Leaders worldwide are thinking, planning, and asking themselves a big question. Where will the workforce be located post-pandemic? Will people be back in the office, work from home, or both? Choosing an option and moving on has great appeal, but what if leaders used this transition time to experiment, evolve, and learn? Not only could they know more about their employees, which is reason enough, but they might also design options that aren’t obvious now.
The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration has made it easier for 2.1 million federal workers to continue working from home. Pre-pandemic, only 3 percent of the federal workforce was located remotely on a full-time basis, but during the pandemic, that number ballooned to 59 percent. Federal government employees gave “flexibility high marks in the workforce survey, and many managers concluded that productivity didn’t suffer.” The same for corporations. A survey of 800 companies revealed that productivity was not diminished by remote work, and some reported improvements.
Leaders, quite rightly, feel pressure to decide where people should work is real, but location isn’t the only factor leaders need to think about. Autonomy and flexibility are essential for motivation and creativity, but so is connection. These needs are not met solely by allowing people to choose location, nor are they met by implementing simple tactics, like virtual happy hours.
Three things can help leaders in any organization provide an environment that will allow talented people to flourish.
First, stay abreast of trends but pay attention to people as individuals. A broad understanding of trends in the workplace is essential, no less so than economic trends. Currently, the two are tightly linked. As more companies offer remote work, people have a broader range of options. This, combined with the burgeoning demand for talent, makes it essential that leaders prioritize understanding and connecting with people as individuals. Leaders who do so build trust, and that leads to dramatic results.
Second, understand what motivates people. One senior vice-president, Mike, said, “People are coin-operated.” He couldn’t have been more wrong, and this cynical attitude interfered with his ability to lead until his boss finally forced him into retirement. Fortunately, even though many leaders don’t agree with Mike, they still rely on cursory understanding of motivation.
Leaders can get a good handle on the type of motivation that most want and need from people, intrinsic motivation. External rewards, pay and benefits, are essential and if these are fair, the rest won’t matter. But external rewards aren’t enough to fuel self-motivation; that requires flexibility, growth, and meaning. Flexibility allows people to determine how they work and perhaps was but doesn’t imply that they can independently set their objectives. Growth refers to the opportunity to learn and improve and meaning is a sense that what a person does is significant to a larger goal. Dan Pink’s book, Drive, is an excellent review of the psychological research, explaining it in clear and memorable language.
Third, make experimentation and iteration routine. Leaders have the opportunity to mine the experience of a global pandemic to learn about people and themselves and to make learning and change a natural part of the work. The desire to decide on office, remote, or hybrid work models is understandable. Instead, if leaders approach it as an experiment and create feedback loops, so data flows freely, they will learn in time to make healthy change decisions, not just react to threats.
When leaders define a set of options, as valuable as that is, it can unwittingly narrow their thinking. Thinking of the post-pandemic transition as a time to experiment will enable leaders to gain tremendous knowledge, but it requires curiosity, patience, and courage to avoid consistency for its own sake.