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Until recently, this question would have been nothing more than an entertaining mental meander.
But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 gave us a vivid, real-world instance of precisely this. Life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt. Much of it, anyway.
More to the point, things will not return to the way they were. That’s okay too.
Last year’s sudden COVID impact led to a wide range of negative short-term changes. Now, with the perspective of a year, we’ve seen how some of these changes set the stage for positive future organizational developments.
Whole industries embraced remote work when they were forced into this reality. Remote work drove every organization to embrace new tools and expect new behaviors. For example, there was an immediate, acute shortage of webcams.
And it wasn’t just webcams. Monitors, keyboards, even office chairs became harder to find. All the new work-from-home people bought them in numbers the manufacturers couldn’t have imagined before the pandemic. At the same time, manufacturing plants around the world were closed intermittently or were forced to operate at limited capacity because of coronavirus lockdowns.
We adapted to new professional norms. We figured out how to equip remote workers with the equipment and basic office supplies they used to get from IT or the supply cabinet. Virtual meetings got interrupted by kids who needed help with schoolwork. We learned the names of each other’s pets and we’ve seen the inside of our colleagues’ homes. We’ve become skilled power users of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex and Slack.
All of these adjustments and changes forced us to get comfortable with new workflows and processes. We’ve evolved to work with greater efficiency, and we rely more on technology than ever before. Organizations who identified, planned for, and executed these changes tended to do well. Others may have provided access to new tools but failed to consider how the changes might impact team members. These organizations are more likely to struggle without a clear sense of why.
This oversight reminds me of a business we worked with last summer. This organization supported their employees with top-notch tools and technology. Business operations worked well when everyone was together in one space. But, after everyone became remote, the situation became less than ideal.
Business teams used different technology and tools. The lack of coordination negatively impacted productivity and production efficiency. We were able to help this business assess their key needs, identify the best solutions, and align the entire team around one comprehensive set of tools. Today the team is growing and everyone understands the value of working cohesively with the same tools and technology.
Organizations experienced a high degree of disruption as they developed new processes to attract and retain talent. However, multiple benefits emerged, too.
One positive change is many companies who used to prohibit telecommuting have now realized it’s here to stay. They see the downstream benefits. Now they can recruit the very best candidates, regardless of where they live. Or want to live.
And since employee relocation happens far less often than before, relocation expenses have been reduced. Similarly, when employees don’t work in one central location, organizations are often able to downsize their office space, resulting in significant expense reductions.
Employees enjoy a similar positive benefit. When they can work at home, they can live where they want. They can choose to be closer to family or move to an area with lower cost of living.
When no employees work in a central office, live in-person interviews are off the table. Large organizations have relied on video interviews for a while, and now we see asynchronous interview tools emerging.
In an asynchronous interview, candidates log into a web site, and the hiring company presents them with a series of prerecorded questions. The candidate’s initial interview is the recording of themselves while they answer the virtual questions. This saves a lot of time for the hiring organization, and the consistent interviews are easier to assess. All candidates are asked the same questions the same way by the same interviewers. This method delivers superior information on which companies can base their hiring decision.
Potential employees get to interact with several different company representatives. They acquire a better sense of the organization and its culture. This helps them decide whether the company is a good fit or not.
FarWell has experience with an asynchronous interview process. Our department heads have pre-recorded interview questions. This enables potential employees to virtually “meet” each member of the FarWell leadership team.
After candidates are hired, their first day of work now looks a lot different than it used to. The hiring company will use a new process to ensure employees will have the standard tools and equipment necessary to do their jobs. And, they’ll have to be innovative to find new ways to make employees feel welcome and supported during their first few weeks.
Many steps in the onboarding process can be done online to eliminate cumbersome paperwork. In fact, FarWell now uses a completely paperless onboarding process. If you want to make this digital move in your own organization, you may need to complete process mapping and gap analysis. But the result is good for everybody. It’s faster, more efficient, and it tells the new employees a lot about the organization they just joined.
Team building is hard without shared coffee breaks, team lunches or other physical social gatherings. The random informal interactions that used to occur in breakrooms or hallways seemed minor at the time. They’re actually key building blocks to develop a shared sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps.
Leaders may have an open-door policy, but when there’s no one in the office, it’s difficult for employees to appreciate. All these things matter because they increase feelings of belonging and team cohesion.
Many of our client organizations have developed novel ways to address these challenges. Some have adopted virtual employee gatherings. These are typically Zoom meetings as a substitute for in-person gatherings.
FarWell hosts follow this format for our monthly team lunches. Everyone gathers in a large, virtual room to start the gathering. Groups of five or six are then randomly assigned to breakout rooms. The small group means better discussions with fewer distractions. Team members get to know colleagues they may not have met before and form stronger relationships with them.
We’re also aware of executives who’ve established virtual office hours to replace their open-door policy. They start a Zoom meeting with an open-end time and keep the meeting open when they’re at their desk and not in a meeting. This enables team members to drop in virtually for impromptu conversations.
When most of us worked from a central location, we enjoyed stable physical environments. We had enterprise-class electrical service, commercial-grade HVAC, and reliable network quality. Now, we face consumer-level infrastructure and sometimes maddening technology failures.
Even if there’s decent Internet service at home, it’s still likely to fail occasionally, especially when multiple people in the same household all work remotely and use the same bandwidth. Businesses have to recognize that Internet service interruption and technology glitches will continue to regularly impact employee productivity. Firms should embrace these challenges, and work through them together with employees. It leads to increased empathy and it’s a good way for servant leaders to walk the walk.
Teams need to be more comfortable doing asynchronous or off-line collaboration when there are connectivity interruptions. Cloud-based applications enable different people to work at different times on common documents. Even when systems are down, team synergy can still express itself.
We’ve helped many of our client companies work through remote workforce issues. We’ve dealt with them ourselves, too. We use tools like MS Teams, Smartsheet, Mural, and other collaborative applications. They allow users to access shared documents simultaneously and have work sessions that are just as productive – or even more productive – than they were previously.
Thanks to the rise of working from home, many employees have experienced the feeling of too much connectivity. It’s the perceived pressure to be productive all the time. Before, we had physical distance between the office and home and the office. We were able to disconnect, decompress, and change environments. Literally.
Now, for many of us, home is the office. We can log in to work 24/7 so we feel pressure to be productive all day every day. And thanks to pandemic-related travel restrictions, many employees have had no place to vacation. Unused vacation time builds up and people forego the breaks necessary to relax and recharge.
In this environment, it’s important for companies to encourage their employees to take breaks, disconnect from the work computer, and take a “staycation” if necessary. Just because work is always present doesn’t mean it’s wise or healthy to be at work all the time.
As a leader of an organization, you should encourage your team to take time off. Better yet, model the behavior yourself. Research has shown that a strong active PTO policy creates a positive association with your organization’s culture. It shows people they work for an employer who shares their values and makes them feel supported.
Besides, all work and no play = a direct route to burnout. Overwork can lead to health problems, like heart disease or hypertension, and increased substance abuse. In addition to lost productivity, the longer-term effects can be devastating to employees personally and to your organization.
It’s helpful to reflect on what’s been gained in 2020 because we can see new priorities emerge. The fact is, we have the power to apply what we’ve learned to continue to change our organizations for the better.
We hope to share what we’ve learned alongside our customers with organizational leaders so they too can shine through disruption. If you’re facing uncertainty in your organization because of the pandemic environment, please reach out below.