The three options of 2021

ALSO: work near home / GCHQ / is your firm tracking you?

A commentator on the New York Times Daily was asked this week when life would return to normal. If all things continue going to plan, the reporter explained, 70% of the (US) population will be vaccinated by May and normal life can then resume as herd immunity prevents contagion taking hold.

May seems incredibly close - and also horribly distant. We’re only just made it into December - it’s six more months of delay and limbo. But for the first time we’re now freed up to start imagining what the normal we’re returning to will look like.

As time goes on it’s becoming clear that the factors that shape where we will end up aren’t fully in any single party’s hands - not workers’, not firms’. One boss said to me a few months ago, “As soon as we’ve got a vaccine we’re back in the office five days a week”. As I pointed out the challenge of approach that will be when his firm is looking to hire a hotshot talent to try to strengthen the team. When the person they’ve identified asks which days she can work from home they’ve got a choice. Do they let her discreetly work remotely a couple of days and break the structure, or say no. We’ve struggled to see the wood for the trees this year, some of us have had too much reality but in a normal working year we do know that the freedom to work from home a couple of days a week is incredibly popular with most people, and is regarded as something that a lot of people would even sacrifice salary to keep. Top talent will feel that they can hold out for what they want even if every firm doesn’t offer it.

In the context of a return, employees will be looking to bosses for clarity and answers. At the very least most firms will need to say that they’re willing to start some pilot schemes to explore what is coming next. But sooner than we realise workers will be looking for direction.

There are three outcomes that firms will need to choose from by the end of 2021: Tradition, The Ordered Hybrid and Expanded Freedom.

Expanded Freedom - allowing the experiment of 2020 to be a jumping off point, Expanded Freedom will definitely take hold in some firms. There will be degrees of this freedom. Some firms - tethered to the need to meet with customers or internal colleagues - will still expect team members to come into the office whenever needed. Others - with no need to meet with colleagues on a face-to-face basis - will be freed by their firms to locate wherever they want. In the US it’s said that 1000 people a week are moving from California to Florida and this sort of relocation will start impacting other countries. Some of this might become Work Near Home (more on this below), some of it will try to learn from the lessons of firms like Automattic (creating quarterly gatherings to rev the team up again before dispatching them to live wherever they want), other firms will be more focussed on productivity changing workers’ incentives to reward them for what they produce.

The Ordered Hybrid - this is likely to be the popular standard. Whether we’re TWaTs or MFs (in the office on Tuesday Wednesdays and Thursdays, or Monday/Friday workers) firms will have a dual focus of working out how to use their office space effectively and keeping a sense of team cohesion. The dirty secret of commercial real estate was that even in the pre-times offices only had 30 to 40% occupancy - now all over the world the property market is alive to firms trying to break their leases and shorten their contracts. If they weren’t using that office before then it’s certain they won’t be in the future. Be in no doubt - offices are going to get smaller, they will be configured for co-working and bigger event spaces will be in hot demand. (BTW there’s a great Antony Slumbers presentation below that talks about some of these themes).

Traditionalists - there’s no doubt that many firms will attempt to recreate their traditional workplace culture. Weak management often reaches for control when it can’t inspire workers. Having employees around gives nervous management the illusion of control. These firms are going to be hit twice, firstly their workers are going to be disillusioned that they’re being denied the new standard of flexibility they see around them, secondly the best talent will stop being drawn to them. Like firms choosing not to use email or computers, they’ll seem increasingly anachronistic.

One of the enigmas for anyone interested in workplace culture is how it seems to be a field that achieves terrible results. As we’ve looked at the results of a growing number of Covid vaccines over the last week or so we’ve understandably become anchored to big numbers. Big numbers pay the bills.

The first vaccine is 90% effective, sensational. The second one is 95% effective, great I’ll have that one please. The third one is 60% effective but it reaches 90% if you stand on one foot and hum a whole Queen song (and it was made by local people who worked really hard). Ok, great, I still want the second one but that story will make a good film.

In comparison when we look at workplace engagement something is seriously wrong in the way we engineer our jobs. The Gallup Workforce survey is the benchmark for understanding employee engagement. Their most recent global study said that 15% of the world’s workforce were engaged in their jobs (in fact, 10% is the average for Western Europe). That feels close to disastrous. If we were to allocate jobs on a first-come, first-served basis to volunteers surely we’d get more than one in seven people enjoying the responsibility they ended up with. When we look at the detail of the Gallup work it’s alarming.

There are more workers in Western Europe who are actively disengaged with their job than engaged (19% are vs 10%). That means for every colleague you meet who is loving their working life there are two who are seeking to bring about the downfall of their organisation. As for the rest they are merely disengaged - as Gallup put it these are employees who ‘are psychologically unattached to their work and company’. These disengaged workers make up the majority of the workforce all around the world.

There are lessons on engagement from the pandemic - here’s some Gallup data for American motivation. Typically US workers are more engaged than other workers around the world (the French at merely 6% engaged take some beating at the other end of the scale) and their engagement rose to a high of 40% as the country went through the early stages of coping with Covid. Many of us can recognise the additional focus and diligence that we needed to keep our jobs on track at the start of the unpredictable disruption of lockdown. It meant that we became more connected to the problem solving challenges that work was presenting us with. There’s a vital lesson here, when the demands of work rose so too did our engagement with our jobs. When people feel like their actions are making a difference (and that difference is being noticed) they tend to enjoy their job more.

Now the inverse is true, following the initial Covid morale bonus, across the workforce Gallup is seeing burnout. As workers put in extra hours to keep the lights on, now their own energy is dimming from overuse. Gallup give a clear guide of how to get workers more engaged - the vast majority of engagement is shaped by our direct managers, what Sir Cary Cooper calls ‘the line manager lottery’.

If managers can move from being supervisors to coaches it seems to have the biggest impact.

As we’re all trying to make sense of working remotely for the long-term that seems to be a vital learning for everyone. When we feel autonomy in our job it helps to make us more engaged. Firms who believe that they can keep workers engaged while resisting the changes that we’ve witnessed are starting with an answer in mind before they’ve asked how they intend to motivate their teams.

This is how firms will choose their 2021 plan. Firms who charge themselves with creating inspiring leadership, who re-train their managers to be coaches, who set themselves the goal of eliminating workforce boredom will be gifted a huge opportunity in 2021.

We’re six months away from May 2021, this is plenty of time to build a plan. I started off talking about the three options facing firms, but in many ways there’s a single choice: to creating an inspired, motivated workforce is the opportunity presenting itself to every firm. Choose it or seek to return to what they nostalgically remember. But be in no doubt, there will be no shortage of companies who bow to the insecurity of weak leaders and seek a return to the past.

More on work-near-home

A comment from Rob Mansfield, a reader on the south coast, illustrating the appeal of the work-near-home trend that I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last few mailouts:

“I live in Brighton, but head office is in London. Since July I've rented desk space in a shared office a brisk, 20-minute walk from my house. It means I get a 'commute' AND exercise, without the drag of 3 hours train time a day. There's a mix of people in the office - usually 2-3 of us, and it's enough to feel sociable. I'm paying less than half my train commute - and it's a breath of fresh air. I can then still 'work from home' one day a week, which oddly feels like a treat. Even when normality returns, I imagine I'll keep it on”.  (Photo of Rob’s workspace above).

I got a rare opportunity to go inside the British intelligence service when I interviewed Jo Caven, director at GCHQ. It’s quite an entertaining listen. Apple / Spotify / website


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Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about my book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat websiteYou might want to catch up on my recent talk at RSA. Separately, lockdown must be getting tough, there were a string of new calls to the Bad Boss Helpline this week.