Work has changed forever, and it’s up to managers to lead their employees through the changes — including some we don’t even know about yet.
The first quarter of 2020, when going to work was business as usual, feels like it was years ago rather than just months. Since then, the world has faced a sweeping global pandemic, and workplaces have grappled with the challenge of rewriting all the rules for employee expectations as offices were forced to close and social distancing became an everyday part of our lives.
Now, as some workers return to their offices and others embrace once-temporary changes are here to stay, they’re all looking to their managers and leaders to help navigate this new normal. We’re all making this transition together, and there are plenty of unknowns.
But by following these tips to help guide and manage your employees’ expectations during this shift, you can help your organisation come out the other side even stronger than before.
Some flexible working changes are here to stay
The biggest change managers and workplace leaders will have to help their employees navigate is the fact that many of the changes put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.
We don’t know how long the pandemic will last, and even once it ends, we don’t know whether work will ever go back to the way it was before.
A recent Pioneer Institute survey found as many as 70 percent of employees started working from home this year because of the pandemic. Nearly 63 percent of them said even when the pandemic is over, they’d like to keep working remotely.
What does that mean for managers? There’s likely going to be a continuing, ongoing need for a shift in how you lead your workforce and manage employee expectations.
Remote work creates new challenges for management, and meeting those challenges head-on means embracing the idea of giving your employees more autonomy; using perks and motivation to encourage them to meet personal goals, rather than micromanaging their work in an office setting.
Remote work also gives employees the opportunity to work during the hours that suit them, and if working from home continues, management could benefit from building a long-term strategy around offering flexible scheduling.
This means rethinking how to assess productivity in your workplace — being at a desk between certain hours is no longer a benchmark for work once employees are doing their jobs from home.
Reassess values to meet employee expectations
The coronavirus pandemic may have been a catalyst for a workplace culture shift, PwC’s head of clients and markets, people and organisation, Peter Brown, told TechRepublic earlier this year.
“With hindsight, I think there are some organisations that will be very proud of the reaction they’ve taken to COVID, and there will be others that perhaps might have done things differently,” Brown explained.
“I think we’re seeing more emergence of roles around the culture and wellbeing of staff, and more focus around the purpose point – what is this organisation about, how are we living that and how are we ingraining that in everything we do?”
As companies continue to move forward into the new work reality, many of them are grappling with those kinds of questions. It’s up to managers now to meet the rising expectations of their employees, who see a greater need not only for benefits like paid sick leave and high-quality healthcare, but also family leave and time off for mental health and self care.
Employees are an organisation’s strongest asset, and with the fears, anxieties and uncertainties we’re all facing in the age of the coronavirus, it’s up to management to build company values that support employee health and well-being, and then lead by example by taking care of themselves.
Workplace procedures and technology need updates
In addition to a cultural shift, managers need to create new procedures and embrace technology which allows for the new work reality we’re navigating.
The sudden shift to remote working that came at the start of the pandemic forced a lot of workplaces to update legacy and outdated tools and processes, trading them for new technology that supports our new work-from-home reality.
That’s unlikely to change moving forward. We already know most employees say they want to continue working from home even after social distancing is no longer necessary.
But, we also know the pandemic created new interest in cutting-edge technology tools, from video conferencing systems which allow for virtual meetings, to automated HR processes that allow for paper-free employee onboarding and limited human contact, even in the office.
Technologies that were once considered unexciting and unnecessary, like video conferencing, collaboration tools, phone services, VPNs and virtual desktops, are now considered more essential than ever. It’s up to leadership to provide the tools their employees need to succeed in this new work reality, and may mean making updates to your organisation’s existing IT infrastructure.
And moving forward, the most successful managers and leaders will be the ones who stay on top of new technology and quickly embrace new tools that can keep their workforces flexible and adaptable to meet their employee expectations.
Lead by example when it comes to workplace safety
One area of leadership that may be overlooked as employees and their managers return to work is safety — which includes things like office cleanliness, personal hygiene habits and social distancing at work.
The pandemic has put new focus on how cleanliness, health and safety intersect in the workplace, and managers can’t overlook their role in both setting employee expectations, and leading by example.
Yes, as employees return to offices, it will be important for cleaning crews to be extra vigilant during off-hours. But everyone in the office has a shared responsibility to keep things clean and safe. That means it’s on managers to set new policies about keeping individual areas tidy and clean, and then leading by example.
It’s also going to be necessary to remind employees about personal hygiene musts, like frequent hand washing. Those conversations are awkward, but they’re an important part of workplace safety in the post-covid world.
The parts of office safety that might be overlooked as employees return to their offices have to do with social distancing. Managers may need to create and enforce new policies relating to wearing masks, holding meetings in enclosed spaces like conference rooms, and greeting co-worker, customers and clients with handshakes.
All of those practices should be reevaluated, and managers should instead encourage their employees to have virtual meetings whenever possible and avoid handshakes and other physical touch in the office.
Flexibility and adaptability will remain important
You might have noticed a theme to all of these tips for navigating the new work reality: At the basis of each of them is the need to be agile, flexible and adaptable. Just like work has already changed forever, it will continue to change as we all learn how to move forward.
There are likely still changes coming to our workplaces that we haven’t even considered yet. Just like we couldn’t fathom a pandemic forcing so many of us to work from home as recently as earlier this year, things will continue to change — and some of those changes might be as rapid as these ones were.
We already know the most successful companies are the ones that stay agile and adaptable, able to take industry changes in stride as they come.
Now, management and leadership will have to demonstrate new levels of flexibility and adaptability — and help guide their employees toward being flexible, too. It’s always been the best way for organisations to not only survive, but thrive, and that’s more true than ever today.
The coronavirus pandemic changed how many of us work, and now that we’re navigating our new work reality, we’re finding some of those changes might be permanent.
Management and leadership now face new challenges in helping set employee expectations and lead by example as they guide their workers through shifting to remote work, embracing new tools and procedures, keeping their workplaces clean and safe and staying adaptable to more new changes that are almost certainly coming.
The bottom line is while managers can help their employees adjust to the work landscape as it looks right now, more changes are likely to come as the world learns to live with the coronavirus, and being agile and flexible is the best way for organisations to succeed.
About the Author
Christina Marfice is a freelance writer with Optimist. After years of news journalism, she now explores and writes on business strategies, leadership, and ecommerce solutions.