Bring hybrid to life in your organization by applying smart systems and change principles
As organizations grapple with how to institute flexible, hybrid work arrangements in their operations and offices, we’re seeing different philosophies and tactics emerge.
Take Snowflake, a cloud data-analytics company. Its CEO, Frank Slootman, announced that company leaders saw an “opportunity” from the pandemic to rethink its workplace strategy. They decided to abandon its corporate headquarters building and retool as a globally distributed, remote-first workforce.
By contrast, Goldman Sachs’ CEO, David Solomon, called remote work an “aberration,” and said he wants to see workers back in the office.
Apple declared a middle ground with a new hybrid policy in which employees will return to the office three days a week, with the option to work remotely twice a week. Yet the day after Apple CEO Tim Cook announced the new policy, dozens of Apple employees wrote an open letter to him to voice their displeasure, asserting that the policy forces people “to choose between either a combination of our families, our well-being and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple.”
For many organizations, short-term planning about post-pandemic work arrangements may be missing the larger, more profound conversation about what work could look like in the years ahead, and how to prepare wisely and creatively for it. In addition, leaders risk overlooking how near-term actions are interconnected and how they will play out over time. A smart systems and change approach is called for.
Before describing components of such an approach, let’s consider both the challenges and the opportunities that are surfacing from the forced experiment of remote work and its aftermath, and larger trends that are emerging. Here’s a short recap of recent research:
The challenges: A sampler
- Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index found that business leaders are out of touch with their employees, who feel companies have been asking too much of them during the remote-work period. While productivity has been high, workers are exhausted. Generation Z, especially, risks disengagement and needs to be re-energized. Additionally, reduced collaboration across teams during the pandemic has hampered innovation.
- Studies such as those by the Sydney Business Institute found that leaders have needed to demonstrate new and different skills during this period—more empathy, openness, resilience, communication, and building psychological safety for employees.
- Another Microsoft report found that, among other issues, workers have had to attend more meetings, work longer days, confront digital overload, attend to childcare challenges, manage social isolation, and more. There are societal implications, too, such as a shift to more freelance labor and a risk of increased systemic inequalities for workers and their families.
- A Deloitte study revealed work-related stresses from COVID that have strained many women’s relationships with their employers, meaning organizations may be at risk of losing their female workforce.
- McKinsey research found that because of the pandemic, more employees are asking fundamental questions about whether their jobs are right for them and what should they do for a living.
- Business leaders have had to confront potentially outdated mental models about work and productivity, which Gartner has characterized as the “seven myths” about hybrid.
- More broadly, technology is changing work itself: According to McKinsey, 50 percent of today’s work activities could be automated by 2025.
The opportunities in this time of transition
- McKinsey argues that the pandemic has created “profound and immediate changes to how societies and how individuals interact at work.” They assert that CHROs and other leaders “should do nothing less than reimagine the basic tenets of the organization.”
- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that “Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly—collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”
- Gartner argues for a reinvented employee value proposition for higher impact, “Defined around people, not employees. Designed to provide an exceptional life experience, not just employee experience. Delivering features and feelings that match employee needs, not just offering features.”
- Researchers at MIT assert that “Companies that invest in the right experience for their people, and make sure they are ready for the future, tend to outperform their competitors.” At the same time, “Leaders also need to consciously address transitions themselves to help their employees adjust to shifting roles, acquire new capabilities, and manage emotional energy to navigate change and uncertainty.”
- Deloitte calls for the emergence of an “adaptable organization,” which represents “a fundamental shift in operating and management philosophy that enables large-scale global organizations to operate with a start-up mindset and drive modern people practices that enable enterprise agility through the empowered networks of teams.”
- IBM’s Thought Leadership Institute reports that “Over the past few years, we have moved toward a tipping point where enterprises across the world have looked to leverage technology holistically to transform their business models. … Organizations across all industries are seeking to become technology, platform, and experience companies.”
An exciting, head-scratching time
These findings and arguments tell us that:
- This may be an opportune time for your organization to ask big questions about how it wishes to operate.
- Decisions about hybrid and the future of work are complex.
- The actions you take will connect to and affect many others.
- There are many unknowns, and surprises await.
- It’s a great time to experiment.
In other words, hybrid and considerations about the future of work have many of the hallmarks of complex, emergent systems. As such, it’s valuable to bring a systems mindset and corresponding change methods to how you think, decide, and act—even in the near term.
Applying systems and change intelligence to the puzzle of hybrid
Here are some systems considerations as you look ahead and plan:
- Recognize the interrelationships and complexities. Approach any decision related to hybrid with the understanding that a choice in one realm (say, how you’ll handle dispersed meetings) will reverberate in others (employee engagement and knowledge sharing, to name just two). Related systems principle: Systems are complex, with many interdependent components.
- Don’t overlook how your decisions may play out over time, and how unintended consequences may appear. Short-term decisions and actions may yield immediate impacts: A policy mandating that workers be in the office three days a week will drive new behaviors as soon as it’s enacted. Over time, however, the policy could spawn dissatisfaction among certain employees, who may then leave the company, resulting in organizational talent gaps and higher talent-replacement costs. Systems principle: Time is an important element in any system.
- Be deliberate in identifying specific actions that could benefit the whole system. Here’s an example: As your organization ponders hybrid decisions, increasing the transparency and frequency of communication from top leaders can increase goodwill among all employees. In turn, workers may view the organization as a positive place to work and remain engaged even during uncertainty. Systems principle: A few well-focused actions can alter a system.
- Make the purpose of your system clear and known. If the system you design for hybrid has a purpose focused on controls and policies, then that is what it will achieve and sustain. If you create a hybrid system that is intentionally fluid and adaptable, then the system will support and reinforce those attributes. Systems principle: All systems seek to achieve some purpose.
Here are change recommendations and principles that may help you:
- Treat the changes you will make concerning hybrid mostly as experiments. Hybrid is largely new territory for organizations, with many unknowns. Embrace this. Make changes that are more conditional or temporary, and then learn and recalibrate regularly. Adapt your change goals accordingly. Change principle: Apply appropriate change tactics depending on whether the focus is more on experimentation or execution.
- Involve stakeholders in co-creating the changes, where possible. By doing so, you’ll find they’re more invested in the process and the outcome, and you can achieve greater collective adoption of the changes. Change principle: Change is most successful when those affected have a hand in shaping it.
- Address the multiple levels of changes that will be required. Given the systems complexities related to hybrid, treat this as a systems-change project. The Water of Systems Change, by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge, is an excellent framework to help you know where to focus. Incorporate the article’s six factors as you plan your changes. Change principle: Systems change is more complex and has unique requirements.
The emergence of hybrid work arrangements, coupled with concurrent technological innovations, signal a potential sea change in organizational work. They bring substantial complexities and opportunities. Look at both head on, and apply systems and change intelligence to guide you as you bring hybrid to life.
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