Return to workplaces starts with thinking outside the digital box

COVID-19 has ushered in an entirely new era of work, workplaces and worker engagement challenges. A recent WorldatWork poll found that 55% of U.S. companies are requiring non-essential employees to work from home and 43% have sent their entire workforces to work from home. What was an occasional perk for many employees last month is now an economic necessity for most organizations. Many have asked when things will get back to normal and a part of me knows that this is the new normal and we aren’t going back anytime soon.

Setting the dramatic effect aside for a moment, it is important to note this isn’t temporary. It is–and it isn’t–just the result of COVID-19. Working from home, a hallmark of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, was already business-as-usual for many organizations. But it is true that the pandemic is accelerating changes in our behaviors, both at work and at home. It’s also changing how we view one another and what we can expect in this new digital normal.

Managing Energy, Not Time

We’ve been through this cultural disruption before, albeit we had more time to adjust. The First Industrial Revolution pulled farmers out of their homes and put them in factories. Fast forward 200 years and now, by necessity, we’re sending people right back into their homes. What happens to work when they get there? Sure, there are discussions about how to dress–for example, Walmart sold more tops than bottoms last week in the video meeting era. You can even find suggestions on how to let your boss know you’re taking your kids for a hike while you’re also on a conference call.

Read: HRE‘s daily updates for managing coronavirus in the workplace

All that advice is worthwhile, but so many processes that go into building a company culture must now be rethought and retooled. We need to prepare for when we are allowed to go back to work–well, at least out of our home work and back to our desks at the office. The world of work won’t just automatically pick back up where we so quickly left it in March.

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Employers need to grasp the fact that people are creative and productive before 9 and after 5. Productivity for knowledge workers is not measured in time, but in idea generation, relationship enhancement, and competitive disruption. Moreover, an increasingly global workplace requires us to adapt to different time zones. Contrary to traditional management thinking, if you offer flexible schedules, you open up more options for innovation, communication, creativity, productivity and engagement. It’s about managing energy, not time.

Most jobs have migrated from routine tasks and manual processes to knowledge, and knowledge happens 24 hours a day. People should structure their work around when they are most productive within the demands of the business. The need is to reduce the workplace rigidity first utilized when we had an entire workforce to train. It isn’t only unnecessary, it is also a very costly way to do business when speed and innovation can easily get tripped up in a long line of red tape.

Related: Where the experts stand on the longevity of remote work

The need is not to force everyone into the office all the time, but to beef up capabilities that connect people wherever they are so you can keep work moving. Even in organizations with heavy meeting cultures, learning to have virtual meetings or connecting with people on chat programs is the equivalent of saying hi to someone in the hallways. Let the watercooler conversation happen on work intranets, where employees share jokes and photos of their children, pets and vacations.

Gen Z to the Rescue
As organizations adopt more technology and office space continues to shrink, options for where you work will broaden. Most jobs can be done from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. The technology exists, but does enough management exist to truly adopt it? Our new COVID-19 reality has accelerated that beyond our imagination. The idea of working remotely, from anywhere, at times that work for each individual, is still being discussed in both board and conference rooms. After all, it is a vast departure from the current corporate norm, which is fixated on normal business hours of eight hours a day, five days a week.

Within this new reality we quickly need to figure out how to do online what we traditionally thought had to be done face-to-face. Meetings, orientation, hiring, onboarding; how can these get developed and handled digitally? How do you get culture developed and shared beliefs on digital screens? Who takes the new hire to lunch if her team is 1,500 miles away?

More from Cawood: Setting priorities every 4 hours: the new normal for leaders

Gen Z can provide guidance on how best to do this. Their generation values digital relationships as much as face-to-face. They don’t distinguish between friends they meet online vs. those in the physical world. And they soon will be entering the workplace and have strong beliefs that the digital realms they grew up using are not only as real as being there in person but are strongly preferred. Finally, they are also extremely adept at recognizing what’s authentic and what is not in their digital experiences.

Gen Z understands and exploits the high level of mobilization that technology makes possible. They show strong disdain for commuting and office politics. They are proving that you can have a very meaningful and solid relationship over a screen, which in many ways opens up more doors for how we can create workplaces that matter–both in terms of being meaningful, but also productive.

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1. Recruiting and hiring
2. Onboarding
3. Team meetings
4. Brainstorming for innovative product and service ideas
5. Culture building

The possibilities for companies operating in a Covid-19 world are as challenging as they are transformational. Choose trust over control: Never underestimate the emotional aspects of this change and build collaborative systems, even if on a screen, that enable what your organization needs most–innovation and creativity to outwit your competition.

Scott Cawood
Scott Cawood is president and CEO at WorldatWork, a nonprofit professional association in compensation and total rewards. We serve those who design and deliver total rewards programs to cultivate engaged, effective workforces that power thriving organizations. Questions or comments about this story can be sent to [email protected].