Like any partnership, the key to success lies in collaboration, and, for me, this starts with open and honest dialogue – what is the plan and how are we going to make it work together?
When I speak to employers, some of them are telling me they prefer an organic approach (“Let’s see how this develops”), whereas others are keen to make an intervention. There are risks with both – the former could cause frustration or confusion, but the latter could prove divisive or unpopular.
A good example of this balance in action is hybrid meetings with some participants face to face and others remote – do businesses dictate the format of a meeting, either face-to-face or remote, or do they give people the option to choose?
In this case, we need to figure out whether the task is better face to face or equally effective both ways. But either way, the crucial point is to explain why rather than leaving people feeling it’s on a whim. We need to have a reason for every choice, it can’t just be because that is what we used to do pre-pandemic or that “the boss likes it that way”. Staff may not always agree with the rationale, but it will bring more clarity and understanding.
Two other workplace scenarios I’m observing are the “Mirror Effect” where employees are aping the behavior of their boss or line manager to increase their own profile, and the “Last Minute U-Turn” where an employee has planned a day in the office but prompted by workload or efficiency concerns, makes a late call to work from home. We need to manage scenarios like this in a way that can nurture both a healthy culture and a healthy career path.
When addressing all of these questions, it’s important to remember we’re in a quickly evolving situation here – there’s no going back, just as there was no going back in the wake of the Industrial Revolution when it was agreed that the five-day week was the most efficient way for our working lives to function.
Digitalisation has opened up so many more possibilities which allow us to tailor solutions for individual needs – the fact that different jobs have different requirements has been factored into business strategy for a number of years now. A good example is American Express whose Bluework Programme assigns employees to one of four categories – Hub, Club, Home, and Roam. I expect to see more of this in the near future.
The case for a return to the office is powerfully supported by the clear benefits of creativity, collaboration, and learning and development, all of which tend to flourish in an office environment. However, it’s fair to say that claims of these benefits may also be obscuring the fact that leaders want to have a real sense of power and control, whether that be sheer physical presence, or a high spec, immaculately furnished personal office that screams “I’m The Boss!” These are important factors in defining a workplace identity.
None of this is easy and it’s absolutely clear that restarting is a lot more difficult than shutting down. When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, we had no choice but to leave the office. In early 2022 we have arguably too many choices in front of us. By nature, restarting is a more drawn-out process than shutting down and its inevitable missteps will come at a cost, both financially and from a productivity point of view.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how things develop in the coming months and years. For now, all eyes remain on the workplace dancefloor.