This spring, my organization, like many others, discovered that we were standing atop a “burning platform.” I think the best thing to do when you’re facing leadership urgencies is to try to see through them to the opportunities. Take the two burning issues we were facing.
1. The demand for a hybrid workplace. Data gathered over the past year may not be an entirely accurate reflection of what people want in the future, but every survey is telling us that employees generally don’t want to work in an office full-time. And most professionals expect that they won’t have to. We could choose not to meet the demand, but that would be a risky move given the second issue.
2. A workforce shortage. The US Chamber of Commerce’s recent report showed that “there are approximately half as many available workers for every open job … as there have been on average over the past 20 years.” Consequently, most leaders are desperate to hold onto the talent we have and attract new talent. And as a New York Times article proclaimed in its headline: “Workers are gaining leverage over employers right before our eyes.”
Let’s be honest. Most organizations were facing workforce challenges—disengagement, turnover, disappearing leadership pipeline—before the pandemic and didn’t have a long-term solution. Then we were forced into a dramatically new way of working overnight, without planning, data, or intention and in the midst of economic turmoil. Now we’ve learned a few things about what’s possible, what employees want, and what organizations need, and things will never be the same.
We have to address these two issues simultaneously by redefining the workplace of the future to retain and attract the workforce of the future.
The staff of my organization, MGMA, has been working primarily from home for well more than a year. The initial adjustment was difficult. Most struggled with burnout as they managed family, our frequently shifting work (we support medical groups and practices), and general pandemic-driven anxiety. The most important job of our leadership team was retaining our staff while trying to keep them engaged and connected and supporting their wellbeing.
Now, we have to look to the future.
As human beings, our employees crave both flexibility and certainty. And as an organization, we need both flexibility and certainty. The better we can hold these two lightly, as the spiritual guidance goes, the more successful we’ll be at taking advantage of the opportunity before us. But it’s not an easy job, so I’ll share what we’ve learned along the way.
1. We don’t know the right answer yet, and we’re all biased.
Every news outlet is talking about the rise of the hybrid workplace. It’s easy to feel the pressure to make a decision, any decision. And after a year of almost no certainty, employees are desperate for some answers and stability. But let me share two statements I heard in a recent meeting with my leadership team:
“Prove to me that working in the office is better.”
“Prove to me that working remotely is better.”
These two statements show that every leader has a bias. I have leaders who adamantly believed that we could work from home five days a week and who adamantly believed we had to work in the office five days a week. I knew that neither was the answer.
At the same time, I also knew that nobody has any proof. We have no data. We can’t even use the past 15 months or so as evidence because it was an imposed anomaly, not a guided, strategic experiment.
To develop a plan, I could have gotten together with the executive team, looked at the research and what we’d been hearing from managers and employees, and said, “This is what hybrid looks like for MGMA, starting now.” But it would have been a model based on limited perspective. Instead, the executive team handed the decision over to the broader group of our next level of leaders. They were closer to employees, they had a stronger understanding of how work gets done effectively or not, and more perspectives would help reduce the effect of bias.
Second, we created two timelines, one for certainty and one for flexibility. We shared with our staff that we would continue to work remotely, with situational returns, until the day after Labor Day, giving them control of their summer planning, including childcare and camps and even (glorious) vacation travel. Then, we explained that whatever hybrid plan we put into place would be a 6-month plan. We would troubleshoot, gather information and feedback, and then adjust. Certainty, with flexibility.
2. Good discussion about change is crucial and can be unexpectedly raw.
After our initial meeting with our broader leadership team, where many people’s biases were challenged, a few executives checked in with me. They were concerned about some hot potato discussions. I thought it was a great meeting, and I told them so.
I recently heard Amy Lafko say, “Conflict in itself is not a negative thing. It’s whether that conflict yields results or creates discord.” This is a complex, chewy issue that we’ll still be working through a year from now, and every leader was engaged in getting us to a good result. I was incredibly proud, actually.
These are the open, honest, transformative conversations we should be having about change. We won’t meet people’s needs and overcome bias without them.
Conversations around any important change can be fraught, but this one is especially tough because it bumps up against people’s personal lives, their fears, and their beliefs, details that are hard to discuss in the workplace. As the brilliant Amy Edmondson wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Having psychologically safe discussions around work-life balance issues is challenging because these topics are more likely to touch on deep-seated aspects of employees’ identity, values, and choices. … Management’s responsibility is to expand the domain of which work-life issues are safe to raise.”
As we do, we have to take even more care with how we communicate, how we manage our positions of power, and the language we use. Without thinking (always a red flag when you’re talking about a leader’s behavior), I said, essentially, that remote work was inefficient. What I was talking about was the individual employee’s workday and the dangers of burnout. With the distractions of home, we’re expending mental and emotional energy on work for more hours every day, even if we aren’t actually working. And Pew Center research showed that 33% of employees who worked exclusively from home were working more hours than they did prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
But that’s not what people heard me say. When I said “inefficient” (not the best word choice) they heard unproductive or low quality.
No matter how we come at it, this is a potentially emotional topic and we have to be open to tough discussions as well as be more thoughtful in what and how we communicate.
3. We don’t have a choice about whether to address these issues, and we also have an incredible opportunity.
The platform really is burning. We are emerging from a pandemic, and even if you aren’t considering a hybrid workplace, you need some sort of strategy to address where people will be working in the coming months. Also, we have no choice but to do everything we can to attract the best talent if we want our organizations to sustain and grow.
So, we established some boundaries for the broad leadership team—we’re not going to work in the office five days a week and we’re not going to work remotely five days a week. Also, everybody would be on essentially the same schedule, a plan supported by the research, as described in this Harvard Business Review article by Nicholas Bloom. Then we asked them to come up with a plan that would be best for the enterprise. They presented a proposal. We came back with two possible variations on their plan and asked them to decide which would be best.
The opportunity doesn’t stop with this broad plan, though.
Over the last year, we haven’t had the luxury of asking, “What work is best for the team to accomplish in the office, or out of the office?” “What best serves the needs of the organization and the desires of employees?” We had to just act. Now, every leader gets to strategize and innovate. We get to test. We get to be intentional about where we do what work, based on what makes the most sense and where we can be most productive.
As we move forward with our new plan, we have an opportunity for growth and we’re going to take it.
I’m known to say, “You’ve seen one medical practice … you’ve seen one medical practice.” Lately, I’ve been thinking “You’ve seen one hybrid workplace … you’ve seen one hybrid workplace.” For every organization, team and role, the best strategy will be somewhat unique, but that also means the opportunity to attract talent and shape our organizations for a stronger future is just as unique.