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FOUR PILLARS FOR THE FUTURE

The “future of work” is here, thanks to Covid-19

Jason Wingard
By Jason Wingard

Dean and professor of human capital management at the School of Professional Studies, Columbia University

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Modern Leadership

The people and companies embracing new paradigms.

As the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded, corporate leaders have scrambled to develop radical new strategies for accessing customers, maintaining supply chains, and salvaging revenue streams. Many of their solutions have been strikingly innovative.

Yet when it comes to the ins and outs of the white-collar work environment—where, when, and how we work each day—the changes are exactly what I would’ve expected. This isn’t to say that white-collar employers aren’t innovating. In some ways, this crisis has merely catapulted them directly into a future we’ve all been inching toward for years: the so-called future of work.

As dean of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, and a professor of human capital management, my research and teaching both focus on the future of work domain. And I’ve long wondered about the necessary drivers to accelerate the shift toward a more remote-friendly, data-based, and impact-focused workplace.

Though I never would’ve wished for a pandemic to be the catalyst, I do believe our suddenly new ways of working are here to stay. As leaders adjust to this, here are four future-of-work pillars to which I hope they’ll be paying special attention.

Pillar 1: Flexible hours

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, our definition of the word “office” has changed dramatically. It has expanded beyond cubicles and co-working spaces to include kitchen tables, couches, and even bathrooms.

The definition of the “workday” has changed, as well; it is no longer limited to a certain subset of hours that all employees share. For parents especially, the workday has become whatever they can fit in, whenever the fewest people are vying for their attention.

Without the boundaries of a physical office space or strict working hours, employees have been forced to set—and communicate—their own availability, based upon their personal schedules and productivity levels. This shift would’ve eventually occurred with the future of work, as well.

While some leaders might be nervous this flexibility will lead to reduced productivity, I have the opposite fear: that, without a delineation between office and home life, employees may work too much. In one survey of more than 4,500 developers and tech workers, for example, 66% of remote employees reported feeling burnt out. The reason? More than half cited longer work hours.

With that in mind, leaders should fight the urge to micromanage their teams and instead act as advocates for their newly remote employees, encouraging them to set clear boundaries and to protect themselves from work-from-home exhaustion.

Pillar 2: Data-based employee metrics

In a more flexible environment, leaders don’t need to stop evaluating employee performance—far from it. They’ll simply need to create new metrics of success, as they will no longer be able to judge employee effectiveness (foolishly, it might be argued) based on hours spent in the office.

At Automattic, the tech company that created WordPress, all 1,180 employees are remote. To measure individual success, CEO Matt Mullenweg has said the company focuses on outputs rather than inputs. Instead of assessing an employee’s hours or availability, Mullenweg asks: “What do you actually produce?”

To be well-positioned for continued remote work during and after the pandemic, leaders will need to emulate Mullenweg, and develop new, measurable metrics of success for each employee. For a salesperson, perhaps it’s the number of phone calls they make. For a human resources professional, perhaps it’s the employee turnover rate. Because these metrics are so vertical-specific, leaders shouldn’t hesitate to co-create them with their teams.

Then, once the metrics are set, leaders must make their new expectations crystal clear. Line managers and supervisors should schedule meetings with team members to answer questions and eliminate roadblocks. They should also determine a regular cadence for subsequent one-on-ones, as workers generally desire a higher degree of feedback when they are remote.

As anyone will tell you, however, the most important key to managing remote employees is trust. Leaders must simply trust that they hired good people, and that those good people will continue to do the work for which they are being compensated. That trust will allow leaders to foster a successful remote culture both during the pandemic and beyond.

Pillar 3: Social impact

As soon as the coronavirus hit, companies found ways to help: churning out hand sanitizer in distilleries, making hotel rooms available to hospital workers, and donating everything from money to masks to ponchos.

While some might speculate these actions were merely PR grabs—and, for some, they certainly were—the end result is the same: Companies have taken up the mantle of social good, and they aren’t likely to relinquish it once the pandemic dissipates.

In fact, they were already on this path. Back in August 2019, the Business Roundtable, a group of 181 leading CEOs, expanded its definition of a corporation’s purpose to include “supporting the communities in which we work.” Today’s employees and customers care deeply about the values of the companies with which they interact. The future of work, in other words, has social good woven into its core.

Forward-thinking leaders will continue to prioritize corporate social impact. They will build long-term relationships with nonprofits, offering resources, funding, and volunteer opportunities, and will cultivate a workplace culture that invests in more than just the bottom line.

Pillar 4: Authentic relationships

Over the decades I’ve been part of the business world, I’ve noticed countless formalities slowly dissipate. Few of us refer to our superiors as “sir” or “ma’am” or Mr. or Ms. anymore; in most cases, we just use their first name. Modern workplace communications are rife with emoji and abbreviations—conversational elements that would’ve been unacceptable a decade ago.

Now that we’re experiencing a season of global crisis together, the last semblances of formality have been stripped away. The term “business casual” has taken on new meaning, as we’ve literally seen into each other’s homes and met each other’s partners, pets, and children. Mishaps we might have previously deemed as “unprofessional” are now “just another day at the office.” This has led to workplace interactions that are more authentic and relaxed—another key component of the future of work.

What’s key now is avoiding a culture wherein every interaction, albeit casual, becomes transactional. Without water coolers and office banter, employees may feel as though they only hear from colleagues when something is needed. Leaders can encourage more meaningful connections through virtual lunches or happy hours, online book clubs, and exercise or cooking challenges—anything that gets team members talking about something other than their to-do lists.

Although at this moment it is difficult to imagine a day when the coronavirus no longer controls most aspects of our lives, I am certain that day will come. And when it does, I believe the smartest business leaders won’t rush back to the constraints of unnecessary formalities, cubicles, or commutes. Instead, they will accept that the future of work has already arrived—and, in doing so, will prepare themselves and their teams for whatever comes next.

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