Leadership is unsure how things will unfold and there is a widespread feeling that the way organisations work needs a structural overhaul
The Future of Work continues to be fuzzy. Organisation leadership is unsure how things will unfold as they experiment with different models, ranging from a three-day-at-office to redesigning the office space itself to mimic a cafeteria-like environment to foster collaboration and innovation, and ensure that new employees get to understand what the company’s cultural values are. But as offices get remodelled and office workers are working in a hybrid model, factory workers continue to be in normal 8-hour shifts. While this is creating a feeling of discrimination, hybrid office work could lead to fall in productivity according to HR professionals.
The Great Resignation has also left leaders hypersensitive to issues of retention and unsure what accommodations, if any, will attract and keep talent. They are also apprehensive about what their competitors are doing. This has a ripple effect: Because of the fear of failure, leaders begin to stumble on issues of inclusion, belonging, and identity. Rather than being bold and adopting an experimental mindset, they are falling back to familiar ways of operating and becoming less empathic to what others want.
Need a structural overhaul
There is a widespread feeling that the way organisations work needs a structural overhaul and that the task of moving forward needs to be worked out by more people than just an organisation’s top leadership. Leaders who have confronted their apprehensions and set about this task of the overhaul have done it by moving through four crucial steps: (i) understanding people, networks, and jobs; (ii) reimagining how work gets done; (iii) modelling and testing redesign ideas against core principles; and (iv) ensuring the overhaul sticks by taking action widely.
A global investment management organisation that invests the assets of the Canadian Pension Plan discovered that during the pandemic, as some people worked from home, the fund reported its highest-ever annual returns of 20.4%. To understand why, they dived into past and current performance data analytics and increased their understanding of the key tasks of significant jobs. They found that in many crucial tasks, what drove productivity was employees’ capacity to focus, in terms of individual thinking, analysing, and writing. It turned out that for these people, being out of a busy office during lockdown was a plus.
There are productivity losses when people are in the office with colleagues coming by their desks every two minutes. So, while redesigning work, they could plan for people working outside of the office without the fear of productivity loss, and indeed plan for probable productivity gains. Because work, people, and knowledge flow differ across companies, it is no surprise that there are no one-size-fits-all answers.
The team’s understanding of focus as a key driver of productivity reduced their fears about pushing for an office-based way of working and enabled them to be imaginative and bold. They began creating opportunities for some employees to work anywhere for three months. This kind of accommodation might not work in all companies, but the link with the purpose of the organisation was strong.
Reimagining the employee contract
Unilever reimagined the employee contract – the set of promises that employers make to their people and increase access to in-demand skills and bring greater flexibility to resourcing options. To do that, the conglomerate reimagined how to enable employees to work for Unilever while also engaging in other activities such as starting a business, travelling, or caring for a family member.
In this model, called U-Work, some employees receive a monthly retainer and earn assignment pay. Importantly, they also get pension support and access to health insurance. Unilever wanted to fill the white space between being a full-time employee and being a contractor or agency worker from a third-party organisation. The company wanted to move from “owning” talent to “accessing” talent and test new ways of working.
A real fear for leaders is that new models of work might be misaligned with the company’s purpose or business strategy. Those who have confronted this fear have explicitly defined their guiding principles and pressure-tested new ideas against them. Accounting software provider Sage faced this task after the company moved its 13,000 employees to be fully virtual in the early months of the pandemic.
Four principles of hybrid work
Once leadership realised the company could operate effectively virtually, the management had to figure out what a hybrid way of working could look like the longer term. In a series of workshops, leaders hammered out four principles to test their new hybrid model of work. They asked how it would impact customer centricity, fairness, human connections, and a spirit of being experimental. For each principle, non-negotiable “red lines” were established. For example, these leaders were explicit about what being customer-centric meant and how hybrid work would have to align to changing customer needs.
The fourth principle was also important. There was nervousness in the system that they would make the wrong choice. So, it was crucial that people felt they could be bold and courageous. One legitimate concern many employees have expressed is that new models of work may end up becoming fads that are never really embedded into the culture of the company or they’ll be discarded at the first sign of a recession or cost cutting. It was discovered that new ways of working were strengthened by a leader’s role modelling; supported by the pivotal role of managers; and launched through a process of co-creation that engages employees in making design choices and defining accountabilities.
Workshops to decide the model
At Sage, the process of redesigning work began with a series of virtual workshops with a multidisciplinary group of employees to understand their needs and aspirations. After looking closely at jobs and the way knowledge flows through the organisation, they took the case for change to the leadership team, including CEO Steve Hare.
Workshops defining the four principles deepened engagement and support throughout the company. Once the basic model was agreed upon – some workers being fully remote, others working hybrid, and a small number either full time in the office or full time in the field – engaging managers was crucial. A series of workshops with them helped create a managerial playbook. At the same time, talking points were developed for leaders to describe how these new work models would positively impact talent attraction and retention while supporting the strategic aim of the business.
Finally, individual managers circled back to their teams to make agreements on details such as when employees would work together in the office and when they would engage in focused work at home. The managers also reached out across their peer networks to support and learn from each other.
There is no doubt that leaders are legitimately fearful of failing in this crucial moment. But they can address these fears by seeing this challenge as a design process to work through as a team. Business leaders to ask themselves three questions: Where are you now on the journey of redesigning work? Are there steps you need to reengage in a more purposeful manner? And are you clear about what your biggest priorities are? The actions leaders take now will create the signature model of work and define the deal the organisation is making with employees and customers.
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