This is not a drill. It’s time to put a plan in place for the Next Normal.
With COVID-19 the world of work fundamentally changed. We don’t yet know what life will look like once the virus is under control, but we know that the way we move forward will not look like it did pre-March 2020.
For ScaleUp leaders who are trained to identify business goals, assess the facts, weigh up the hurdles, and create execution plans, the goal posts have moved and there are very few known facts to use for decision making.
Nevertheless, this is the time for leaders to step up and plan for the future in spite of the uncertainty.
Since March, companies have been working on “temporary solutions”, taking “interim actions;” CEOs have postponed important decisions, effectively stalling meaningful longer-term planning. Without clear direction, companies are rudderless, productivity will wane, and culture will slowly erode. To tackle ambiguity leaders must set long-term direction and bolster it with values. As we enter the fourth month post-pandemic, it’s time to stop assuming that work will “go back to normal,” and instead, create a new workplace that can flex and operate in the “next normal.”
Ambiguity is the enemy of accountability
So, how do CEOs and leaders prepare for the unknown? How do you move forward in spite of the uncertainty?
“If you do nothing there will be no results” – Mahatma Gandhi
As remote work, or “WFH” (Work From Home), status nears the 100-day mark, the daily debate inside and outside of Slack or Teams is “when can we go back in the office?” and revert to normal. The ambiguous WFH status of employees is wasting productive time, delaying projects from starting and muddying long term planning. It also builds anxiety because people can’t make personal life decisions. Limbo is dissatisfying.
Remote work is here to stay
The discourse around remote work has been around for two decades and its popularity among employees has been rising, even as most companies have dragged their feet towards adoption. In the tech world, IBM and Yahoo infamously allowed employees to work remotely, only to renege on that decision within a year or two, citing lower productivity and negative impact on culture.
COVID-19 has forced an absolute scenario, bolstered by cloud-based software solutions and ubiquitous bandwidth. The giant (unplanned) experiment has worked and demonstrated that flexible work environments are feasible. The temporary transition to a virtual office has proven the long-term efficacy of a flexible work operating model.
Prior to March 2020, only 29% of Americans who could work remotely, did so. Currently, 65% of Americans WFH, and do so effectively. Multiple reasons exist to assume that going back to normal is not the best option for employers. First, safety and security of employees is paramount, and WFH protects colleagues from potential exposure to the virus. Second, 80% of employees consider WFH a perk, and 95% of employers say that WFH has a high impact on employee retention. Third, in a post pandemic world, WFH can dramatically help businesses reduce unscheduled absence to care for family members. Fourth, software and systems support productive WFH and collaboration tools support effective teamwork. Finally, WFH has strong bottom line ROI: talent can be recruited from anywhere, and less office space lowers real estate costs.
WHF is not temporary, rather it’s a permanent component of the office of the future. Tech companies – Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter – were the first to send their employees home as the virus spread to the U.S. Now they're saying that employees might never go back to being in the office full time.
Embrace the "next normal"
Since this is a permanent (albeit tectonic) shift, in which WFH will comprise some component of everyone’s working week, here’s how to prepare for it.
1) Implement a firm-wide policy
With 100% WFH, every employee, from CEO to intern, experiences the same work environment. Policies that lay out WFH guidelines will transition the in-office norms to WFH norms. A policy could be viewed as a constraint to employee freedom, but it can also be extremely liberating, particularly for young and new employees seeking to understand expectations and norms.
What’s the positive? WFH is now democratized. Previously remote work and flexibility was a privilege for tenure or to those who had “proven” themselves, rather than something afforded to all equally.
What’s the plan? By implementing a policy that builds in WFH and flexibility, employees and teams will know what parameters to work within. Without guidelines, WFH days or flexible schedules are so ambiguous that most employees don’t use them effectively. Mapping out what’s acceptable, what tools and systems should be used, and who employees can lean on for WFH support, will set your teams up for success.
2) Corporate culture will make or break a business
A crisis always tests values and culture, no more so than when employees are remote. What leaders say and do during difficult times is scrutinized by employees and customers alike. Leaders that remain true to the company’s values and purpose emerge stronger, stakeholders that positively experience the company’s culture-in-action remain loyal and supportive, even during rocky times.
What’s the positive? The current situation provides an opportunity for ScaleUp leaders to assess and reaffirm the core values and principles that support the company’s mission. What worked as a startup, may need to change as a ScaleUp, and may change further as in WFH/ flexible location scenario. Leaders have an opportunity to go back to the company’s culture building blocks and bring them to the forefront.
What’s the plan? Calibrate proposed actions through the lens of company culture. Difficult decisions (like layoffs) can be made transparently and with appropriate human compassion. Communication must be deliberate and frequent. Whatever your culture, now is your chance to be deliberate about living it, to re-introduce it and to adapt it to a new reality.
3) Rethink employee performance metrics
In a traditional office environment, we subconsciously put importance on face time, using a visual scan of who’s still in the office and allowing that to color our opinion of who is working hard, rather than who is working efficiently. This crisis has pulled people together, engendering an all-hands-on-deck attitude across the workforce. The new collaboration can be the foundation for measuring success through outcomes, rather than office face time or office politics.
What’s the positive? Teams have reprioritized what needs to get done to protect and grow the business, along with prior notions of how and where it must be done.
What’s the plan? In a WFH environment, output is the best measure of success. This allows employees to create a work week that works for their lives. By empowering individual work styles and increasing transparency on metrics and output you will enable individual autonomy, while keeping the all hands-on-deck stance.
4) Internal communications must have a seat at the table
A formal internal communications program is not typically present in ScaleUp companies. In the next normal, a distributed workforce will live and die on communications. Strong communication has two components: make information accessible to all, and make it consistent.
What’s the positive? Physical separation from our teams has thrust communication into the spotlight. The unprecedented pace of change has been balanced with increasingly frequent communications – and these have been lauded by everyone.
What’s the plan? Commit to continued high-velocity communication. It’s not temporary: weekly global standups, bi-weekly business updates from the CEO and company-wide trainings are here to stay. At Insight we hear that teams feel more connected than they did before. Leaders can formalize a cadence of internal communications and plan for the technologies needed for when a hybrid in-office and remote environment is the norm. This must include a firm-wide hierarchy of communications, e.g., formalize what should be a short message or shoutout, and what should be a firm-wide update. Also ensure all communications are captured and available for future review.
5) Prepare to turn your office into a destination
Building out an office space is one of the key considerations – and expenses – for ScaleUp CEOs as their company grows. An office is a place to collaborate, build culture, and host customers, investors and candidates. It exudes the company’s personality and culture.
What’s the positive? If an office’s primary reason for being isn’t a physical space for people to work, now is the time to reimagine what it needs to be for your business. Office space is no longer simply a home for desks.
What’s the plan? Reducing office footprint will save money. Repurposing the reason to be in the office will evolve your business. If ScaleUp leaders transform some office space into an innovation lab for client collaboration, an experience center for the sales team, or a tech-forward telepresence meeting room engineered for teamwork, they are creating a pull for remote workers to want to come into the office. While team members will no longer do mundane day to day work at an office desk, they will begin to view the office as a valuable tool for selling, showcasing product, meeting clients and turbocharging collaboration. The office needs to be a destination and embodiment of culture that’s tangible to people.
6) Invest in management and leadership training
As young software StartUps mature into ScaleUps their hungry, scrappy, sometimes inexperienced, teams step up to take on leadership and management duties as the company grows. These individuals typically keep up their personal output and tactical ownership of tasks, while juggling team management. COVID-19 has reinforced that being a great manager takes time, and managers need to have the space in their day to lead.
What’s the positive? No matter what the work environment, leaders will find a way to drive their team forward, however, a remote and hybrid workforce is new for leaders – even the most experienced of managers.
What’s the plan? Identify your leaders and invest in thoughtful management training and upskilling with the workplace of 2022 front of mind. Remote management, hiring, onboarding, creativity – prepare leaders to thrive in the next normal of hybrid teams, online collaboration, zoom facilitation and remote feedback.
There is no magic button that will take us back to January 2020. Our lives and work environment have irrevocably changed. The interim steps we took 90 days ago are transitioning to a permanent “next normal.” Leaders need to embrace this emerging reality and move forward to minimize ambiguity. We need to make decisions, plan and act knowing that the environment will continue to evolve, but even so, remote work – both the good and the bad of it – is here to stay.