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Whither the Workplace End Up?


Photo of team collaborating in person
Image: fizkes -
With return-to-the-office planning in high gear, many workplace strategists are grappling with needing to make decisions today that not only will see employees seamlessly transition from a year of working from home to being completely or partially back onsite throughout the workweek, but also define the experience they’ll carry forward throughout their employment. These are tough enough decisions without the fear of rampant employee discontent, and all that might follow from that, hanging overhead.
For those who are struggling with rethinking their workplaces, Harvard Business School put together a collection of ideas from faculty about how business leaders can “create a new work world that will keep employees both happy and productive post-COVID” because all can agree: “… the workplace as we used to know it, quite frankly, is dead.” Employees now consider remote work to be table stakes and are challenging much other conventional thinking as well, as HBS stated in the article. I culled out a few bits of advice that caught my attention but encourage everybody to dig in and find guidance that resonates for your organization.
  • Optimize the Office for Face Time — Make this a priority, putting structure in place to assure it happens, Julia Austin, founder of Good For Her, a community for women founders, and an executive fellow at HBS’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, shared. As an example, Austin suggested making a team schedule “so the days in the office are most meaningful and focused on connections, both scheduled and serendipitous.” Regarding that serendipity, this requires blocking out time for those on-the-fly connections that foster team culture, she said. And this, she added, is something to make sure happens not only in the office, but also online. Host door’s open Zoom pop-ins, for example, Austin recommended.
  • Beware the “Loneliness Pandemic” — Working from home all the time, permanently, could lead to a “slow-rolling mental health crisis” built out of loneliness, warned Arthur Brooks, professor of management practice. And technology, he asserted, is not the answer for helping employees feel connected. In fact, “in many cases [technology] actually has the opposite effect when depended on as a substitute,” Brooks said. With burnout, turnover, and disengagement likely fallouts from loneliness, he said HR might end up with a real nightmare on its hands. Brooks advised: “What might look like improvement in convenience and efficiency right now may prove in the end to be a Faustian bargain for managers and employees.”
  • Understand the New Employee Empowerment — During this COVID crisis, employers have “publicly and unambiguously elevated their employees’ health and wellbeing to be their highest priority” — and stepping back from that commitment won’t come easy, if at all, Joseph Fuller, another professor of management practice, said. Employees will not be little lambs following their corporate shepherds. Rather, they’ll “expect not only the right to determine the adequacy of workplace safety measures, but also expect employers to consider their individual circumstances, like caregiving obligations, when designing their roles and evaluating their performance,” added Fuller, noting that this “is a major departure from the time-honored definition of the employer-employee relationship.”
I’ve but scratched the surface of the advice coming out of HBS faculty on how best to approach the workplace of the future. Take a look and share your favorite takeaways below.