The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way we work and live. In March 2020, most of us pivoted from being in a traditional work environment to working remotely. For some of us, the transition was minimal or smooth; for others, the transition has been rough.
As we pivoted to virtual work and connections, we lost certain things we took for granted, or new issues began to surface. The phrase “Zoom fatigue” appeared in our work vocabulary. Looking at computer screens for eight hours or longer a day made our eyes and bodies more tired. If the stress of the pandemic was not enough, we started to suffer from feeling lonely and disconnected from our work colleagues and personal friends as we could not meet in person or travel.
The pandemic created both winners and losers in the business world. Many e-commerce companies such as Amazon benefitted from the shift to online shopping, but many in-person service industries such as airlines, tourism, and restaurants suffered. We also truly realized how interconnected we are as one world. The concept of globalization has been often discussed and witnessed in the past, but this pandemic has shown that what happens in one region of the world can spread quickly to other regions. We can no longer ignore global issues.
Some positive changes have come out of the pandemic. People did not have to commute to work as much and saved time as a result. Also, certain “loose” time at work, such as extended coffee breaks, water cooler talks, and interruptions in your office, disappeared with virtual work. (Of course, there was a downside to this as well.) We also realized that the virtual connections seemed to move beyond our geographic boundaries. For instance, international connections became more frequent with the convenience of Zoom.
Even before the pandemic, technology made our work-life boundaries fuzzy. Still, the physical separation between home and work provided some of us with a clear boundary between the two. With everyone staying home to work, the work-life boundaries became far fuzzier than pre-pandemic blur. All of a sudden, our pets and children became part of work meetings, and the demarcation between work and home no longer could be maintained by some employees.
Employees were not alone in their shifting landscapes; organizational leaders were no exception. Some leaders had difficulty adapting to this virtual shift. Their employees were nowhere in sight nor in their physical vicinity, and for some leaders, the transition to managing employees virtually was akin to the loss of control and abdication of their managerial oversight.
Nobody can deny that a rapid acceleration of change has taken place over the last two years. The question remains: what happens next? Some people are still grasping to the hope that once the pandemic is over, we can return to normalcy, pre-pandemic days, but if the current situation is any indication, that will not be happening. We might have to accept that this pandemic will become an endemic, and we will have to adjust our lives to cope with it.
Hybrid work is here to stay. More and more employees are either demanding remote work or partially remote work. It is not uncommon to hear of stories of people resigning or switching jobs for this flexibility. Employers need to decide whether they will become more willing to adapt or risk losing valuable employees due to their lack of flexibility.
This transition requires more than simply acquiescing to employees’ requests. Employers must assess individual needs rather than applying standardized practices. In other words, the organizations must shift from standardization of practice to a more individualized approach and practice.
The changes that are happening at the workplace, besides hybrid work, are quite sweeping. Many employees are questioning whether certain meetings or business travels need to take place in person or if they could be transitioned over to a remote format. In other words, the nature of the task would need to be examined more carefully rather than be automatic. Can this work be done remotely or virtually, or does this type of work require more in-person, interactive meetings?
I have found that while technology tools such as Google Jamboard can be quite helpful for virtual collaboration, certain activities such as generation of ideas and barn-raising (building of ideas through interactions and iterations) might be better suited for in-person collaberation.
Given that the transition to a virtual mode of operation is inevitable, we must think about creating a virtual office or campus space. In many traditional higher education institutions, the return to campus connection and experience is paramount, but as we transition to accommodate the new hybrid world, we must also create a virtual campus. How we stay connected and interact interpersonally in the virtual environment will also be a key to any organizational success in business.
This brings the question of a five-day or 40-hour work week. Many folks have been writing about this, and some organizations have tried to experiment with certain changes. The fundamental shift, as I see it, is not merely the number of hours or days we work per week, but the shift from an input-based work model to an output-based work model. However, this transition can be difficult for some leaders to accept.
The traditional view is that we pay people for their input (typically a number of hours a day), so if we are paying you for eight hours, we should get our money’s worth by having you work eight hours. Let’s change this to an output-based model; we are now paying you to complete this part of the task for today. If that were the case, who cares how long it takes to get the work done? If you can finish the work in six hours instead of eight, you deserve a two-hour break.
In addition, it does not matter when during the day the work gets done. For instance, you may spend a few hours during wee hours in the morning, before the traditional work start time, or you may attend to tasks for a few hours in the evening after dinner. Of course, the above scenario raises this argument by some: If employees finished their work in six hours rather than in eight hours, we should ask them to work an additional two hours, and that would increase our productivity?
The myth of productivity has been recently discussed by others (e.g., Oliver Burkeman, author of “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals”), and I will not expand on it here. However, it is clear that such questions can only arise under the input-based model of operation rather than the output-based model. I perceive this shift will be one of the most difficult transitions many leaders and organizations will face.
So far, we have been discussing organizational changes that are needed in the future work environment. What about leadership? As described earlier, some leaders have struggled to transition to virtual work and all that it entails. Some would have said they just need to hang on until the pandemic is over. The real issue is that going hybrid or virtual permanently also means a huge shift in how we lead people.
The way to lead people is no longer to monitor and control employees but to provide them more autonomy and empowerment. For some leaders, this will be a huge shift. In addition, leaders will need to demonstrate more empathy. It is apparent that during the pandemic, leaders need to empathize more with different situations of many employees, but the virtual environment makes it even more critical for leaders to demonstrate empathy.
Some of the leaders I have spoken to have been honest and expressed their struggles with the transition. One told me, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.” Another leader said, “I don’t even know my people are working to their fullest. I can’t see them. It’s been frustrating.”
To those leaders, I would say, “Move on.”
The change is here to stay, and the sooner you are able to adapt to the new environment, the more effective you will be. In addition, if business schools are to stay relevant, we must figure out ways to help our students adapt to the new working environments they are entering after graduation. The dawn of the new day is here, and it will be interesting to see which leaders and organizations will thrive in the future.
Kenneth Rhee is dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Nazareth College. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.