The future of work is here. The pandemic ushered in a new way of working and it also accelerated trends already underway. By the spring of 2020, the number of people working from home in North America grew from 5% to 60%. This new way of working poured fuel into some critical trends – automation, virtual communication, the use of project management tools, and the birth of a workforce unbound by geography or any physical space. Business leaders now must reinvent the workplace entirely.
2020 was about surviving the pandemic and adjusting to the new working order. 2021 was about a reevaluation of this working order and its sustainability in the long term. In 2022, it’s time for a proactive approach to measuring and planning this new workspace and workforce where both the organization and the employee can cohabitate and nurture each other. With the Great Resignation, the wave of demand for gender and racial equality, the requirement of new healthcare policies (bereavement, Covid care), conversations about mental health and well-being, and demand for employers’ political associations – the employee has taken center stage of the knowledge economy.
The pandemic blurred the lines between work and home and caused a seismic shift in how employees view their life in perspective to their work. With millions of people currently working from home and showing little appetite to return to the office, we are witnessing a new revolution across the knowledge economy.
For the first time since the industrial revolution, the tables have turned.
This article will discuss how and why leaders need to work closely with Human Resources to take a proactive approach to address performance in the hybrid workplace and plan their future workforce accordingly. Yet, working with HR isn’t enough – it’s also critical to use the right data and tools to validate and back up the proactive strategy, and be able to measure and analyze its effectiveness and impact on any positive change in the workplace. This article will focus on analysis, but the importance of both is clear.
Measuring Performance in the New Workspace
As the pandemic restrictions begin to ease and organizations work towards bringing a larger volume of employees back to the office, the new hybrid workplace calls for new rules of engagement as well as performance. Before we discuss how performance and productivity can be measured in the new workspace, it’s critical to elaborate and understand two fundamental concepts:
- The concept of “space” and its implications for work.
- Optimal performance in the new hybrid workplace.
About two decades ago, companies such as Google (now Alphabet) ushered in the new workplace – a flat organizational structure, open office spaces where work was promoted as an integral part of your personal life – not separate from it. Around the same time, occasional working from home without managerial supervision started to sprout up. Work from home was a luxury, a privilege, and a perk provided by some organizations.
Today, it’s not a perk anymore. It’s the only option, and sometimes, it’s disruptive. There’s a sense of intrusion that work from home brings with itself – like a camera into our decor, bookshelves, unkempt beds, pets, and children disrupting both our private lives and “focused” time to work.
It would be incomplete to have a conversation about performance without considering the “new workspace.” The office used to be a neutralizing space where employees would share the same physical area, technology, and uninterrupted working schedules, leaving behind distractions for maximum productivity. In 2020, this space was utterly disrupted with mandatory work-from-home orders. When work came home, it revealed complexities of inequality that the traditional office or the employer could gloss over, such as the size of working space, personal commitments, affluence, technology challenges, and more.
Optimal Performance in the New Hybrid Workplace
The pandemic wreaked havoc on the snail’s pace of progress that minority populations were making at the workplace. The burden of working from home while being a caregiver to a parent, child, or partner fell disproportionately on women. In a world where women were already fighting for equal pay and equal working rights for generations, the scale was tipped even further when measured by a single performance metric: revenue. Performance as a measure of company revenue – impacted by a combination of work hours and productivity – now needs to take into consideration additional factors such as workspace, and mental and physiological health.
For example, women who must work while providing for children without any childcare support should not be measured at the same level as women who can work in their optimal work environment for longer periods of time. And gender is just one such classification. People living in larger families, lower-income neighborhoods, or with access to limited space to work and inferior technology without any distractions have different challenges when working from home. No surprise here, these groups are also marginalized and under-represented in workplaces worldwide.
In the light of seismic shifts in the workplace, it’s time to reevaluate this definition of “optimal performance.” It can no longer be a single framework; performance needs to be defined as a sum-total of an employee’s “human truth.” In an era of employee-first, issues like retention, burnout, and lack of optimism are bigger threats to business growth than the so-called, “average or sub-optimal performance.” An inclusive and diverse workforce isn’t just good for public relations – multiple scenarios of research done by McKinsey reveal that taking action on gender equality and inclusiveness could improve global business outcomes by $13 trillion.
Plan Your Workforce for Optimal Performance in the Post-Pandemic Hybrid Workplace
Organizations need to build a workforce plan that considers a variety of factors beyond a singular focus on profit. Planning your workforce to ensure that employees are performing at the expected level, staying happy at work, not burning out, and finding meaning in their roles can play a crucial role in preventing your business from having retention issues.
The goal of organizations to pride themselves on inclusivity, diversity, and equality can only be achieved when performance is measured according to an employee’s aspirations, sense of wellbeing, and stage/situation in life.
There are numerous studies on how critical diversity is in a workplace, but for a company to be truly inclusive and diverse, the needs of all groups or communities are critical. New parents and caregivers do need to have different expectations of performance regarding the revenue impact of the company. This does not mean holding them to a different standard versus setting realistic expectations for them to deliver and thrive – and planning your workforce and resourcing accordingly. Work hours should allow flexibility for 20 hours as well as 60 hours a week – if that’s what an employee’s stage in life permits or requires and colleagues need to be respectful of these variations.
Here’s a three-pronged framework to optimize performance in the workforce by marrying analysis and insights from critical aspects of your workforce.
Optimize Performance by Balancing Worker Needs
The optimization analysis should start with a deep evaluation of your current workforce. What are their working preferences, where do they feel inspired to do their best work and how can you, as an organization, support and nurture their needs?
A people-centric planning model helps to plan this ideal workplace, based first on the needs of your employees. Use this analysis approach to determine how well your current office space and shared facilities match these needs.
What is exactly this “people-first approach” and how to implement it? People-first workplace planning should follow the fundamental principles of design thinking and blend people’s needs with the right spatial and mindset design.
Here are how the four steps of design thinking can help design the workplace of tomorrow.
Empathize and Evaluate
Start by evaluating workplace preferences and understanding the needs of your employees with empathy. Connecting the dots between why people work and helping them find fulfillment through work forms a rock-solid foundation. This includes the following:
- Survey employees by asking specific questions about how they are coping with working from home and their current capacity levels in different work settings.
- Deepen your understanding of where your workforce is geographically located, as this information is critical to enable the office space plan to adapt to the remote employees. Event locations and shared office locations should be driven by the home addresses of employees
- Create different “personas” or “profiles” using the responses of the analysis above. Building a persona can help you determine if locations should have an office space, and what kind of hybrid work different teams prefer.
Define and Ideate
Once you have a sense of who you are building for (employee personas) and how they are traditionally expected to perform, redefine the “ideal work environment” that can help these personas succeed. At this stage, ideate and design a work setting that is a balance of remote, in-office, and work-from-home needs. This work setting should also allow for collaboration as well as focused, isolated working time.
Building this work setting to foster optimal performance need not happen in a vacuum. Solutions supplied by vendors such as EMSI Burning Glass provide market information about workplace settings in job postings, with indicators that imply trends, with verbiage such as “this role is increasingly being offered as remote.”
Build a Prototype
After identifying different personas and their preferred workplace setting for optimal performance, organizations can build a prototype of a people-centric workplace and test it in one setting. This prototype could include a combination of the right tools and technology for remote and distributed teams (think: apps for collaboration, remote IT support, etc.) – along with new definitions of performance based on the concept of space and societal equity as discussed above. Tools such as an Event Planner can help to highlight and capture deviations from normal work patterns. This can include shutdown periods, all company offsites, industry trade shows, or geographical events where certain groups work differently.
Further, a “Workspace Planner” might be used to redesign team space across distinct locations and workspaces. As the organization migrates back to in-office settings these workspaces can be realigned. Using a combination of event planners and workspace planners, organizations can plan their real estate and their workforce in a manner that fosters optimal performance with the added context of seasonality, geography, and diverse population groups.
Implement and Test
Once the prototype is done, implement, test, and measure what impact it has on productivity, performance, and your overall workforce planning goals assured you have addressed employee needs. If productivity and performance are aligned with your expectations, then your talent management and headcount plan should not be disrupted. If making the above changes fall in line with your strategic talent management initiative, there will be more to gain than lose.
The Holistic Being: Physiological and Psychological
In the knowledge economy of white-collar jobs, monetary compensation is just one of the many reasons why people work. Once the basics of food, shelter, and clothing are achieved, humans strive for more intangible areas of fulfillment. It can be a variety of things – a sense of ownership, power, fame, making a change, and many others.
Until recently, organizations viewed compensating employees with money and materialistic perks as the best route to win the war on talent. Post-Y2K, a new breed of technology companies gave birth to the wild, wild west of work. Work-life balance gave way to a trend of work-life integration.
Fast-forward to 2020: The post-millennial generation woke up to the perils of living a life entirely monitored by big tech and a society ransacked by a burnt-out workforce, skyrocketing mental health disorders, and a more unequal society. Today, Gen Z has begun to question: Why do we really work?
According to McKinsey’s research, about 70% of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. As a leader, it is critical that you’re a part of nurturing and supporting that purpose. Reliance on a simple transactional relationship with employees is dangerous, as younger generations are increasingly interested in looking beyond compensation while choosing careers. The ripple effects of “why we work” can be seen in the Great Resignation, #metoo, #fightforequality, and the increased emphasis on diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives.
Today, organizations need to factor in the “quest for purpose,” the motivations and drivers behind an employee’s performance.
A Real-Life Example
A large North American firm that manufactures sophisticated electronics equipment has a combination of manufacturing and research hubs around the world. They set out to understand the relationship between productivity and performance by digging deeper into talent analytics. Using insights from their people data, they found that a workplace that focuses on well-being balanced with productivity does better than one that focuses on productivity only.
Skills: Reskilling and Upskilling
Finally, considering the new era, everything that we spoke about in the article above has given rise to the need for new skills. Before measuring performance, it’s important to analyze skills gaps in your workforce and consider reskilling your current employees before hiring new talent considering any newly evolved talent strategy. Reskilling can be broadly defined as “including both upskilling—advancing workers’ current skills—and retraining, the provision of new skills to enable a change in role”.
Prioritizing reskilling employees can show your workforce that they have an opportunity to grow and learn at your organization. The definition of optimal performance needs to factor in the skill gaps that are constantly emerging either with the changes in business or with the changes in the workplace. Every bi-annual or annual performance check-in should not be a replica of the previous one. Instead, performance should be measured by factoring in the upskilling options provided to a team, and their impact on the business because of it or lack of impact in the absence of it.
Performance in the post-pandemic, people-first, hybrid workplace is a multi-dimensional metric. Organizations need to meet employees where they are in their journey toward self-actualization and foster a workspace that nurtures their needs from the company, the team, and themselves. When employees can be their whole selves, they will bring their best selves to the workplace.