When it comes to the way forward, there is no “right” path.
Eighteen months ago, the pandemic forced us to work differently. With no time for planning, we were forced to innovate, to be agile, and be more human. While challenging, we have, individually and collectively, accomplished the previously unimaginable.
As the COVID-19 crisis enveloped the globe, Eric J. McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, and Leonard Marcus, founding co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard, wrote, “The coronavirus crisis, like every crisis, is unfolding over an arc of time with a beginning, middle, and end. It is useful to think what distinguishes what was, is, and will be. There was a past of relative stability and predictability. There now is chaos and disruption. There will be … a different state.” While we remain along the arc of the crisis, we are at a point where we can consider and even define what “will be.” The challenge for leaders is deciding what makes the most sense for their organization given our new environment, our different state – one shaped by our experiences and learnings of the past eighteen months.
We recently brought together a group of CHRO’s to discuss how they and their organizations are deciding the “will be” of work.
All of the leaders who participated in the discussion shared that vaccines have had a significant impact on their planning and decision-making, with one CHRO describing vaccines as a “game-changer.” The leaders shared that the availability of vaccines and vaccination rates of employees, local region, and country, have played – and continue to play – a role in their decision-making around where people work and mask requirements.
Each of the organizations is requiring employees to disclose their vaccination status, and each organization is requiring employees who are not vaccinated to wear masks in the office.
Diving further into the discussion, it is clear that there is no one path forward.
The CHRO of a global defense and aerospace company shared that prior to the pandemic, 95% of employees worked in the office. Rather than make a decision for employees, the company decided to conduct a survey and ask where employees would like to work. The survey found that 40% of employees would like to return to the office, 40% would like to split their time between the office and working remotely, and 20% would like to be fully remote.
The company is starting to bring those employees who would like to be in the office back in waves, taking into account local vaccination rates and COVID infection rates. Dates are not set in stone. Given the dynamic situation, the company has paused and/or rolled back return to office plans in some areas based on local COVID infection rates.
The company is also exploring how they can reduce their footprint and reimagine the office given that 60% of their workforce will be working remotely at least part of the time.
A manufacturer of sporting equipment described employing a similar approach – after first going in a different direction: “Prior to the pandemic, 95% of our workforce worked in the office. We initially decided that we would implement a hybrid model across the organization. However, as we looked at how we would implement this, we realized that no two roles are the same, no two groups are the same, no two states are the same, and no two countries are the same. Given this, why should HR or the head of the company decide? So, we switched direction and decided to push the decision on where people will work down to the level of the team.”
Given the preferences the teams have indicated, the CHRO shared that the company is now looking at how they can use their office space for collaboration rather than for individual workspaces.
In describing the company’s approach to where and how people will work, the CHRO said, “We aren’t trying to replicate how we worked before the pandemic, what we are trying to do is create a new way of working.”
The CHRO of a home healthcare company outlined a similar sentiment of reimaging work: “We’ve decided that we shouldn’t be bringing people back just to bring them back. We are competing for talent and the ability for people to work remotely is a differentiator.” The organization is now looking at the office and company events as a way to bring employees, and their families, together. “The pandemic has given us a new lens into what people have going on outside of work, and we want to continue to support our employees and their families.”
Two global companies have decided to take a different approach, with one deciding that the dynamic global situation does not yet allow for the company to “put a stake in the ground” with respect to where and how people will work, and with the other company deciding to bring people back into the office at least three days per week.
The CHRO whose organization decided to bring people back to the office at least three days per week, shared: “We believe bringing people back into the office will have a positive impact on our culture and on our ability to collaborate.” At the same time, he said that once the company announced the decision to bring people back to the office, there were employees who quit and others who had to be let go as they had moved and were no longer within commuting distance to an office.
We are, collectively, trying to determine what “will be.” For leaders, there are many factors they must consider when determining what makes the most sense for their organization given our new environment, our different state. While there may not be a “right” answer, the mindset of what can be instead of trying to replicate what was in place pre-pandemic provides strategic direction.