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A Return to the Office is in Sight. Now What?

The pandemic dramatically accelerated change in the way we work. Now, leaders see choices ahead in a post-COVID world. Deloitte’s Workplace expert Jeff Schwartz offers his guide for leaders on how to chart a path for growth, rather than simply going back to ‘normal.’

The future of work may have arrived sooner than we expected, courtesy of COVID-19, creating the need for new mindsets for how we approach collaboration, management, and setting a future-focused agenda. As we begin 2021, business leaders have the opportunity to rebuild the core structures of their organizations, and they can take what worked and didn’t work during the COVID lockdown era with them as they chart a new course.

But what will that course entail? We consulted Jeff Schwartz, a founding partner of Deloitte Consulting’s Future of Work practice and author of the new book, Work Disrupted. Schwartz started researching the topic seven years ago, exploring the intersection of talent, people and management, and technology and workforce transformation. COVID-19 made his work less academic and more applicable, because the pandemic elicited changes that happened in just weeks or months, instead of what everyone assumed would take years. “My favorite quote of 2020 was from Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, a think tank,” says Schwartz. “She said the global pandemic has been a time machine to the long-predicted future of work.”

As part of his research, Schwartz interviewed top executives about the future of work and found that the disruption we saw in 2020 has paved the way for a new, more collaborative era. His book lays out new maps and strategies that will help leaders navigate the opportunities presented by accelerated changes and shifts in organizational culture. 

Out of Office: Why do we need new maps for navigating the future of work?

Schwartz: Quite simply, because the world has changed. Albert Einstein once said you can’t use an old map to explore a new world—although many leaders today are trying to do just that. It reminds me of the difference between navigating with a paper map (which is reminiscent of the paper state road atlas in my parents’ car when I was a kid) and Waze—in effect a GPS, which creates maps with real time information. New circumstances require new approaches and fresh perspectives.

Not only do we need new maps, we need new guides. When it comes to the future of work, the current generations in the workforce may be working through one of the most pivotal and disruptive periods for workers in history. The acceleration and growth of automation, AI, remote work, 100-year lives, platform-based companies, online talent markets and augmented reality are all harbingers of this future. These drivers and this new context require a shift in perspective.

What can we all learn from how business leaders responded to the Coronavirus pandemic, either by panicking or pivoting to something new?

Perhaps the main lessons we learned are that we are much more adaptable than we thought. In six, eight, nine months, we’ve seen amazing adaptability of the workforce. People have really stepped up to the plate and are getting work done. And for many workers, this has involved taking on new jobs, new responsibilities, and new projects. Work has been less about what you were hired to do—less about your job description—and more about what had to be done and what you could do. Worker potential came to the forefront, and the result has been an increase in innovation and productivity in some industries. Employees and workers have been what we’ve been dependent on. We’ve become more resilient as a workforce. I hope we can bring these lessons forward in a sustainable way. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of how our work and personal lives are both disrupted and accelerated by significant economic, social and technological shifts.  

COVID challenged everyone. We had to pivot. Panic—looking back or standing still—was not an option. 

What must leaders do to welcome people back to the office?

We have the opportunity to reimagine work, but to do this, we need to confront the challenge of organizational and cultural inertia. Culturally, there will be a real pull to go back to what we were doing before. It will be important to deeply listen and understand the sentiments of your workers for how they would like to work going forward. Take stock of the new workforce, and the workplace personas which have evolved and taken hold over the past year, whether it’s the homebody, the hybrid flexer, the office socialite, the traveler, and then co-design what the workplace and work is going to be like. 

Leaders must come up with new mental models about how people will do their work. They should ask team members to help define what customers and workers want and how to deliver the results. It’s co-designing work. The future is not predetermined. We have choices in 2021, which is phenomenal.

How can leaders keep employees focused, motivated and engaged in our new world of remote work?

Culture and management practices are at the heart of the question. To be effective with new ways of working, including hybrid and flex work, we need our managers and teams to develop a shared understanding of how to work, what’s important, how to respect personal and work boundaries.

So, culture, norms, expectations, new routines and updated views of performance management and metrics, are all critical. How this is communicated, and how managers walk the walk on these new ways of working are critical. If culture is the unwritten rules, then we obviously need both new formal and unwritten rules to successfully work through these shifts. This requires much more than lifting and shifting our pre-COVID management practices to a virtual and newly hybrid world.

This goes along with how you talk about how future-focused leaders should think of themselves more as coaches and less as “traditional” managers. Tell us more.

The historical role of managers is often framed in terms of a clipboard, supervising and monitoring the workforce and their productivity. That is shifting. The work we do is more team based, more project based, and less predictable. It’s more outcome-based and experienced-based and less about supervision and compliance.

The challenge for leaders is more about fueling performance than simply monitoring it, and that’s why coaching is so important. It’s not enough to supervise workers to make sure they’re doing their assigned tasks; great managers need to be constantly coaching and developing individual workers and their teams to improve their capabilities and performance. The images we all have of coaches in sports—specifically player-coaches—is very relevant here. Managers of sports teams need to do more than assign players to the roster for the game; they need to constantly be building and improving—fueling—the capabilities of the team, and all of its members.

In that vein, you talk about the importance of team-based thinking. What does that look like?

In a world that is fast changing, less predictable and requiring continuous innovation, teams are where the action, and the magic, happens in organizations. Teams are organized around a mission—specific goals—and then reconfigured to focus on the next challenge. This is shaping both how managers organize work—focusing on teams and not necessarily the organization chart, as well as our jobs. And these teams are increasingly based on assignments and challenges, and not repetitive types of work and standard processes (many of which will become automated).  

How do we build for teams now in the new organization structure and ensure we’re paving the way for teamwork, in addition to individual work?

For a hundred years, we have seen work as a process or factory model with individuals performing prescribed tasks. But as work now is more project and mission based, we need an approach to putting teams and team dynamics at the center of work and the organization. We can do this by focusing management practices on assembling, supporting, and coaching teams designed for specific projects and missions. This involves using talent marketplaces that allow workers to join project teams and assignments and exercise choice about the projects they work on. Building teams involves our middle managers becoming player coaches, focusing on both the performance and dynamics of the team and supporting individuals to best perform to contribute and fuel the team’s overall results. This combination—of results, team dynamics, and individual development and opportunity—is a critical mix.

You say in your book that a career “ladder” is no longer a helpful term. Why?

During the past decade, and probably a bit longer, we have been experiencing a shift from the familiar, traditional, career model—education, work, retirement—to a multi-chapter view of longer lives. You can’t tell what people are doing and their level in an organization by their age anymore–you have interns at 20- and 60-years old, and team leads at the same ages. The ladder is being replaced by a lattice (think of that crisscrossing structure we put in our gardens to provide the growth platform for plants and vines). A linear career is being replaced by a career portfolio. One of our clients reminds us that the ladder has been replaced by a jungle gym—and in the book we have a great cartoon illustrating the shift of the career ladder to exactly that, a jungle gym—moving in different directions and at different speeds.

What is the first step you recommend for anyone setting a future-focused agenda for their workplace in 2021?

I have to smile because the question reminds me of a famous story about President Kennedy who is talking with a gardener about planting trees near the White House. Kennedy asked about planting an olive tree and the gardener responded that it would take years before the olive tree would produce fruit. In that case, Kennedy responded, plant the olive trees right away. In other words: get started. The future does come at us fast—in accelerated bursts, like we experienced in 2020—and while we don’t know precisely what will happen, and when, we have a good idea of what’s coming. 

Future-focused agendas need to reflect our general understanding of what’s coming, and a lot of this is driven by technology, but also what we want and the development of enduring human capabilities: problem solving, communication, social intelligence, and teaming often top this list. As I mentioned earlier, the current generations in the workforce—those working between 1995 and 2030—may be working through one of the most concentrated and disruptive periods for workers in history.  

I recently read an article on the top trending questions in Google searches in 2020. One in particular caught my attention. In 2020, the world searched “how to change the world” twice as much as “how to go back to normal.” That’s a lot of opportunity, a lot of adapting, a lot of growth and a lot of choices in front of us.