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To thrive, "return to work" can't be a return to strategic status quo

No matter how you consume your news, there’s one recurrent topic dominating it right now: How we will get back to work? For the better part of a year, offices were dark, even as computer screens glowed ever more brightly.

Now, with each passing day, it’s looking safer to go back to the office. But what’s clear is that it isn’t just where work gets done that’s being examined, but how. The pandemic forced massive change in how work gets done -- some good, some less so, and scant little of it unanimously agreed upon. All of this is loaded into the question, what will we do? Will we remain in our virtual nests? Adopt some mashed-up version of in-person and online? Or will we resume the five-day-a-week-in-the-cubicle life we once knew?

The fact that everyone is talking about this isn’t surprising. The surprise is that the talk is tactical when it needs to be strategic.

Today, how and where we work is fundamentally a strategic question. Rather than a tactical question asked and answered once as it so often was in the past, how and where we work is likely to remain a question ongoing. Like it or not, we live in a world not just transformed by the pandemic, but a world now characterized by perpetual transformation.

Beginning long before COVID-19, the entire 21st century to date has been more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than any time in modern history. Rather than a single event, this VUCA dynamic is what I’ve come to call our “new abnormal.”

In a pre-pandemic interview with Harvard Business Review, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon captured it well. When asked, ‘Do you ever feel the pace of change is out of control?’ McMillon said, “Once upon a time, a company like ours might have made big strategic changes on an annual or quarterly basis. Today (they’re) daily.”

He even joked that more often than not it felt hourly -- a jest too many leaders are finding to be too close to the truth to be funny. In a rapidly-changing, ever-changing world, even decisions once considered merely tactical become central to an organization’s overall strategy. That’s challenging enough,

But this shift isn’t the only complication of how we’ll get back to work, as a recent joint study by Microsoft and LinkedIn laid bare.

Released in May, the study surveyed 30,000 respondents from a wide range of sectors and organizational levels. Its chief finding goes right to the heart of the getting-back-to-work question: Not just employees, but also managers and leaders alike, want both the flexibility to work remotely and the kind of human interaction that convening in an office gives. Microsoft has dubbed this the Hybrid Paradox, because the right answer isn’t going to be one extreme or the other, nor is the right answer going to sit still in the middle.

It’s going to be dynamic, and that is going to require a full-on shift in strategic perspective about how work gets done. Other trendlines revealed by the study deepen this conclusion.

According to the report, the shifts emerging right now showing signs of being even greater than those we experienced in 2020. The following trends stand out:

  1. Flexible work is here to stay.
  2. The high productivity many are seeing right now is in fact masking an exhausted workforce, one weary at the thought of further change.
  3. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world, and every team needs a broader expanse of talent than ever before
  4. The kicker: The study showed starkly that leaders are out of touch with their employees and, as Microsoft and LinkedIn put it, need a wakeup call.

Clearly the challenge is bigger than any one question (like how to get back to work) or any one decision. The challenge is the need to shift our mindset fundamentally and collectively about work and how it gets done. But how?

While every organizations journey will be different, here are three starter thoughts to guide you, now and ongoing:

Acknowledge and embrace the paradox

The hybrid paradox Microsoft calls out is but one version of the larger paradox every organization faces in an uncertain world. Simple answers that last forever have been replaced by the need to pursue adaptability as both a constant need and the most desired competitive advantage of any team.

Still, it’s a hard truth when what you want most is a new status quo. That status quo isn’t coming. Embrace the paradox, and change your thinking from tactical to strategic.

Maintain the priority of outcomes over how work gets done

When the pandemic first forced us out of the office, many managers grappled with what matters most, getting the outcomes you want, or maintaining the processes that once gave you those outcomes. Managers who manage process (as most do), must learn to manage outcomes. Those organization that stopped prioritizing process over outcome fared better during COVID-19's peak.

The pandemic was but an example of the uncertain environment in which we now operate. Keeping the priority on outcomes is the smart strategic move.

See the challenge and the value equation in bigger terms

The Microsoft/LinkedIn report suggested that one of the best ways to approach decisions in this new abnormal, including how to return to work, is to maintain a sense of the big picture, specifically to think of decisions large and small in terms of the social capital, knowledge capital and human capital each requires and returns. A similar study by Deloitte advised focusing on the physical, the emotional and the digital.

Consider combining the advice. But no matter what you do, make sure these compass points or similar ones guide the details rather than the other way around.  

 

Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: "The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity" and "A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress." As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, "Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times," was released June 1, 2021.

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