At last, at least in some locations, groups of people are beginning to reassemble. As an extravert, I’ve been longing for this day to come. I’m grateful that we had Zoom to carry us through all those lonely months, but you will never convince me that interacting with others virtually can create the same levels of trust, intimacy, and pleasure that meeting face-to-face can produce.
That doesn’t mean the return to in-person feels entirely natural. As an individual, I have to figure out where I feel comfortable rejoining the world. And as a manager, I have to figure out how to bring a team back together when we’ve acclimated to the digital versions of each other.
All the business leaders I talk with these days are struggling with the same issue: Whether and how to bring their employees back into the office.
Some are firmly convinced that everyone needs to come back full-time right now. Others are equally convinced that employees should be granted total flexibility — come in when you want and as much or as little as you want. Many are somewhere in between these two extremes. And almost everyone is feeling confused and uncertain about what is best.
Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. In each company, it takes a unique set of circumstances to retain your best people while maximizing the good work you get out of them. Still, there are a few guidelines to keep front-of-mind.
The top company executives had been interviewing candidates for the CFO role. They found someone they really liked and were convinced he was the right guy for the job. In fact, they were already driving him around the town to show him attractive neighborhoods where his family could live. By the time they asked me to interview and assess the candidate, his hire was all but a done deal. I was just answering a few last-check questions: Was he the right leader for the job? Would he be a good fit with the company culture?
We’re all old hands at virtual work by now. That technology that seemed impossible a year ago? We’ve figured it out. Working with kids and pets underfoot? No problem. Avoiding going into the kitchen for a snack every half-hour? Well, maybe that one we’re still working on.
And now we’re starting to think about returning to the office and the world of 3D work. Many of us are vaccinated and itching to get back to in-person collaboration. Others have found working from home (WFH) quite satisfying and aren’t quite so thrilled at the prospect of putting our business “uniforms” back on and heading out into the world of face-to-face interactions.
Many years ago I worked for a mental health clinic that employed a variety of professionals, including two social workers. When annual raises were announced, one of the social workers, Anne, had received a larger raise than the other one, Judy.
Judy was annoyed at the disparity, so she went to the Medical Director to ask for the reason. Dr. Frank explained that both women were doing a good job with their clients. But in addition to her day work, Anne was very involved in the community, representing the clinic at evening events and serving on some community boards, while Judy was not engaging in those activities. Anne’s visibility and contribution to the community reflected well on the clinic, and so she was rewarded for her commitment.
I don’t know whether Judy was satisfied with this explanation. But it is to Dr. Frank’s credit that he was willing and able to provide a clear explanation for the difference in the two raises. Too often that is not the case. Too many organizations have a “trust us” approach, where decisions about promotions and raises are made in a “black box” with no clear rationale.
“If you’re looking for a firm with a strong team connection where you can be your whole self … ”
“We welcome all, and seek talented individuals who can bring their whole self to work … ”
“We appreciate different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives — encouraging everyone to bring their authentic selves to work.”
“We cultivate a community of playful personalities that thrive in a fast-paced environment where our employees can be their most authentic selves.”
These quotes are from recent job postings at well-known companies. They reflect a powerful trend in current thinking about the kind of environment that talented employees are seeking. They also imply that this kind of environment will bring out the best in their people.
This wording may be useful from a marketing perspective. But let me tell you, as guidance for getting ahead and moving into a leadership role, it’s dead wrong.
What does the job market look like post-COVID? I know, we’re not quite there yet, but I’m certainly seeing a lot more business leaders moving into great new roles, as well as a lot more optimism about the near future. So what’s the landscape like?
Here in Illinois, Crain’s Chicago Business just published a list of the 10 most in-demand jobs (subscription required). At first glance, the list did not surprise me. The top eight jobs are all technical IT jobs — except one. But that one, the HR specialist at No. 5, did surprise me.
In this digital world of ours, where so many of us have been living on screens and keyboards for the past year, why is there a big demand for specialists in the management of human capital?
Whom do you trust these days? 2020 was a shocking and challenging year on so many levels. There were so many lies, and so many ways to spread them rapidly. Are there any voices left that we can listen to with confidence?
Last March, when most of us were just starting to learn about COVID 19 and the world was shutting down, I asked a medical expert, “How long is this going to go on? When is life going to get back to normal?” She answered, “Probably late summer.” I was shocked and horrified. How on earth could we live in isolation that long? How would businesses survive? What would happen to family relationships, to our communities? I couldn’t imagine that the crisis could go on that long.
Yet here we are at the end of 2020, and there’s no sign of a return to normalcy. Sure, for many of us the isolation is not as strict as it was in those early months. But no one I know has a life that is in any way “normal.” I’m so tired of this. My clients are all tired of it. The whole world is tired. And once again, I’m asking, “When is life going to get back to normal?”
How do employees find out about opportunities in your company? Not just full-time jobs, but also opportunities to participate in projects, find a mentor, engage in networking, or learn something new? How do leaders learn about employees’ skills, aspirations, and passions?
In most companies, the answer is – it’s difficult. Often, employees have access only to the opportunities their managers know about and are willing to share with them. And equally often, leaders have many demands on their time with few opportunities to really get to know their people.
The calls for organizational innovation always intensify during a crisis. Sure, many leadership qualities and behaviors are in high demand right now, including the ability to handle your own and others’ emotions, the skill to set clear expectations and hold people accountable, and the gumption to make the tough calls. But the one trait I hear asked for most often is the ability to innovate — to think about problems in new ways and move swiftly to create novel solutions.
Innovative ingenuity is an individual skill. But it is powerfully affected by organizational culture. Many companies are very effective at squashing innovation, often unintentionally. How often have you heard leaders respond to a new idea with, “Oh, we already tried that and it didn’t work?” Or watched as new ideas were ignored, dismissed, or even stolen. And then leaders wonder why their team members aren’t frequently bringing them bold, creative ideas.
James is the Chief Human Resource Officer at a Company G, a professional services firm. For years he has been committed to increasing the diversity of the employee population at the firm, especially at the mid- and senior-management levels. He is well aware of the beneficial impacts of diversity on multiple measures of company success, from innovation to customer relations to profitability. He has the backing of the CEO and the senior leadership team. He has helped to establish Employee Resource Groups for women, LGBTQ, and members of racial minority groups. He has brought in trainers to increase employees’ awareness of racial and gender bias and stereotyping. Every year he has been tracking the number of new minority hires. And the numbers haven’t budged.
This summer, the sharply increased focus on racial injustice and exclusion has led James to reflect once more on his own attitudes and biases. It has renewed his commitment to make a difference on the diversity front at Company G. But he is very frustrated – what else can he do that will really make a difference?
I hate the phrase “new normal” to describe this horrible time we’re living through and what lies ahead. I wrote about the phrase in early May, quoting my colleague, Constance Dierickx, who said, “This situation is not the new normal; it is a time of extreme disruption.” To me, “new normal” implies resigning yourself, settling, saying, “Well, I guess this is the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And then, a couple of weeks ago I attended a panel sponsored by the Executives’ Club of Chicago on “Reinventing to Reopen: How to Succeed in our New Normal.” One of the speakers introduced the phrase “the new better.”