New year, new workplace: Five key changes in 2021

Vaccines are coming. Donald Trump is going. These are two of the top three changes for 2021 on my mind this Sunday as we enter the new year.

Of course, I am also thinking about changes in work. A multitude of things have changed since the damn-you-know-what knocked us out of our offices and into our Zoom rooms. Loads of business leaders are predicting that work as we knew it will never go back to the way it was. I agree. But it’s an oversimplistic statement. Before uttering such a declaration, we first must unpack and review the range of modifications and alterations which have taken place.

Next then, for each of us who adapted, pivoted or whatever you want to call it and somehow managed to keep on going, let’s decide what changes we should continue and codify. In addition, I’m also collectively calling upon us to examine one particular change that I believe we should do everything in our power to reject and curtail. So, reflect and resolve? Or review and reject? Let’s go!

1) Agility vs long-term-planning

Like each of you when we rang in 2020, I had plans. Organisations were set to roll out their strategic maps for the new decade, I had a calendar full of conferences and training programmes I was anticipating leading, and I’m sure you had plenty of activities and projects you were looking forward to as well.

But as, Douglas Adams, author of one of my favourite books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote “Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game”. No one predicted pandemic. By that second week of March, our plans were scrapped.

I stared agape at my inbox as a murmuration of emails arrived notifying me that every single one of my expected calendar dates was cancelled due to Covid-19.

Now, from the vantage point of January 2021, we can look back over our shoulders and see the successes we found in the most unexpected places.

For me, I launched my online learning platform, The Language of Leadership, updated my website to promote “support for remote workers”, and created a series of titles that supported those offerings of support. I emailed each of my current clients (and previous ones too) in hopes that someone would take me up on my offers. One by one, they did. And then, depending on the title someone chose, I crafted content to match the title. When I recently shared that story of “creativity” with Amy Bernstein, the editor of The Harvard Business Review, she craftily summed it up as, “service on demand”. Until then, I had thought of it more as “making webinars up to keep paying the rent”, but her description has such a more professional ring to it,We all had to start making things up. And our flexibility paid off. We shared different ends of the kitchen table as impromptu laptop desks with a spouse, partner or roommate. We introduced our pets and children through our company’s preferred online platform to business colleagues, clients and even prospects. We held project planning sessions with team members who weren’t in the same room with us, but rather occupied a rectangular piece of a large virtual mosaic. Since remote working began in earnest, I have started and ended virtual coaching engagements while never once seeing the other person’s feet.

Our ability to be flexible and agile during this time has replaced disciplined compliance to projections and expectations. We improvised when we needed to and learned valuable lessons about design thinking in the process.

Resolved: Flexibility and agility will continue to be hallmarks of individual and organisational success.

2) Skills vs location

One of my favourite coaching clients, Richard, who used to be based in Dublin where he led a team for a large multinational tech company, no longer calls Ireland home.

During the summer when lockdown relaxed a bit, he grabbed his wife, their young son and even their dog and hopped on a ferry. He and his wife, who also works for a large tech company, continued working remotely from their holiday home in France.

Their remote working gigs were so successful that toward the end of 2020, upper management gave Richard and his wife approval to extend remote status indefinitely. They sold their Dublin home and have now begun an adventure in France where their son is enrolled in school and “speaking French like a local”.

Connie Gibney, VP, Human Resources of MongoDB, states that this trend will continue. “Location based pay grades will be changed. Employers will focus more on the job and the skills that are required, regardless of the employee’s location. It’s like the way you are paid to write your column, no matter where you write it from.”

Good point.

As a contributor, not full-time writer with a desk in the newsroom, this column has always been “have wifi, will travel”. The travel part of that phrase does harken back to the time when traveling was easier, of course.

Before pandemic, I filed this column from anywhere I was traveling. From Alicante, Spain; Sydney, Australia or Arezzo, Italy to name just a few.

Already, many companies, including Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, are offering remote working packages permanently to employees.

Resolved: Location will become irrelevant for some jobs that can be performed remotely.

3) Ongoing performance conversations vs the annual review

To effectively oversee the performance of those now full-time, remote working employees, supervisors must establish a steady stream of touch points to monitor progress and productivity.

During the first wave of lockdown, companies realised they needed to dramatically increase their structured support for stressed teams in both remote working conditions and those who still needed to report in-person to fulfil their jobs.

“We’ve seen employees and plant workers who were doing triple shifts, call centres whose teams were dealing with massive volumes of calls and tech companies that were dealing with all manner of work from home situations,” explains Lauren Zajac, Chief Legal Officer for Workhuman, Ireland’s latest tech firm to reach unicorn status.

“Companies knew they couldn’t wait until the end of the year for performance reviews, so they’re moving to agile feedback mechanisms to recognise, reward and have performance conversations throughout the year as situations are arising.”

Resolved: Employee performance will be tracked more frequently.

4) Frequent recognition vs the year-end bonus

Along with the idea that we’re not going to be doing annual performance reviews, we’re also not going to be doing annual bonuses anymore. Because the same way we want continuing discussions about our performance, we also want a lot of our smaller, but still meaningful, efforts to be routinely spotlighted and rewarded.

“Workhuman provides ongoing performance management systems and social recognition tools because companies are promoting more of those, ‘I see you’ moments,” Lauren observes. “There needs to be an expectation that every person owns their own development and the development of others coupled with an easy-to-use piece of technology to create a safe space for conversations. Workhuman’s platform is called ‘Conversations’ for this reason.”

Resolved: Ongoing recognition and rewards programmes will fuel employee wellness, morale and motivation.

5) Office vs face-to-face employees

My final reflection is one which prompts more questions than answers from me. I struggle with the fact that nearly all my clients and the people targeted in this column have steady pay cheques – working for companies providing benefits and even amenities for setting up home-offices – which offer the kind of economic stability to think about being innovative and agile.

But what about those who are not in such positions?

The challenge posed by our future world of work is to make sure it doesn’t expand the gap between those embracing a new, more flexible work-life balance and those for whom flexibility means adhering to the ever-changing demands of policy makers.

The world has demonstrated that, when pressed, it can come together at a record pace to innovate a vaccine.

Resolved: Let’s reject the widening gap and commit to solving other problems with the same level of dedication and innovation.

Write to Gina in care of [email protected]

With corporate clients in five continents, Gina London is a premier communications strategy, structure and delivery expert. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor. @TheGinaLondon