Tailoring the Post-Pandemic Work Environment to Employee Strengths
Remote workers are part of the new normal for enterprises, and that’s good news for some – but not all. It’s essential for leaders to assess workers’ needs and adapt both the workers’ roles and their own management styles so that everyone can do their best work.
Technology that enables remote work and reduces the need to invest in office space is tempting many companies to stick with the virtual workplace long after COVID-19 is under control. In fact, global economic think tank The Conference Board has predicted that the remote workplace, or at least a hybrid in which people meet in person only occasionally, is going to be a lasting norm. That’s welcome news for everyone who’s happier working from home. But for people who have realized that remote work chafes like an ill-fitting shoe, it’s raising a nearly existential question: to succeed in this new hybrid workplace, how much will they have to try to be someone they’re not?
It’s neither fair nor feasible to expect people to change their personalities to suit a suddenly and permanently different workplace. Instead, business leaders will need to rethink how they evaluate employees’ roles to reflect changing definitions of success in a new environment. They’ll also have to take into account employees’ intrinsic preferences and inclinations. They may even have to change their own ways of managing since the personality traits and management styles that helped them lead effectively in the pre-pandemic business world may be less effective in a virtual environment.
Managers who fail to acknowledge that the new hybrid workforce isn’t going to suit everyone aren’t going to succeed by forcing people to change. They’re just going to create a workplace full of unhappy, disengaged, and underproductive employees who are likely to jump ship as soon as they find a better fit elsewhere. Those who understand that this lasting change will have ramifications at both the strategic and tactical levels throughout the employee lifecycle need to start thinking now about how they’re going to tailor the work environment and the work itself to meet current employees’ preferences – and in the long run, choose new employees who fit the new environment.
What leaders must understand about personality traits
People choose their work for many reasons, and some of those reasons simply fall apart when the circumstances change as drastically as they recently have, notes Jenny Dearborn, chief people officer at Klaviyo, a Boston-based e-commerce marketing platform provider. For example, someone who became a corporate trainer because they love interacting with others in person has probably become increasingly frustrated and exhausted over the last year trying to replicate the experience with teleconferencing. Similarly, a medical professional whose favorite part of work is getting information about a patient’s health through a hands-on examination won’t feel the same satisfaction from a telemedicine appointment.
People can change their preferences and comfort levels to some extent through experience and awareness. With enough effort, a pessimist can learn to see a silver lining, and a party animal can discover the joys of a quiet night in. But at heart, we are who we are. Instead of expecting people to tweak their personalities to make themselves more suitable for a remote or hybrid workplace, it makes more sense to help them identify their strengths and weaknesses in this context so they can leverage what they’re good at and shore up their weaknesses. And that applies as much to leaders as it does to the people they’re leading.
“Good leadership always comes down to knowing yourself, your strengths, and your weaknesses and surrounding yourself with an extended team to help you address what you don’t do well,” Dearborn points out. In other words, leaders have to be self-aware enough to know how their innate qualities have contributed to their success (or held them back) before they can figure out how to adapt to an environment where some of the fundamental rules have changed.
Personality is multifaceted, but one key part of the puzzle is determining where one lies on the introversion/extroversion spectrum. For outgoing leaders whose charisma is their superpower, for example, a predominantly remote environment could be kryptonite. Without opportunities to light up a conference room or draw people in as they walk down a hallway, these leaders will need to learn how to funnel the energy of their personalities through technology without losing its impact. They’ll also need to rely more on artful presentation of objectives, initiatives, and key performance indicators to augment the enthusiasm they once generated through the sheer force of their presence.
By comparison, leaders whose success is based mostly on quiet competency will continue to shine at communicating goals and metrics, but they’ll have to find ways to be more dynamic about keeping people engaged from a distance. “They need help learning how to reach and inspire people virtually with storytelling and team building and how to use remote tools to create collaboration and community,” Dearborn says.
A more distributed workplace will also require leaders to have more trust in employees’ ability to work without close supervision. Of course, that doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But leaders can’t ask people to sit in front of a webcam from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to prove they’re available. Instead, they might satisfy their own need to be aware of what their team is doing by hosting weekly “office hours” in a virtual meeting room where anyone on the team can drop in spontaneously or by creating a Slack channel where people check in briefly at the end of each day.
This shift from checking up to checking in is at the heart of the most important personality trait a leader needs now: empathy. It’s harder to show vulnerability and humanity in a virtual environment, so leaders will have to demonstrate this through relaxed body language, a welcoming tone of voice, and supportive words. Managers who make a point of finding out what employees are struggling with – allowing them greater flexibility in how and when the work gets done and giving them just-in-time guidance – are doing more than just staying on top of the quantity of work their team is doing. They’re also making sure their team is functioning well qualitatively and showing a willingness to help reduce their stress – especially as employees wrestle with whether the jobs and workplaces that suited them pre-pandemic still suit them now.
Matching employees to the work environment
Many workplaces were already changing in ways that have been accelerated by the shift to predominantly virtual work. Leaders had started moving away from being aloof supervisors who watch their teams perform and judge the outcome toward becoming coaches who guide and encourage their teams through challenges. This re-envisioned role has required leaders to become more comfortable with experimentation and the cycle of prototyping and testing everything from products and services to processes and procedures. As a result, leaders are more open than they otherwise might have been to a more design thinking approach that considers how they engage with employees and how employees engage with each other: setting aside preconceptions, defining problems through investigation, generating ideas collaboratively rather than from the top down, and achieving results through iteration.
Managers’ approaches in this shifting work environment matter a great deal to employees. Qualtrics, an SAP company, conducted a global workforce resiliency study in May and June 2020, just months after the beginning of the pandemic. Employees reported that the frequency and quality of communication from senior leaders became far more important to their ability to get their work done once they shifted to remote work. At about the same time, the Qualtrics XM Institute asked 10,000 Americans to imagine that they had to choose between pairs of jobs that differed only slightly across eight specific characteristics, including compensation, benefits, flexibility, and career advancement opportunities. Across geography, industry, age, and gender, the quality of the manager and the quality of their immediate team were the top two reasons for choosing a job.
The unmistakable conclusion: leaders who want to keep their teams motivated and productive will need to communicate more often, more effectively, and through different channels and will need to encourage more communication within their teams, says Benjamin Granger, Qualtrics research principal.
Leaders may want to keep the need for better communication in mind while determining who will come back to the office and who will continue to work remotely. Qualtrics has been researching employee sentiment throughout the pandemic. Regardless of geography, age group, or whether employees were surveyed by Qualtrics or their own employer, a third of employees consistently say they want to return to a physical office, another third don’t want to, and the remaining third would prefer a hybrid workplace where they spend some of their time at the office and some working from home.
Although some work, such as construction and emergency healthcare, can only be done in person, Granger estimates that as much as 70% of professional and white-collar jobs can successfully be done virtually or in a hybrid environment. This suggests that organizations not only can but should offer options in their working environment to suit employees’ innate preferences. “If you provide the framework and policies and let employees choose what’s best for them, they’ll gravitate to what lets them do their best work,” he says, citing Qualtrics research. “So it’s in the company’s best interests to help them figure out what that is.”
This requires leaders to follow a three-step process. First, they’ll need to classify team members’ individual characteristics and preferences. What motivates them? What energizes them? What frustrates them? How will leaders take those things into account to determine how to manage them going forward?
Once leaders have a sense of employees’ inclinations, they’ll have to make sure their understanding aligns with that of their employees. If not, leaders will need to work to create the environment best for their employees while also helping them understand why that might involve suggested changes to their roles and responsibilities so they can perform well in a hybrid or remote environment.
Finally, once leaders have worked with employees to determine their best combination of work style and environment, the company will need to provide the resources they need to adjust, whether that’s training them in technology they don’t currently use or transferring them to a different role.
For example, let’s say you were working in an office, where it may have made sense for a single executive assistant to keep the calendars of every manager in a department, arrange their travel, and onboard new hires. You may have noticed that the assistant became increasingly frazzled trying to do all of this remotely but also developed some innovative virtual shortcuts to make the onboarding process easier. If you were to provide tools for the managers to handle their own calendars (and insist that they do so) and replace most travel with teleconferencing, you could promote the assistant to a position that involves less multitasking and takes greater advantage of their superb organizational skills.
Dearborn says that what individual employees want or need in a job might be as general as “interacting with people” or as specific as “using a specific software package” or even “not needing to commute more than 15 minutes.” If this sounds as granular as what companies track to deliver more personalized customer experiences, you’re not imagining things. When you pay attention to what people want and need, it gives them a greater sense of control, and that’s as important to employees as it is to consumers. If you can’t help your team members align their work with what they tell you matters most to them, she adds, it may be better to help them change roles or even careers. Otherwise, they may move on without your help and to your detriment.
Reimagining recruitment and retention
Workplaces have always evolved. Business leaders know that certain tasks become obsolete and new ones emerge, that employees will have to redeploy their skills or retrain, and that some people are better suited than others for certain roles and responsibilities. What’s different now is how quickly and comprehensively the criteria have changed for determining who to hire and where they’ll fit best, in a year that has also provided ample proof that employees don’t have to be in the office to get their work done.
When a company decides to make the shift to predominantly remote work more permanent, many of the factors traditionally considered when attracting, developing, and retaining employees will be far less relevant. Leaders will have to rethink the entire employee lifecycle, starting with some basics:
Person/job fit: Leaders need to consider why people have been drawn to working in their industry in general – and their organization in particular – in the past. If a shift to more remote work changes the reasons, they may need to change their recruitment tactics and selection criteria to better attract and identify people with newly desirable traits, such as needing less direction, taking more initiative, or having a greater tolerance for ambiguity.
Job descriptions: If a position can be virtual, leaders will need to define what technologies the role will require employees to use and how flexible they can and must be with their work hours. If a role is hybrid, they’ll also need to specify what work will have to be done on the premises and how frequently someone will be expected to put in an appearance.
Engagement: If making an existing role virtual or hybrid reduces or eliminates the characteristics that attracted someone to it in the first place, retaining them will require finding new ways to motivate and engage them – for example, by creating new performance metrics that focus on other things they might value. Granger points out recent research from Qualtrics suggesting that these metrics could include the broader social impact of people’s work, their sense of belonging within the organization, and their virtual connections with managers and team members.
Re-skilling: If someone is used to completing their work in person, they will need more education and support to use the tools necessary to work remotely. For example, a medical professional will need guidance in getting the most accurate diagnostic information possible through telemedicine, even if it’s less or different information than they might get through a hands-on exam.
Adapting performance management
Ultimately, leaders will also have to rethink their expectations about “performance” in order to start evolving toward a definition that better suits a primarily remote workplace – then adapt performance management practices accordingly.
We learned in 2020 that changing the environment in which people work can have a dramatic impact on their performance. It’s not necessarily true that a job that can be done in person can be done virtually – and even if it can be, it’s not a given that people will want to do it that way. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, everyone grabbed a bucket and started bailing regardless of their natural tendencies. But as leaders decide whether they want to remain virtual for the foreseeable future, it behooves them to start talking about what that will mean for everyone – because when the economy improves, employees who don’t feel that the company’s new normal fits their old personality are likely to leave for an organization that’s made different choices about its future workplace offerings.
Dearborn advocates that managers adopt a “tight, loose, tight” model, also known as trust-based management. In this model, pioneered by Norwegian telco Telnor, a manager is controlled (tight) in setting clear objectives, flexible (loose) in allowing employees to achieve those objectives using whatever tools and methods they want, and controlled (tight) once more in assessing the outcome. It doesn’t matter whether someone works 24 hours straight on Tuesdays and then takes Wednesdays off, as long as the results align with the established criteria for success.
Dearborn also recommends being outcome-driven instead of expecting people to punch a virtual clock. “If you ask what your corporate goals are, what each function does toward that goal, what each person in that function is doing to drive that goal, you can break it down to every individual’s project and deliverable,” she says. “That tells you every single person’s stake in making that goal successful.”
From there, objective metrics can help keep remote employees motivated and connected by showing them how well they’re meeting their goals – and by keeping them on track with occasional meetings to review progress rather than daily check-ins that tie them to their keyboards on a mandated schedule.
Finally, managers have the opportunity to move away from drawn-out review cycles that don’t actually capture how people are working in the moment. When performance reviews are less about oversight and more about how employees can apply their potential in accordance with their particular strengths and attributes, it’s important to assess progress more frequently – probably not in real time but certainly every six months, every quarter, or even every month.
On the one hand, this requires leaders to set longer objectives for employees based on their ability to adapt quickly to changes in the work environment and to make adaptability itself a quality to be assessed. On the other hand, more incremental targets for change make it easier for managers to capture and encourage small but significant improvements, identify and intervene in slips and struggles before they snowball, and reset goals quickly to keep up with the company’s needs. In essence, this reflects a more agile and continuous performance management approach.
“Expectations play a huge role in human behavior,” Granger concludes. “The things people have experienced in the workplace over the last year have now changed their expectations for the future, and they’ll experience old policies very differently. So if the system needs changing, strike while the iron is hot!”