Guest Post by Cynthia Milota, Director, Workplace Strategy, Ware Malcomb

By now most have been invited back to the office with the U.S. “Back to Work Barometers” around 40%, (Kastle, 2022). While the impacts of the pandemic are still unpredictable, the workforce’s perspective on returning to the office is well documented at 2-3 days/week.

What are organizations doing to navigate a path forward?

Hybrid is hard. There are no best practices or road maps for the path forward. People will return to restaurants or the cinema because they are seeking powerful experiences. The same can be said of the return to the office. Employees don’t want to go back to what they had before. They are demanding more.

In this highly volatile environment, common approaches for planning a way forward include:

Mirrors Others in the Industry: copying what other companies doing

Back to the Way it Was: try to turn the clock back to pre-Covid times

Planning Underway: plans delayed due to staff pushback

Paralysis by Analysis: perpetual state of information gathering & scenarios

Slow Forward Moment: pilot options with stakeholder involvement

Festina Lente, the Latin translation of “make haste slowly,” is an oxymoron but in reality, it is the quickest way to accomplish something complicated and emotionally charged.  A slow forward movement maintains a dynamic posture, course correcting based on feedback until the circumstances stabilize and new behaviors are normalized. 

In times of unpredictability or “in any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing and the worst thing you can do is nothing,” (Roosevelt).

Consent decision making, (Nobl), encourages the leadership team to find a potential strategy that is Good Enough for Now & Safe Enough to Try, (Rau, 2022).  It is important to acknowledge that there are few benchmarks for guidance. Trust and adaptability will enable course corrections based on feedback. Workplace change does not demand “first time right” solutions. Non-linear innovative process thinking will eliminate the perception for perfection out of the box.  Piloting and “presenting the change as an experiment,” (Fosslien, Duffy-West, 2021) engages stakeholders,  encourages feedback, and removes the stress of perfection.

Thirteenth century German theologian Meister Eckhart got it right when he wrote “the price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake,” (Quote Fancy, 2021).

In the legendary 1991 Georgia Tech commencement address, Brian Dyson, (Kowalski, 1991) former Coca-Cola CEO identified four glass balls in our lives that can shatter if we drop them:

  • Family
  • Health
  • Friends
  • Spirit

And one rubber ball, that is resilient:

  • Work

As companies explore workplace change, what are the glass balls of their organization? What are the priorities and long-term impacts? What aspects of the workplace plan do not have to be perfect on day one and what factors could be phased in over time?   The responses to these questions will ensure a resilient workplace strategy, (Eblin, 2017).

Another powerful scenario planning tool is the premortem, “imagining that an event has already occurred – increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes…this prospective hindsight helps teams identify risks at the outset… a premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied,” (Klein, 2007).  

Employees want to be heard and informed of their organization’s workplace plans. “Employers must be transparent about policy changes and the impact on employee health…we must be comfortable talking about flexibility, safety and security with our employees and listening to their concerns,” says Scott Gutz, CEO of Monster Worldwide, (Robinson, 2021).

Uncertainty and ambiguity breed anxiety, impacting the employee experience and organizational productivity.   Overly anxious, stressed-out employees are not productive or engaged, (Gino, 2016).  Transparency in communications counters the uncertainty.

Change management is essential in managing messaging, internally and externally. A robust communications plan, even when the process is still being formulated, will build positive employee sentiment and stronger adoption of change.

Disconnection from the office and co-workers due to hybrid work, not only impact productivity, but also mental health, staff mentoring/advancement and social capital, (Robinson, 2021). More agency, choice, and flexibility in how, when and where employees work, will inform workplace transformation planning.

We cannot predict the future of our workplaces, but we can work to create it.  Change is messy. Employee sentiment is fluid. Workplace and “the office” are being redefined.

Cynthia Milota is Director, Workplace Strategy, at Ware Malcomb

Banner photo: ArchLenz Photography

References

Eblin Group, (2017), “How to determine if the balls you’re juggling are rubber or glass,” Retrieved from: https://eblingroup.com/blog/juggling-rubber-or-glass/.

Fosslien, L. & West-Duffy, M., (2021, March) “How to prevent the return to offices from being an  emotional roller coaster,” Retrieved from: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-to-prevent-the-return-to-offices-from-being-an-emotional-roller-coaster/.

Gino, F., (2016, April), “Are you too stressed to be productive? Or not enough stressed?” Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2016/04/are-you-too-stressed-to-be-productive-or-not-stressed-enough.

Kastle, (2022, June) “Office Occupancy Hits New Record High; Barometer Shows Two Consecutive Weeks of Growth,” Retrieved from: https://www.kastle.com/safety-wellness/getting-america-back-to-work/

Klein, G., (2007, September), “Performing a project premortem,” Retrieved from:   https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem.

Kowalski, K., (1991), “The five balls of life: A very short story about balance,” Retrieved from: https://www.sloww.co/five-balls-of-life/

NOBL, “Consent decision making,” Retrieved from: https://thedecider.app/consent-decision-making.

Quote Fancy, (2021), “Meister Eckhart Quotes,”  Retrieved from:  https://quotefancy.com/quote/1023198/Meister-Eckhart-The-price-of-inaction-is-far-greater-than-the-cost-of-making-a-mistake.

Rau, T., (2022), “The liberating effect of ‘good enough for now’,” Retrieved from https://www.sociocracyforall.org/the-liberating-effect-of-good-enough-for-now/

Robinson, B., (2021, September), “The great wait: workers in limbo with delayed return to office plans,”  Retrieved from: .https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2021/09/17/the-great-wait-workers-in-limbo-with-delayed-return-to-office-plans/.

Roosevelt, (date unknown), “Theodore Roosevelt Quotes,” Retrieved from: https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Quotes/In%20any%20moment%20of%20decision%20%20the%20best%20thing%20you%20can%20do%20is%20the%20right%20thing%20%20the%20nex