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Sage-Gavin: This is our chance to rework it all

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].

We’ve all heard the jokes about the transition of returning to the workplace–wearing sweatpants and slippers to the office, “that meeting could have been an email”–but in truth, it’s no laughing matter.

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A year ago, many predicted that we would never go back to the office. Now, many of us are grappling with how to do just that.

When workplaces across the world shut down, businesses had to figure out how to react and respond–there was no other option. Now, businesses must figure out how to reinvent themselves–and there is no playbook. Meanwhile, work has fundamentally changed, and so have we. In my decades of experience, I’ve never witnessed anything like the challenges leaders are facing today. Insights from a century of management science are being put to the test, and the stakes are high.

A recent survey found that nearly half of respondents would likely leave their jobs if employers don’t offer a hybrid model, where employees sometimes work on site and sometimes work remotely. And 41% of respondents said they would consider a slightly lower salary in exchange for a hybrid work model.

So, what does this all mean for leaders?

Any discussion about navigating the choices surrounding a return to the workplace must begin with acknowledging the privilege inherent in having options.

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While the vaccination is rolling out and things are improving in the U.S., our colleagues in other parts of the world, particularly in India and Brazil, are suffering deeply. Leaders tasked with orchestrating return-to-workplace plans can’t ignore this larger context, and they must contend with challenges ranging from the philosophical and psychological to the physical and practical.

It’s overwhelming, to be sure, but I’m also reminded of the Maya Angelou quote, “Nothing works unless you do.”

Where, how, when and why we work is deeply personal, especially after a year in which the boundaries between our work and home lives blurred. Returning to the workplace won’t “work” unless it works for our people.

We have an opportunity to reinvent our companies and cultures with input from all our stakeholders–everyone needs to be heard and feel included. If leaders are struggling with approaching this transition, putting people first every step of the way is a good guideline. Here are some ways to get started.

Reimagine the workplace

Reopening challenges vary significantly by industry and job role–beginning with whether or not jobs are essential and whether or not they can be done remotely.

Returning to the workplace isn’t a “yes or no” question. Leaders have to chart their course along a continuum of choices from entirely in the office to fully remote. That means approaching everything from the office layout to scheduling with collaboration and productivity–in a hybrid context–top of mind.

This transition allows leaders to improve on-site work environments–developing innovative, collaborative workspaces that foster engagement, creativity and safety. The same goes for remote work environments: Just because we’ve been “working from home” doesn’t mean it’s been working. Analytics and data can help leaders identify areas for improvement to inform their choices.

Reimagine the workforce

Recognizing that today’s workforce is now indeed “liquid” and reshaping staffing models accordingly can help everyone thrive and feel valued.

Again, it’s personal. We need to listen to our workers’ concerns and meet their needs. Those needs are diverse–covering everything from technology and equipment requirements to emotional support–and will keep shifting and evolving.

We can’t ignore the workers who continue to work remotely. A successful plan will optimize the workforce experience across both remote and on-site touchpoints. Some leaders are already embracing the opportunity to attract top talent and are leap-frogging ahead as a result. Some of the best, diverse talent is available right now–think of all the mothers of school-age children still missing from the workforce. The key is finding them and getting them in the door (or on the remote network).

Artificial intelligence and data analytics can help with recruitment and drive worker productivity and engagement through real-time insights and personalized experiences.

Reimagine the culture

This is a second chance to build the culture we want from scratch, and that culture transcends the physical workplace. Fairness and inclusion are pivotal and enhanced by transparency and authenticity from leaders.

Creating a unified culture means enabling and advancing all of our workers and actively stewarding worker engagement, health and wellbeing.

There are tools available to help businesses innovate and apply new paradigms for collaboration, connectedness and continuous learning, and to help leaders accelerate strategic decision-making in this area.

Getting this right for your particular workplace and workforce is the true challenge of leadership today, but you aren’t on your own.

Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone said, “We’re all in this together”? That’s still true. You might be steering your business into the unknown, but we’re all in the same boat and we will get there together, whether we’re wearing suits … or sweatsuits.