Inner Circle Fall 2021: People Plans, Not Office Plans: A Fresh Take on Hybrid Work
For many companies, a return to the office has translated into hours of space planning and policy development. Often overshadowed in this effort are the deeper human needs at play as hybrid work revolutionizes the workplace. How can leaders and managers recognize these emerging needs and help their teams to navigate this turbulent time of uncertainty and transition?
We brought together thought leaders in this space to discuss a more human-centric approach to going “back to the office” and took a fresh look at hybrid work which puts people and possibilities at the center of the conversation.
Hosted and moderated by Nick Hobson, Head of Behavioral and Data Sciences, Potential Project, November’s month’s panel cast featured:
- Payal Sahni Becher, Executive Vice President and CHRO, Pfizer
- Ali Fenwick, Ph.D., Professor of OrganizationalBehavior and Innovation, Hult International Business School
- Jacqueline Carter, Partner and North AmericanDirector, Potential Project
The conversation focused on the human needs that are emerging with new hybrid work models, the perceptions and the realities of remote work, the role of culture and corporate values and how they can help employees to feel good about new working models and remain engaged with their companies; and the most important shifts that leaders need to make in how they lead their teams now.
Perceptions and Realities of Remote Work
There’s been a lot of speculation and research done around productivity and remote work. Are people more, or less, productive while working at home? The answer depends largely on who you ask, and views are conflicting. Our conversation here suggests that there are vacillating levels of productivity, influenced by a variety of different factors.
For Payal and her team at Pfizer, these considerations were already underway prior to the start of the pandemic.At that time, employees were expected to be in the office 2-3 days per week, and beyond that could pick from where they worked. But things escalated when nearly 80% of the Pfizer workforce went remote.
“Three things that were paramount for us throughout the pandemic were to lead with the safety of our people, maintain supply continuity for our patients, and to help come up with a solution to globally combat this pandemic.” All of the business’s activities were focused around making sure that these three priorities were taken care of.What they found was that a lot of employees appreciated the freedom and flexibility, and the ways that their work/life balance has changed as a result.
But in tandem with the upsides of more flexibility and freedom, employees also started to express the negatives to being stuck at home with conflicting work and home life responsibilities.The question for Payal and her team became, How do we quickly give people globally the permission and opportunity to still do their work with these new and conflicting responsibilities? Their answer was to give people more ‘grace and space,’ and support in finding new and creative ways to manage it all.
AtPotential Project, our data paints a similar picture. According to Jacqueline, at the beginning of the pandemic we saw employee engagement scores increase, because people felt there was a problem to solve, we knew what we had to do, and it enabled us to dive in. As companies pulled together as a collective “we” and started to centralize around a common purpose, it inspired and motivated employees in new ways.
Yet as we move into this next phase, we still don’t entirely know what to expect. Some people need to be in the office due to the nature of their work, some can be completely remote, and likely the majority will want a reality that sits somewhere in the middle. “The workforce is demanding autonomy,” said Jacqueline, “but it's also demanding connection.”And that’s a tricky balance to strike.
She outlines 3 things that we’re seeing as critical for leaders right now:
1.) Clarity: we need to determine what work needs to get done, how we’ll collaborate to do it, and how we can come together to feel productive and effective in this new reality.
2.) Curiosity: we need to be flexible and agile because we’re not going to get this hybrid work reality right the first time. We need to maintain a level of curiosity to envision and explore a whole host of new and different solutions.
3.) Connection: we need to be intentional about how we show up for each other, so regardless of where we’re working from, we all feel supported.
As Payal said, “We know this is going to have to be the new norm, because all employees are demanding it. And so, businesses have to adjust in order to find the right talent, keep the right talent, and keep them motivated. [Through the pandemic] we figured out that we can actually make this work, it’s just going to take some emphasis and tools.”
The Human Needs with a Hybrid Work Environment
As many of us inch closer to returning to the office in some way, we are all still a bit fragile. In fact, more than ¾ of us are reporting some symptoms of a mental health struggle in the last 18 months.
Based off Ali’s research and findings, this seems to be true. “There's still a difference in reactions to how comfortable or not comfortable people feel working remotely.” Ali has observed some changes in remote workplace behavior, which he calls ‘panic working.’ In a remote environment, people miss out on regular social queues like a smile from a colleague, or a wave across the hall. Without these reminders that we’re doing good work or feel accepted by our peers, we start to look for ways to appear as if we’re doing what we think we should. We work more hours, we send emails from our phones to show we’re never disconnected, and we’re finding all sorts of ways to ‘show up’ so it’s clear we’re committed to our work. What might appear as hyper-productivity is, in reality, our own creation of busy-ness, and these activities can be stress-inducing and not so productive after all.
For Payal and her team, they’ve observed that people really want a change of scenery, a renewed sense of purpose, and something to make them feel reinvigorated. “[At Pfizer,] we have four values: equity, courage, excellence, and joy.” During the pandemic, they focused on Joy. “In order to have joy, you have to have psychological safety, to feel comfortable sharing your ideas, and feel like those ideas are heard.” To support this notion, Payal and her team have really focused on giving their employees as many different experiences as possible. “As you look at the future of work, yes, things are going to change. Jobs are going togo away, but new jobs are going to come. The best thing we can do is get our employees growing and developing, and giving them as many different experiences as possible so that they feel motivated.”
How Culture and Corporate Values Matter
Speaking of employee retention… By now, most of us have heard the term, The GreatResignation. Indeed, close to 4 million Americans are quitting their jobs each month, and 55% anticipate looking for a new job within the next 12 months.And we see this trend happening globally, not just in the U.S.
We asked Jacqueline, ‘What is the role of culture and values here and do they hold the key to changing employees’ minds about staying with an organization?’
“Culture is king,” she said, “and values enable us to have a common North Star in terms of understanding how we want to show up, and what’s important to us.” This is really a time for leaders to unlearn leadership habits of the past, and to relearn being human. One positive that came out of the pandemic was that many leaders were somewhat forced to show more humanity and vulnerability, and that’s had a humanizing affect for many people. It also creates a sense of psychological safety to know that the people you’re working for are humans, just like you. Vulnerability draws people in and makes them feel better accepted and understood. Culture is not created by the solitary leader, it’s created collectively by teams that are unified around one common goal.
Ali also shared his perspective on this topic. “With things changing outside so rapidly, we need to find ways as leaders to find ways to connect more from within.”Values are so important not in just attracting new talent, but in keeping talent within your organization. Many in today’s workforce are looking to make an impact with their work, and truly seeking purpose. A company’s values can contribute in great ways to finding that purpose. With defined values and a sense of purpose at work, people feel more committed and productive — work becomes much more than just a paycheck.
The New Role of Leaders
To wrap things up, we asked Jacqueline, ‘What do you see as the most important shifts that leaders need to make in how they lead their teams now?’
“We need to choose optimism,” she said. “Our people are looking for us as leaders not to have all the answers, but to create hope.” People don’t want their leaders to say they’ve got it all figured out, because we all know that’s not true. They’d prefer to hear. I don’t have all the answers, so let’s figure it out together.
Jacqueline also thinks we need to look at what we can do as leaders to be more practical about expectations.How can we simplify work for our people who are overwhelmed and exhausted? What kinds of little things can we do to help people feel like they have more control, better boundaries, clearer timelines, and more opportunities for care and connection?
A participant asked, do you have any creative thoughts for attracting talent in the face of the great resignation?
“Be flexible,” said Payal. “Show people they’re joining a company that cares for them. Highlight your resources that are beyond just the work.” Flexibility is critical, but so is a sense of belonging, the ability to grow, and the space to truly have a voice. People need to feel like they have a sense of control and that they can take ownership over their work.“And if you haven’t as an organization provided a lot of support more proactively around mental health and wellness, you should do so.”
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