Perhaps the single most telling reality of the new normal is how much power employees across industries and around the world have accumulated. Or, perhaps far more accurately:
How comparatively willing contemporary employees are to use their accumulated power these days … to get what they feel they deserve.
It was just a little more than two short, tumultuous years ago when most of the workforce left home (pretty much every day) to go to work, then later left work to return home. While I have never been one who subscribed to the notion that you could “leave your work problems at work … and your family problems at home,” separate venues did offer the opportunity for most of us to compartmentalize those dynamics (at least a little!).
Being forced into a configuration where we had no other option but to work remotely for an extended period turned out to be the unintended source of the power employees discovered. If nothing else, people had time to reflect and, in so doing, figure out if they were on the right path in life, the path that was best for them and those they cared most about.
Post that reflection and when it came time to figure out what the new normal was really going to look like, there were some surprises in store. As a McKinsey report published late last year made clear that executives and employees had decidedly different perspectives.
More than 75% saw the workforce returning to the office for three or more days a week. In full acknowledgement of the surprisingly effective results produced by a work-from-home workforce in forced circumstances, they reasoned that employees longed to return and revive organizational culture every bit as much as they did. They were resigned to the notion that the new normal would feature increased levels of creative accommodation but would not be noticeably distinguished from prepandemic times.
In marked contrast, more than 75% of employees stated almost the opposite. In general, and with everything they had been through, employees overwhelmingly preferred the option to work from home (if it made sense for them to do so) and differed on the number of days per week they would consider reasonable for in-office presence. The net-net, bottom-line conclusion was that employees would in large part define their workplace experience by flexibility, inclusivity and a sense of belonging. These were no longer “nice to haves.” These quickly became employee-driven conditions of employment (reference anything out there on “The Great Resignation”).
The leadership-related implications were (and continue to be) vast. An inclusive hybrid culture that cultivates a true sense of belonging is “messy.” Productivity targets (i.e., the “what”) remain well-defined and ambitious. Mobilizing and engaging the people on your team to make progress against those targets (i.e., the “how)” has become something altogether different.
For example, the number of days per week the members of your team spend in the office is probably the easiest metric to track, but it almost certainly isn’t the most important. In Situational Leadership® terms, present day leaders need to facilitate alignment with their teams around complex factors that are unique to the team (the “how”) in the context of the work to be done (the “what”) to define a hybrid reality that makes the most sense for all.
Here are but a partial list of questions that merit consideration for leaders in that regard:
- Which tasks can be performed on time and to standard regardless of proximity?
- Which tasks favor in-person performance compared to virtual and vice versa?
- How can I as a leader offer a similar level of direction, collaboration or empowerment to the members of our team regardless of their proximity?
- How can those working remotely feel as connected and valued as those working in the office?
- Do we as a team need to come together periodically to renew our sense of work-related focus?
- If so, how often?
- What adjustments in my approach as a leader need to be made to accommodate virtual contributors more effectively?
If nothing else, the new normal has reminded us that leaders are the force in organizations that both recognize—and mobilize—the power that resides in others.