VCU Center for Corporate Education

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The Center for Corporate Education’s Senior Director, Michaela Bearden, considers how moving to a permanent work-from-home workforce might greatly impact employees, managers, and organizations moving forward.

Halfway through May, about two months into a national stay-at-home order, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey announced an intriguing scenario for employees – the ability to work from home, permanently. His statement included the following language: “…if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen. If not, our offices will be their warm and welcoming selves, with some additional precautions, when we feel it’s safe to return.” 

While I appreciate his care for his employees and the lengths he may be willing to go to support them, I also have this nagging neon sign blinking – “Proceed with caution!” Building workplace culture and community is an intentional and continuous effort expended by a lot of time, money and sweat equity.  Too much expended energy in fact to change indefinitely in response to a crisis that we are still living within.  

How do we manage the unintentional consequences of bold changes we make to our business during a crisis?  What will our communities look like if other large corporations swing the pendulum so boldly in the same direction? 

Consequences of making bold organizational change as a result of a disruptive crisis.

The shift from working in an office to working from home due to the pandemic was an unplanned change for many companies.  Rising to the challenge, creative solutions developed overnight with organizations acting swiftly to empower employees and adapt services to limit customer disruption. Overall, employers and employees have been pleased with the results. According to a Gallup poll, post pandemic, 51% of employees would like to continue working remotely.  Stabilized production efforts, coupled with potential savings with a reduction in office space is enticing — so enticing, that corporate leaders are considering more permanent work from home options.  

For the foreseeable future, returning to the office carries health liabilities and operational risks that should be avoided when possible.  However, in the long run, not returning to the office carries economic risk for hundreds and thousands of employees that depend on a mobile and community-centric workforce. Corporate culture faces risks as well because so much of our identity is tied to our work, and our work culture is often made up of our community as a collective.  Sweeping change may not be the best way forward. Real time responses and adjustments – tweaks to patterned behavior and a commitment to remain agile, may provide additional insights. Consider the following framework:

Pause. It is important to keep in mind that our response and our efforts are the result of an unplanned change.  For many companies, the ‘work from home’ order was a required outcome of a global pandemic, not a planned strategic decision made by a collection of leaders based on data, organizational culture, and a desire to fundamentally shift the company.  

Unplanned change presents opportunities to be innovative, see how agile you really are, and examine the rules behind operational procedures. During unplanned changes, you won’t see significant resistance because a crisis forces all of us to operate in the unknown.  Employees are willing to manage change and the chaos it brings amidst a crisis – because what choice do they have?  However, this utopian world where no one pushes back is often short lived.  While you can swiftly push new ideas into practice for a while, large-scale organizational change might be difficult to maintain without reflection, planning, and company-wide buy in.  

We cannot fully understand the effects of our workplace response to the global pandemic until the dust begins to settle and we reflect with clear minds on how we processed such dramatic changes to our everyday lives.

Recognize and Reflect. Throughout this crisis and post-crisis, there will be opportunities to assess the adjustments to process and procedure that worked well, and where inconsistencies led to breakdowns in communications and services. There will also be opportunities to reconnect with team members and evaluate their reactions to the changes as a result of the crisis.  Employees will be able to talk through the benefits and challenges of working from home as a result of the stay-at-home order and talk through how working from home might look different under less stressful circumstances.  Leaders will be able to map out how their communities and small business partners change as a result of a majority remote workforce. Addressing change and reflecting on the downstream effects of change can help companies decide how to operate moving forward. Structural and human resource changes will call into question how to live out the values of an organization.  Before altering the culture of their companies, leaders must consider how their decisions will impact work moving forward – what they gain, and what they stand to lose. 

Plan. Inevitably, unintended consequences arise when you adopt work habits that were developed to manage a crisis. While it might make sense to fully embrace some new processes or procedures, adopting large ones without forethought could change the foundation of the organization. Culture takes time to build – it is not something to upend overnight.  Your company’s culture is likely a combination of the people that work in your office and the community around it. Things to consider: 

  • How does this change support the organization’s mission?
  • How will we live out the company values, would any of our values change? 
  • What are the implications on our 3- or 5-year plan (looking at the structure of the organization, finances, human resource and technology needs, and symbolism)?
  • What type of environment does your workforce need in order to thrive? How would you define your organization’s culture?
  • How does your workforce engage with the community?  What is the economic impact of pulling your workforce away from the physical office? For organizations with multiple office locations, how is each community affected? 
  • How will you rewrite your operational procedures to support the change?

Respond. Before swinging the pendulum, take time to reflect on how your company and your workforce responded to the crisis. Take in multiple perspectives and then, respond as an informed leader. It’s possible that a hybrid approach is the best way to support your employees, business objectives, and community.

Collectively, organizations shifted amidst a crisis to support their workforce, and their bottom line. In crisis, leaders focused on remaining open for business and relevant. Business was not operating ‘as normal.’  

Coming out on the other side of this crisis, we would be remiss to ignore the opportunities realized.  Thanks to technology, we have a highly agile workforce.  Companies moved entire operations online seemingly overnight.  However, it would be reckless to charge forward and adopt processes designed in response to a crisis without reflecting on our collective experience, and planning out how embracing our response long term affects our purpose, our people, and our community.

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