As the dust settles post-pandemic (sort of), workplaces are trying to sort out what is the new normal for the location of workers. In the before times, for many workplaces it was the default that people would regularly go into the office, that work-from-home days were a special and occasional privilege and that employees had little say in the overall process.
The pandemic has changed everything. It has proven that traditional arguments of employees being unproductive at home, that business profit will suffer and that the workforce will fall apart are all old-school assumptions.
We live in a digital world where most of the workforce already does so much online, from taxes to banking to full daily social interaction with friends and family. For all those doing work that basically involves sitting at a desk computer and/or taking calls, location has become irrelevant.
So in this world of choices, what is the better approach for a fantastic, productive, happy workplace?
As a fully virtual firm since we opened in 2017, we do have a bit of a bias, but we’ve also had the chance to test out various iterations of office configuration and work with clients who are trying to sort out the employment law nuances around the location of workers. Here are our top 3 issues to consider when determining the location of work going forward.
1) Pick one
The workplaces we see struggling with the new era are either trying a version of everything to please everyone or are inflexibly picking the one version of a workplace that works mainly for the most senior people, not the majority of the workplace. “Hybrid” can work if deliberately planned and set out, but it often becomes code for “Whatever, We’re Not Sure Yet.”
Workplaces thrive when a clear framework is set out, even if employees don’t always love every aspect. We see far more workplace disputes based on broken telephone, misunderstandings and assumptions than disagreements about a clear rule in the workplace. Setting out clear written parameters and expectations around where and when people should work will eliminate many disputes. It sounds obvious, but as workplaces sort things out post-pandemic, there are often still many details to confirm or update to the team.
2) Avoid 2-class systems
Most offices have a range of roles where some employees can truly work from anywhere but others need to be in the office. For example, whoever is in charge of dealing with the mail needs to physically be in the office to receive, triage, scan and deliver mail and packages coming into the workplace. On the other hand, the more senior level people who are busy thinking and drafting strategy plans or reviewing other peoples’ work, or simply have more discretion (i.e., leverage) to work where they want, can do that from a beautiful cottage up north.
For employees who prefer working from home, they are quick to see these differences as inequity and unfairness. For certain jobs, in-person is simply required (e.g., bus drivers, daycare workers). But for so many office jobs, we see junior people being required to go into work to facilitate the senior people’s ability to work by the lake. It doesn’t feel good for the have-nots.
The consequences have been loud and clear for the last while — people simply vote with their feet and leave. Management is bewildered, complaining about bad work ethic, while the bottom half of the org chart is no longer content to support or accept inefficiencies, old-school paper habits or workflows “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”
The answer? Go paperless and put everything in the cloud as much as possible. That frees up most office workers, while rotating the “have-not” roles to give people more flexibility, options and where possible, agency to choose.
3) Focus on optimizing workplace communications
A theme we see weaving throughout the debate around in-person vs work-from-home is that only in-person can result in good communication and team building.
Not true. The generation coming into the workplace turns to digital communication first. For so much of life, it’s faster, easier, moves things forward efficiently. Embracing both asynchronous and synchronous communications will bridge the four generations currently in the workplace.
How? By having a clear internal communications strategy that is shared with everyone around what gets discussed where, when to do it and, most importantly, WHY. Here are some suggestions:
- Put day-to-day internal water cooler chat in a Slack channel, Google Chat room, Teams Chat, Discord channel, etc. Some level of informal chit-chat and humour helps build rapport.
- Give co-workers instructions and detailed client/customer information in a dedicated software or an email, not in a chat room where it can get lost in the shuffle.
- Get specific about what is an internal vs external communication and set out parameters for each.
- Have the heavy performance management or career development conversations on a video, not over Slack.
- If hybrid or virtual, ensure everyone has a 1:1 video chat with someone at least once a week, if not more. This is critical for engagement and checking in on both work and how the employee is doing. Managing employees still requires direct communications, ideally video if you are virtual.
- Have regular recurring full team video calls to bring everyone together for meetings, but ensure you have smaller group calls for those who are more introverted and don’t thrive in the big group calls.
- Even in a fully virtual office, having some regular cadence of in-person will contribute to and solidify the day-to-day rapport building.
At SpringLaw, we’ve designed our firm to be entirely virtual, paperless, in the cloud and collaborative. Our team has an annual 2-day retreat, a quarterly 1-day Meet-Up and, after the 2 years of pandemic lockdowns, we recently started monthly optional co-working days at Verity, a women’s business club in Toronto. For those in smaller homes/apartments, who live with their parents or simply crave some in-person group activities, some co-working has been great.
We continue to have no bricks and mortar office, which post-covid has become basically irrelevant and the norm for so many businesses. The key is to re-imagine what will bring people together in an effective virtual way without trying to cut-and-paste in-person experiences. Virtual is different. Embracing and defaulting to that difference rather than trying to put an in-person dress on your virtual office will enable a fresh and innovative version of your workplace to emerge.
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