Examining The Gains And Losses Of Our Changing Work Environment

(Forbes published this article in the early summer and I am posting it here because the strategies are evergreen.)

Organizational life has changed. Yet even with a global pandemic and a broken economy, the world keeps on “worlding.” In addition to the threat to public health, the disruption to our livelihood and our businesses is challenging many millions of us around the world. We have changed how we work and lead. Our work lives in this liminal space is worth examining. Here are a few observations and recommendations worth noting.

Get On Video Selectively

It’s times like these when we reflect on what we miss the most. Meeting informally is one of those things.

Virtual work has seen leaders taking on extra effort to seek out conversations that would have occurred by happenstance at the coffee machine, the work lounge, around the ping pong tables and in private offices. Now, everyone’s calendars are filled with back-to-back videoconferences on Zoom. Need to address a problem? Schedule a Zoom meeting. Initially, many raved about Zoom calls because they enabled remote video contact, but now, I’ve heard people in my network complain about how exhausting it is to go from Zoom call to Zoom call. It’s a better idea to ask yourself if a voice call is needed, if video needs to be on or if an email should be sent. Use videoconferences selectively. It’s not the only way to make connections among people.

Book Time Of Your Own

One client company of mine instated a 30-minute, meeting-free zone, organization-wide. It was communicated by the CEO, who is doing what can be done in a hurried, emergent environment to ensure people’s well-being. It’s a recognition that in addition to the loss of informal time, we are forfeiting alone time to think.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that we’ve idealized extroversion and teamwork, and this new “groupthink” has left leaders with not nearly enough time to reserve thinking of their own. I see this in my work, too, across all industries. This 30-minute respite is a useful directive and experiment.

Pooling Collective Intelligence Is a Smart Way Forward

A lot has been written about top-down leadership as the most suitable style for urgent situations. Overlooked, though, is the expanded role a more decentralized model of leadership can offer. The emergency situation is exposing and, in some cases, exacerbating company vulnerabilities that require far more mind trust than the senior team can provide.

The same client company I discussed above seized the opportunity to engage its employees in adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those that can’t be solved by experts. They require courageous creative thinking. Crowdsourcing models such as these develop people’s strategic thinking abilities so that many more can make sizable contributions. And the proposals are far more considered since the crowdsourcing process encourages radical ideas where diverse perspectives are sought out and heard.

Taking on truly transformative ways of working by addressing challenges frees up the senior team to see the big picture by encouraging large-scale transformation and innovation thought through by others. This leaves the senior leaders to fly at 43,000 feet, the altitude at which a commercial passenger airplane flies safely at its maximum speed.

Team Retreats Reimagined

Once considered a luxury for some who viewed off-sites as time away from getting things done (or, at least, many had low expectations of what could be achieved), retreats are now seen as invaluable. And that’s a very good thing. Now, these retreats have urgency driving their agenda. Done remotely, the logistics of navigating time zones isn’t always easy, but it can be done. The previous model of a few full days away is now being replaced by two to three-hour multiday retreat sessions in home offices or people’s living rooms. It’s a recognition that in-person human hours are not the same as Zoom hours. Shorter bursts of meetings are far more productive than one long stretch when you are online.

Work In Unity

Leaders who are clients of mine have also reported less infighting, and fewer impasses caused by intractable disagreements. Not all senior teams are acting harmoniously, no doubt, but early reports of reaching agreement following a rigorous exchange are telling. There’s nothing better for business continuance than when people are driven by a common purpose.

Looking to what’s happening around the world also reveals countries shifting from discordant divisions across political party lines to a unified voice. Canada is showing a common front against the virus even though the ruling government party finds itself in a minority situation. And in Europe, there are calls for unity. There’s even an appeal for a global ceasefire endorsed by the United Nations while the virus rages. In time, we will know if this will have an enduring effect.

What are the long-term effect of these changes, and will they stick when the emergency situation is over? It seems to me that it depends, in part, on how long this lasts. The duration of the crisis, the reason for all the changes we are making at work, will decide for us whether returning to how we did things is even feasible. We want to be deliberate about processes and practices so that we choose wisely what we want to keep, and we discard the bad practices that were bred out of speed and desperation and evolve them so they are better.

A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com. Credit to the beautiful photo goes to Elana Mozhvilo.

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