While the pandemic may not signal the end of the physical office for all industries and companies, it has certainly introduced and confirmed that some work can be done from the comfort of our homes
COVID-19 has, in many ways, indelibly altered the world. Even when we go back to the ‘new normal’, the pandemic’s impact will forever remain etched into our individual and collective memories, with some aspects of life we once took for granted now open to new ways of doing things.
One of those will be the workplace. While the pandemic may not signal the end of the physical office for all industries and companies, it has certainly introduced and confirmed that some work can be done from the comfort of our homes, and that being physically present in the office is not always possible.
As the Delta variant strain has shown, lockdowns, despite what we hoped in 2020, are not yet in the past. As governments around the world race to vaccinate as many people as possible, it remains unclear whether that action alone will enable us to again move and work freely.
This restricted mobility poses many problems for organizations, who are seeking to both support their employees during a difficult period, while also creating environments that drive high performance.
For many companies, the sudden move to a predominantly online workforce has accelerated the need to adjust their thinking around achieving high performance, which includes more clearly articulating organizational values and goals, prioritizing work that delivers the greatest value and allowing people to do what they need to get the work done.
Be willing to experiment and adapt to new ways of working
Until recently, research has shown that most leaders and companies focus on just one type of tactical performance, or how effectively an organization sticks to its strategy (such as answering the right number of tickets, or following the approved project plan), and neglect a second type called adaptive performance, which values creativity, innovation and grit over box ticking.
As the authors of Primed to Perform point out, experimentation and being able to adapt are key attributes of the new workplace where old metrics, based on face-to-face meetings and visible performance management, often no longer apply.
A recent study has found that while people working from home tend to be less motivated, experimentation (so not focusing solely on tactical work) resulted in a 45-point increase in productivity and performance. The problem is, during crisis times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations tend to double down on enforcing tactical work as a means to regain some semblance of control, which not only stymies motivation but also creates a barrier to creativity.
Experimentation can take many forms and is, by definition, open to chance and interpretation. A good way to approach this is through fostering a leadership mindset that clearly articulates the company vision and strategic priorities, but allows employees the autonomy to do what they need to reach them.
Try to understand each employee’s working style and difficulties during this time
Over the past year, people have been worried about losing their jobs, paying their mortgages and rent and protecting their health. These economic and emotional pressures are only exacerbated by the barrage of negative news, questions on how to safely get groceries, trying to cope with lockdowns, home-schooling, fears for relatives and a range of other issues.
These emotions and experiences need to be reflected in the way leaders interact and manage their employees, which means actively shifting to a focus on empathy, employee engagement and providing support for employees.
That doesn’t necessarily mean providing everyone with unlimited leave or scaling down work or expectations for deliverables. Not everyone needs, or even wants, a break from work all the time, and some people find solace in work. This is where aligning on behaviours becomes important, as well as taking the time to understand people’s individual circumstances.
It also means checking in on your employees more, but not too much. As this recent Wall Street Journal article points out, meetings are multiplying as managers look to check in and offer bite-sized performance feedback sessions in a bid to keep their workers motivated and engaged.
The problem is, in many cases these ‘check-ins’ have become “some bosses’ version of micromanaging, a way to keep tabs on workers they don’t trust”, as well as a means for well-meaning managers to try and help their employees through a tough phase. Sometimes, caring more means saving a worker from another Zoom meeting.
Provide appropriate challenges and meaningful work, and don’t forget play
There are three positive motivators that lead to increased work performance: one is play, which most boosts performance. This can include anything from having a brainstorming session with a colleague over lunch or coffee to tackling a challenging yet meaningful project.
It’s also important for leaders to continue to reiterate the purpose of the work (such as its impact on colleagues, clients or the company bottom line), which can decline when people are left to work in isolation for too long; as well as making sure you continue to develop people’s potential by offering to train them and actively encouraging people to learn from one another.
There is little doubt we are living through one of the most disruptive periods in recent history. The good news is, we are better off than last year, and many organizations have already begun to learn what works, what doesn’t and what could work, if they only made some changes.
Properly managing remote work can help leaders create a lasting high-performance culture. Making the effort to unite your team around a shared goal and purpose, being more understanding when it comes to people’s individual circumstances and letting people experiment more means creating a culture that is fun, appropriately challenging and yet still directed.