The events of 2020 and the arrival of the pandemic in our Workplaces has meant that many enterprises are suffering from a form of organisational PTSD. The global remote working experiment being conducted by a rare few organisations before 2020 has now been democratised and is not only available, but preferable for many knowledge workers. But, strangely we see organisations responding to this change as a threat rather than an opportunity. These responses are perhaps understandable and predictable but they are potentially fatal.
A ‘One size fits One’ approach
Whilst the boardrooms may have been empty during this period, the Workplace has been in the organisational spotlight throughout 2020 and now into 2021. In service of the C-Suite’s need for data there have been a plethora of surveys into remote working, productivity, employee experience and worker attitudes to their Workplace during shutdowns all over the world.
Never before has so much data been collected on the Workplace. The results from these surveys have provided us with valuable insights into the drivers of people’s experiences of working at home for extended periods. They have provided insight into how well they have been supported by their employers and their views on the future of work. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the majority of this data is generated from the UK and US and history has shown us that such insights do not necessarily travel well to the southern hemisphere.
The major learning to come from these surveys is however ubiquitous. We need to take a ‘one size fits one’ approach to our unique economy and social environment right down to organisational culture. Whatever and wherever the Workplace, whether it is at home, the office or a 3rd location, they all need to be considered holistically.
The home setting is not a competitor to the office, it is a collaborator and therefore should be viewed by the organisation as just another workspace in the bouquet of activity based settings. For this reason, the organisation is as responsible for the home office as it would be if it were located inside the walls of the corporate HQ.
Remote Workplaces can be a viable digital alternative and used as a lever for significant strategic advantage. The question remains, ‘what is the senior leadership of your organisation going to do about it’?
Of course this must start at the top with the CEO and the C-suite and in my post 10 Workplace Questions All CEO’s Should Have on Their Board Agenda we work through the questions that will lead the Board to understanding how to address the opportunity for competitive advantage that exists in the Workplace.
Leaders need to see 2020 as a ‘watershed’ moment for the world of work, and the Workplace that supports it. Unfortunately this is a change that has proved so profound that many are suffering from organisational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The human response to a perceived threat produces one or other response known commonly as the fight, flight or freeze response. This type of stress response to danger causes hormonal and physiological changes in humans that kept our primal ancestors alive.
Organisations are human at their core (although you could be forgiven for not thinking so sometimes) and they suffer from the same physiological response to a perceived or real threat.
So, what do these responses look like from an organisational perspective?
1. Fight Response
Back in March 2020, many organisations through their FM teams swiftly implemented a remarkable health and safety response to the epidemic in their Workplaces. We are regaled daily with case studies of how organisations have implemented safety measures to reassure and even eventually entice workers back, following the rolling back of lockdown restrictions.
But we cannot fight the virus effectively in the Workplace. It is without question that we need to protect our workforce, but we risk ending up with the office that resembles a hospital rather than a hospitality environment. Such an environment just serves to reinforce the workers vulnerability thus reducing feelings of trust and security. Such an approach will not entice workers back to the Workplace and ultimately organisational unity, culture, collaboration and innovation will suffer. Workers want and need a compelling reason to return to the Workplace, one that takes their wants and needs into consideration.
2. Flight Response
Organisations cannot take flight to an imaginary world where the virus doesn’t exist. However, most have attempted to distance themselves from the effects of the virus on their employees, by implementing a work from home strategy.
The evidence from the surveys seems to suggest that on average, the employee’s home working experience has been good. Crucially the averaging out of statistics hides the reality that homeworking is not for everyone, not for everything and not forever!
We know there is a ticking time bomb with issues of cognitive fatigue, stress and mental health that are going undetected and undiagnosed. Without a comprehensive deep dive into the experience of their staff, these company’s risk sleepwalking into new ways of working that are neither effective nor sustainable.
It’s very easy, during any crisis, to make knee jerk reactions and take work-around strategies that are meant to address immediate problems and priorities and use these as the basis for permanent future workplace strategies. This lack of care and attention to the needs of the workforce may prove terminal.
3. Freeze response
Those ostrich-like organisations that have metaphorically frozen in their response to the pandemic and buried their head in the sand are unlikely to recognise the changes that are afoot above ground. They risk alienating their staff by reverting to the ‘old’ normal and the tried and trusted, but now outdated, ways of working whether they mean to or not.
Others, who are struggling to thaw out and to face up to a different future, are besieged because, although they know the future will be different, but they are unable to move and capture what ‘different’ looks like for them. This is often referred to as the Knowing Doing Gap.
One of my strategy mentors, Norman Chorn summed this up when he said “Great companies fail for one of only two reasons, their inability to escape the past, or their inability to invent the future”
A Fourth F-Word
So, if none of these 3 response alternatives is the correct one for organisations in the long term, what is?
We believe there is a 4th F-word (careful now!) to describe the response that organisations need to adopt… Flex or Flow.
Organisations need to move towards engaging and attracting, which could be described as being able to Flex or to ‘go with the Flow’.
This is not meant as a Zen like response to sit in a meditative state and do nothing, but more in the sense that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus meant when he said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice,… for it is not the same river and he is not the same man”.
It is the idea that nothing ever stands still. The Workplace cannot be the same, because we are not the same. Following such a dramatic event such as COVID and the effect it has had on every aspect of where, how and when we work… we are all changed.
Organisations need to recognise this and understand that they will have to listen to the needs and concerns of their people like never before. People’s sensitivity to hygiene and health security will be heightened for an unspecified period, and so organisations will need to respond appropriately.
The scientists believe that the virus will be with us in mutated forms much like seasonal influenza, probably forever. It will no longer be a pandemic, but it will become endemic to our way of life. The respite that vaccination may bring both to the citizens and the economies of the northern hemisphere, are a long way from being experienced south of the equator.
The challenge for organisations is how they build upon the experiences of 2020 positively and constructively.
As I pointed out in the post 3 Dangerous Misconceptions of Working from Home, the inescapable fact that is that the approach to the new Workplace cannot be a binary approach, but if dealt with holistically, it can be a lever for a renewed competitive advantage.
This is by no means new, but it’s one that many senior leadership teams have failed to act upon previously. The Coronavirus has accelerated the need for change, and those organisations that reset the dial and view COVID-19 as catalyst of change rather than a catastrophe, will come out on top.
We are at a watershed, a strategic transformation of how the workplace is going to be used and measured. The reality is that the new Workplace will be about human experience and one that can accurately measure and manage the juxtaposition three dimensions ;
- Work Performance – How, where and when work is undertaken and what is the effect of the Workplace on corporate performance? How does it contribute to/or detract from productivity and competitive advantage?
- Workforce Performance – engaging with and understanding the preferences of the Workforce and how they are performing?
- Workplace Performance – What is the size, blend and function of the Workplace and what is the right mix of services and amenities to create the Winning Workplace.
We need to provide data on the performance of the Workplace itself. This is not meant in the traditional sense of asset performance or SLA’s but in terms of its impact on t human performance in the workforce. This is a voyage of discovery and is unique to each organisation that uncovers the metrics that matter most to them. After all it is the organisation that can link work performance, workforce performance and Workplace performance that will be the winners
So, the front runners in the race to reconfigure our economy are looking for agility and additional flexibility, changing the way they work to better suit employees, customers and the challenges that need to be faced now and in the future. In order to accomplish this we need to recognise the Workplace as a strategic asset and thus in need of a Workplace strategy.
The Pre- COVID Workplace
We should take this opportunity to remind ourselves that in 2019 according to Gartner, Workplace productivity was at an all-time low. Other surveys from Leesman, Gallup and IMD also before COVID reveal that;
- Only 7% of employees had control over their work schedule,
- Only 9% of employees were noted as engaged in the workplace
- Only 13% of employees are satisfied with their work experiences
- Only 53% of employees agreed with the statement that “their Workplace allows them to work Productively” and…
- As many as 30% of employees actively disagreed that “their Workplace allows them to work Productively”
So, with statistics like these is it any wonder that organisations seem unable to entice workers back to the Workplace?
Changes have to start with the people and the culture, with both being ready to adopt new ways of working. Without that cultural change, any new processes or technology will fall at the first hurdle.
A ‘One Size Fits One’ Approach
Your Workplace is unique and underlines the importance of approaching Workplace change as a bespoke ‘one size fits one’ approach. Decision-makers often fall into the trap of looking for off-the-shelf solutions to their Workplace challenges, without considering how those solutions might work in their unique organisation. The latest human resources, technology or workspace fad may seem very appealing and convenient but maybe completely inappropriate.
Organisational theorist, consultant and best-selling author Geoffrey Moore said that “Without data, you are blind and deaf and in the middle of a freeway”. So, skipping the collection of data on how your workforce experience the workplaces available to them and going straight to procuring a new Workplace design that is not based on a data rich strategy is likely to have negative and costly results.
This underpins the importance of approaching Workplace change with a strategy and in the right order. This might seem like common sense, but all too often organisations make the mistake of not doing the hard yards and building a Workplace strategy that is as unique as their business and the people that power it are.
That is why in our post ‘Why you need a Workplace strategy now more than ever’ we outline our signature solution three-phase process that enables any organisation to lead and guide their people through Workplace change.
For over 30 years I have helped smart occupiers reduce operating costs, improve competitive advantage & unleash human performance by leveraging their existing facilities & processes to create & manage amazing Workplaces so that their people can do amazing work.
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