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What the Great Reimagination Means for the Future of Work

The next generation of employment will not have a one-size-fits-all solution; leaders need to be open-minded as they evaluate options and consider what's best for both employees and businesses.

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The last two years have transformed the working world, causing many organizations across the globe to reimagine and redefine new norms and workforce strategies. During the next 12 to 18 months, PwC reports that more than one in four (26%) executives plan to change their approach in defining “workspace” and one in three (33%) plan to implement a mixed work model, with some in-person full-time, some hybrid and some fully remote. For many organizations, this shift will not be a one-size-fits-all approach, and could vary by teams within an organization, which can create even greater challenges.

More broadly, the pandemic has provided an inflection point for business leaders to consider how to cultivate employee creativity, productivity and satisfaction. If you, like myself, are one of these — someone considering the right approach in defining a new working model — you face tough decisions when it comes to defining how to manage employees and maintaining an engaged, vibrant culture regardless of where they are working. According that same PwC study, as executives face these new realities, 36% of them report that one of their biggest concerns is maintaining culture and engagement; neither are easy feats given the disruption and stress that most individuals have recently faced.

While some engagement initiatives may require more time and investment to carry out, there are readily-executable ways to help a workforce feel supported and stay engaged. At Cengage Group, for example, we recently introduced several initiatives, such as “Wellness Days” that give employees time off to step away from work and recharge, as well as a company-wide “no video” day. These gestures have generated real appreciation, and by trying new things, we are continuously learning what works and what doesn’t when it comes to giving people more autonomy over their professional lives.  

To many, reimagining the workplace may seem like an uphill battle. However, with a growth mindset and an emphasis on learning, it’s possible to make the most of this incredible opportunity to rethink the future. Here is what I have learned recently in our efforts to do that.

Related: 4 Essentials for Employee Engagement in a Remote World

Start by listening

When considering adaptations of the kind mentioned above, resist the urge to shape your strategy on intuition. There is not going to be one easy answer: Take a thoughtful approach by proactively listening to employees at different levels of your organization, and with different perspectives and working situations.  

Also, don’t just rely on qualitative feedback and anecdotes — use data and insights (such as employee satisfaction surveys or live forums) to better understand what employees want and need, and just as importantly, what they do not. By continuously listening in this way, you not only create a more informed approach, but also improve morale and will better retain team members.

For instance, we have a dedicated cross-functional Future Workplace team that provides insight and recommendations to guide how my leadership team and I approach how and where we work. They regularly speak with leaders, people managers and individual contributors within the company, and also keep an eye on what other companies are doing to inform their thinking. Additionally, we have held several all-company First Friday forums on this topic to provide employees an opportunity to ask me and the Future Workplace team questions and share their perspectives.

By using data and creating opportunities for engagement and discussion, you can better understand the needs of your workforce to best foster productivity while maintaining employee satisfaction.

Related: 5 Tips for Effective Workplace Communication

Crawl before you walk, walk before you run

This may seem obvious, but bears repeating: Major decisions that directly impact a staff should not be made in haste. Experimentation is great, but you should not rush into the execution phase too quickly. Instead, take a methodical approach to evaluate and implement new initiatives, and be thoughtful about your intention when committing to something.

This is, admittedly, easier said than done, as we are continuously exposed to attention-grabbing headlines about companies undergoing radical workforce changes like implementing a four-day work week, replacing email with a collaboration tool like Slack, eliminating entire office spaces and more. News like this seeps into the minds of business leaders, and keeps us wondering, “Should we do this, too?” While there are certainly ways of improving and creating a more efficient hybrid workforce, we should not act too quickly on these large-scale efforts without doing research and thinking thoroughly about the implications for both employees and the business.

Take for example one of the most recent attention-grabbing announcements: Iceland recently conducted a study that evaluated the traditional work week, and ultimately proclaimed the overwhelming success of a four-day structure. Yet it turned out to be a bigger undertaking than the headlines let on: Not only did the study take place over multiple years (2015 to 2019), it was also conducted via two large-scale trials of a reduced working week with no reduction in pay. Naturally, people want to zero in on the end result and figure out a way to replicate its success, but first, business leaders must think methodically and realistically as to whether something like this would work.

Related: Why Self-Leadership is Essential to Your Success

While I commend such large-scale trials, smaller steps can also be used to determine if certain activities or processes will work. For example, Salesforce, a global CRM leader, conducted wellbeing surveys to get a better handle on how employees were feeling and how the company could best address the headaches of work-from-home. It used resulting feedback as a guide to develop and roll out a “work-from-anywhere” strategy, giving employees more ownership over their schedules. Dropbox, a file hosting service, took a similar approach before embracing a “virtual-first” strategy. After evaluating data obtained through external and internal research on the shift to remote work, it created a model in which “…remote work (outside an office) will be the primary experience for all employees and the day-to-day default for individual work, while also… facilitate[ing] a cadence of in-person collaboration and team gathering.”

Another area of exploration for companies is offering upskilling and reskilling as a benefit like healthcare or retirement, showcasing an investment in employees’ career development. According to a recent survey by Cengage Group, 78% of U.S. workers who recently quit or plan to quit their jobs said they had taken steps to learn new skills. For many (71%), this meant paying for classes out of their own pockets; less than a quarter indicated that their previous employers had fully paid for such coursework. These educational opportunities can be real assets for professional development, and offering assistance may help companies better attract and retain talent.  

Be open to (and transparent about) failure

When it comes to managing today’s workforce, we are all operating under extreme circumstances, so it’s important to remember that some (maybe all) of the new processes you decide to implement could fail. This statement is not meant to intimidate: Rather, occasional failures should be thought of as an inevitable outcome of trying something new.

And when something does not go according to plan, you may be tempted to try to hide it from employees. I invite you to consider the alternative: Use failure as an opportunity to model transparency with a team, make it clear that errors are inevitable and commit to learning together. Strong leadership is rooted in accountability. If you are willing to be open and honest about what is working and what’s not, you will gain invaluable trust from employees. This trust builds loyalty, and loyal employees remain invested in the success of an organization. 

Related: 3 Tips to Build Trust and Drive Business Transformation

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