On March 11, we passed the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. One year of isolation, rolling lockdowns, and, for many, working from home. One year in which the resilience of businesses, communities, individuals and families was tested.
Stepping into the pandemic’s Year Two, however, there’s light on the horizon. Every day more people get vaccinated. Though COVID variants remain a problem, we can finally see a day, sometime in the fall perhaps, or slightly beyond, when normal life starts to return.
But will it ever be the same? It’s hard to imagine that it will. Seismic events like a once-in-a-hundred years pandemic tend to leave their mark. It seems fitting that as we head into the post-pandemic future, we look back and reflect. What have we learned? And how can we do better?
When it comes to business and the workplace, there is no question the events of 2020 have had a dramatic effect. It wasn’t just the pandemic — the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have permanently altered the conversation around race, diversity and inclusion.
So, where do we go from here? One thing is for sure: The benefits and challenges of the massive shift to remote work has businesses now considering what a return to normal might look like. And on a larger scale, firms are grappling with their role to drive social change in areas of sustainability and equity, diversity and inclusion.
Here, Smith School of Business alumni leaders weigh in with their thoughts on the future of work in four key areas: leadership, teamwork, diversity and inclusion, and technology and office. We hope you find inspiration in their ideas.
The fact is, we can build back better. Let’s start right now.
Leadership: Explore new avenues for employee bonding
Co-founder and president, Clearco (formerly Clearbanc)
During the pandemic, companies were forced to become fully remote. Then, they realized that their employees were equally, if not more, productive. Take my company, Clearco for example. We had an in-the-office-all-the-time kind of culture. We didn’t believe in a remote environment. As a fast-growing startup, it was important to have everyone together in the same place, problem-solving and brainstorming. The pandemic proved us wrong. Turns out, we can be a successful remote team.
But now the new challenge is, how do companies help their teams build the bonds that were previously created from casual conversations and interactions in the office? At Clearco, we practise “Radical Candor”—bestselling author Kim Scott’s management philosophy on caring personally while challenging directly. The truth is, it’s hard to give difficult feedback if you haven’t made a personal connection.
Organizations working remotely will need to find a new way to simulate the more social conversations that naturally occurred in the office. I predict that global offices will spend more time doing internal retreats and conferences a couple of times a year so employees can build those bonds. Just as we used to travel to conferences to network with people outside the company, now we will travel to meet the colleagues we speak to every day — but have never met in person.
Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Create a future-forward talent management strategy
Founder and CEO of Divercial Group
A year after the world went virtual, it’s no surprise that most employees prefer working remotely (or at least having the option to do so). There are obvious benefits, but remote work presents challenges for talent management and equity.
Equity is created by establishing a diverse, equal, and inclusive workplace. While each organization has different starting points, companies that want to be future-forward ready should consider these questions when re-imagining what their workplace will look like:
How diverse is your organization? Diversity goes beyond standard characteristics such as ethnicity and gender. Companies should focus on how to make their employee base more diverse in ideology, education, geography and socio-economic backgrounds, for instance. Research has proven that truly diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams. Hence, the first step is to avoid groupthink culture.
Does everyone have equal access to opportunities? Unfortunately (and regardless of physical versus remote environments), talent management tends to invoke biases and subjectivity. Therefore, it is critical to implement an unbiased and data-driven process for promotions and hires. Remote work has influenced organizations to favour internal hires over external hires. It is therefore more important than ever to remove obstacles and systemic barriers for existing employees.
Do employees feel they truly belong? And, can they bring their best and whole selves “to work”? It’s leadership 101 to customize your management style to each employee and understand their behaviours, preferences and drivers. Consequently, employers should offer employees flexibility and create a level playing field despite one’s personal commitments. Further, creating a safe zone with policies on inclusion and mental health — as well as procedures for handling incidents in these areas — will allow employees to feel more comfortable being their authentic selves.
Teams: Hardwire your culture for the “new normal”
Senior director, people services strategy and organizational effectiveness at the Canadian Red Cross Society
What can we expect to outlast the pandemic in the workplace? A few things come to mind: The remote and in-office workforce; flexible schedules; and personalized work experiences. Yes, all that and delivering work faster than ever are here to stay. As we move ahead, the lessons from the last year must be hardwired into company culture. How? Through the design of work, organizational policies and the reinforcement of new management capabilities.
At the Canadian Red Cross, we are doing that. We’re strengthening our employee and volunteer communications through the use of pulse surveys, webinars, and task forces. We are learning that we can unleash capacity by making work easier — evaluating workflows, providing technology, and ensuring role and decision-making clarity.
But there’s more. One workplace capability that I see gaining prominence is organizational network analysis. It can help businesses understand how employees interact with one another and how work gets done. By identifying important connections and barriers in information flow, organizations can be deliberate in building social ties amongst their workforce and increase operational effectiveness.
Additionally, the onboarding experience will need to be redesigned to build team cohesion and create an understanding of cultural norms in a remote workplace. Equity in how opportunities are given and performance is evaluated will also be critical, though challenging for managers. After all, managers may find themselves overseeing both remote and in-person teams. To respond effectively they will need to be intentional in how, when, and with whom they communicate, and how they evaluate performance based on outcomes. Becoming attuned to unconscious bias will help them navigate the challenge.
Tech & Office: Explore how tech can make remote work more human
Co-founder and chief operating officer at Borrowell
Prior to the pandemic, the company I co-founded, Borrowell, had a definite in-person culture. People worked from home occasionally. But most meetings, collaboration and socials were in person.
As a tech company, the move to remote work last year was technically easy. Everyone had a laptop. More challenging, however, was replicating all those unplanned interactions that being in the office afforded. For example: learning through osmosis from colleagues’ conversations; quickly pulling people into a huddle to solve a problem; or getting to know someone over lunch or a walk to the coffee shop.
As we move forward, it’s my belief there will be new and better technology solutions that enable these unplanned interactions, as well as creative collaboration, to happen virtually. At the onset of the pandemic, many organizations had to quickly adopt new communications platforms to maintain organizational efficiency. Moving forward, I encourage leaders to explore ways to use technology to foster a sense of connectedness.
In many ways, working virtually has been great for us at Borrowell. During the pandemic, we acquired a company on the West Coast, so being remote levelled the playing field between us. There isn’t a divide based on whether someone is working in the same office or across screens. But there is still something missing. And while technology might not be able to completely replace in-person interactions, I know we’d all benefit from remote work feeling more personal, more connected and more human.