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The CHRO of a global manufacturing organization recently shared that many work changes that happened in 2020 were things his company “backed into”. They were tactical reactions to external factors and were not initiated as part of a future focused strategy. He then said it is time to turn around, face forward and start thinking about how to build on these changes to create a new world of work. I subsequently used this observation about “facing forward” as a starting point for a series of roundtable discussions with more than fifty senior HR leaders. This article summarizes insights from these discussions.[i]

1.Recognizing that changing is good, but not all changes are good. To say 2020 was a year of change is an understatement.  Companies radically altered work practices to protect employee wellbeing and respond to widespread economic and societal unrest. On the positive side, companies learned employees have an amazing capacity for change when they understand its purpose, have technology to adapt, and feel supported, connected and cared for during the transition. Companies also discovered many existing work practices where based on outdated traditions and false assumptions. Yet not all change is good. And HR leaders are concerned that some of the recent changes in work could negatively impact employee wellbeing, organizational culture, and workforce effectiveness.

HR leaders do not want to mindlessly return to past work practices.  As one leader put it, “some people talk about wanting to get back to the way it was, but the ‘way it was’ wasn’t that good.  We want to focus on moving toward the way it should be”. HR leaders seek to drive positive change, but are also concerned about inadvertently losing positive aspects of company culture and work practices.  As the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.  With this in mind, a common topic being explored by HR leaders is how can we create a better future without losing what we liked about the past?

2.Planning a purposeful return to the office. Everyone wants to get back to more in-person office meetings. But few people want to return to the daily office commute. Data show employees do not want to go back to the old way of working where everyone is expected to be in the office just to be in the office. And research shows traditional “show up in the office every day” cultures can lead to inefficient work practices. At the same time, all employees see value in coming together for certain things. And many employees miss having a dedicated workspace outside of their home. The changes of 2020 have unfrozen attitudes about what an office is, why we go to the office, and when we need to be there. HR leaders are starting dialogues with leaders and employees to rethink how offices are designed and used. Viewing offices as a resource whose purpose is to support working together, not just sitting together.

3.Embracing the value of virtual work.  The move to virtual work has created four specific benefits that HR leaders do not want to lose when we return to office settings:

  • We do not have to sit together to work together. The move to virtual work led companies to shift from longer but more infrequent in-person meetings to shorter and more frequent virtual sessions. As one person put it, “we used to wait until we could be in the same room to have important discussions, which meant we spent a lot of time waiting for travel schedules to align. Now we talk constantly in virtual meetings and as a result are making decisions much faster than before.”

  • Your location does not determine your value. HR leaders commented that employees who were located in offices outside corporate headquarters feel more connected to the company as a result of the move to remote work. When everyone is virtual then everyone is equally involved regardless of geographic location. One HR leader noted that virtual work created a more egalitarian culture. “People who worked in the same building as our senior executives used to have more power because they could engage them in informal hallway conversations. This influence had nothing to do with their knowledge or position. It was just a consequence of where they sat.”

  • Geographic location should not be the primary qualification for hiring skilled talent. Virtual work allows organizations to recruit talent from a much broader labor market. As one HR leader commented, “Virtual work lowers the bar for entry and exit. It is easier to recruit people if they do not have to move locations to work for you. This has major benefits in terms of who we can hire and how much they cost. On the other hand, it is easier for our current employees to leave. They do not have to move houses to change employers.”

  • Electronic communication tools can enhance organic conversations. A current joke says that when we return to the office, the two things we will miss the most are the mute button and the turn-my-camera-off button. Joking aside, HR leaders noted there is real value in online meeting tools such as chat, instant polling, and screen share. Chat is particularly valuable as it allows people to quickly share ideas and emboldens some employees to voice questions and opinions they might not otherwise share verbally.

HR leaders expressed concern about losing the gains of virtual work when we start returning to offices.  And are exploring how companies might get the “best of both worlds” by integrating in-person and remote work technology, norms, and behaviors.

4.Building more supportive, more human organizations. HR leaders observed that events of 2020 made leaders and employees more open about discussing emotional and personal challenges faced inside and outside of work. This was described as organizations becoming more “human”. This change is attributed to two things. First, the social challenges in 2020 related to health, safety and racial justice affected people across the organization. This created a common sense of empathy and support among employees and leaders. Second, the move to remote work physically merged people’s work and non-work lives. This led to more open discussion and appreciation for the challenges of balancing work and non-work responsibilities such a childcare. HR leaders have seen significant positive outcomes result from this move toward more supportive cultures including high levels of employee engagement.

There is concern the move toward more supportive, human organizations might be lost when companies return to offices and physical barriers between work and non-work life re-emerge. Some HR leaders hope to address this is by redefining the roles and expectations of managers and leaders.  As one person put it, “things like emotional intelligence and empathy used to be seen as a nice-to-have for leaders but did not really impact how we evaluated and rewarded people. Hopefully we can change this view. In a world where employees are faced with increasing levels of change and stress, supportive managers are often far more valuable than directive managers.”

5.Listening and understanding employee experience at a personal level.  Events of 2020 heightened awareness that not all change affects all people equally. Some employees responded positively to remote work while others struggled to adapt.  How the pandemic affected employees varied depending on a person’s job and their personal life situation.  And concerns over racial justice increased awareness that the experience of work is not the same for people with different demographic backgrounds.  HR leaders shared that in 2020 is companies put a lot of emphasis on listening to employees to understand how changes are affecting them. This includes use of online meetings, discussion groups and short surveys.  HR leaders also emphasized the value of getting beyond summary statistics to explore how employee experience varies within the organization. Average metrics like company engagement scores may be useful, but they can also be highly misleading as they can mask important differences between employees.

HR leaders want to maintain higher levels of employee listening as an enduring leadership practice in their companies. Technology is critical to making this happen. As one HR leader shared, “it is impossible for leaders to truly understand employees without using technology to solicit and interpret employee opinions and views. Technology is critical to collect and analyze information across multiple people.  A leader who thinks they know what’s going on based on their personal interactions and conversations with employees is seeing the world through their personal bubble. They aren’t conducting research, they are conducting ‘me-search’”.

6.Maintaining ongoing and open dialogue.  Research in 2020 highlighted the importance of ongoing dialogue as critical to employees’ ability to effectively respond to change. Many HR leaders said their senior executive are talking with employees much more now than they did in the past. The sheer speed and scope of the changes in 2020 required much greater levels of communication. Including open discussions about things related to employee wellbeing and equity that in the past may have been viewed as being too sensitive to talk about.  And the move to virtual work and leaders’ resulting willingness to “talk together without being together” made it far easier to set up conversations. Ideally this new, higher level of open dialogue will endure.  As one HR leader put it, “in 2020 we started a practice of having weekly 30-minute huddles where people could talk about whatever is on their mind. It started as just a way to stay connected in a virtual world.  But it has led to very powerful conversations. I hope we keep doing this when we return to the office.”

7.Planning random interactions.  A common concern expressed about remote work is loss of non-planned interactions with colleagues. The so-called “hallway meetings” or “water cooler conversations”. Companies found creative ways to replace these random social interactions in a remote setting. Examples include “coffee connections” where two employees are randomly paired up to meet for 15 minutes and share a virtual cup of coffee. Or common interest groups were employees from different parts of the company meet to discuss shared non-work hobbies or interests (e.g. cooking, childcare, music). It is unclear whether virtual random interactions provide the same value as in-person random interactions. Although HR leaders noted that virtual interactions enable employees to meet who might never meet in an actual hallway given their work locations. And there is interest in exploring the value of maintaining these sorts of activities after offices reopen.

Shortly after the pandemic started in March, an HR leader told me “hopefully the mindset of our leaders has changed as a result of this crisis”.  His comment at the time was focused on attitudes toward allowing employees to work remotely. Seven months later, this comment could be applied to any number of work practices that became widely adopted in 2020. These range from things as broad as supporting employee wellbeing to as narrow as using chat technology. 2020 created tremendous challenges for people and companies. It also created the opportunity to rethink the nature of work. It is up to us to seize this opportunity lest we simply fall back into old habits or adopt new patterns of behavior with challenging their value. In the words of one HR leader, “we need to stop talking about adjusting to the ‘new normal’ and start talking about creating the ‘new better’”.


[i] The quotes in this article are paraphrased from memory as we intentionally do not record these roundtables.
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