A man in a blue suit smiles at the camera in the lobby area of an office with a plant and black chairs behind him.
Stuart Templeton, Slack. Image: © Joe Okpako/Projoe Photography

How to embrace workplace opportunities ahead of ‘the next normal’

23 Nov 2020

Slack’s Stuart Templeton examines how Covid-19 has changed the workplace and what businesses should think about next.

The work we do, and how we think about work, has transformed. As recommendations to continue working from home where possible remain in place in many countries, it’s clear that no ‘snap-back to normal’ is coming.

That can be an intimidating thought. However, after more than six months of adjustment, there are common themes and challenges emerging from this period of transformation.

We now need to learn from these themes and fundamentally rethink how we approach work. We’re out of the adaptation phase and it’s time to embrace what started as disruption, and permanently change work for the better.

Diving deeper into accelerating work transformations, how can we turn the current challenges into future opportunities?

The office as we know it gone

Today’s changes are not entirely new. They are an acceleration of trends already in motion. This is clear in how working in an office is being rethought. We’ve all realised it’s not essential to group workers in a single central space to get work done.

Enabled by advances in technology (such as mobile networks, cloud computing and collaboration platforms), remote and flexible work was already on the rise. Today though, the move towards these styles of work has been accelerated and offices, in their prior form, are no longer a necessity for productive work.

However, as opinion shifts on the necessity of offices as we currently know them, it also shifts on remote workers. Thankfully, the days of remote workers feeling like second-class citizens are over and a new level of openness and equality in the needs for, and access to, flexible work is in sight.

Without a need to always be in the office, workers benefit from reduced time and money spent on commuting, and can more easily balance commitments, such as parenting, around careers. This drives engagement for businesses overall, which also stands to lower their carbon footprint and overall costs by reducing office space.

However, some employees may need more support than others. Not everyone prefers remote or home working, with most people looking for a mix of both. Surveying employees, taking inspiration from employers further along in the process, and creating new rituals to replace the face-to-face moments that can be hard to recreate digitally are all key steps in moving to a more hybrid way of working.

Building agility and openness

As with remote and flexible working, businesses were already recognising the value of agility and transparency before the pandemic hit. Traditional businesses such as banks, for example, were hyper-aware that fast-moving innovators in fintech were becoming challengers.

Today, leaders need to double down on agility, not just in areas like software engineering, in which agile frameworks have proved fundamental to driving success, but across the whole business.

Reinvesting in faster decision making, empowering frontline teams to make decisions and creating an agile mindset will drive competitive advantage in an era of uncertain macroeconomic conditions.

Simultaneously, top-down decision making, a holdover from the Industrial Revolution, only slows down teams. When empowering workers in the new world of work, businesses should rethink communications around values of openness and transparency.

One way to do this is to reduce the use of email (a technology now 50 years old), which is fundamentally non-inclusive and siloes information. Instead, channel-based messaging, both with internal and external teams, gives everyone involved in a project access to the information, tools and people they need.

The last gasps of analogue work

Investing in the right technology helps put the final nail in the coffin of analogue work. It’s clear that more digitised businesses pivoted faster during the pandemic. Well-designed digital processes are resilient, agile, efficient and transparent.

Old habits (and paper forms) die hard. But with industrial printers locked in offices, now is the time to leave no process untouched. When it comes to banishing analogue work, integration and automation are key.

Integration should be applied across a business. That means the software suite should work in harmony, as should different teams in the business.

Furthermore, processes can be automated thanks to software integrations. For example, when an employee wants to request holiday, they simply make the request directly through the collaboration platform, which automatically updates the relevant app and teams. Goodbye paper forms, hello efficiency!

Culture comes first

Great culture appears effortless, but it’s actually the product of serious investment. That investment has never been more important than now.

The office, or remote-only work, doesn’t create or solve cultural issues alone. What’s more, it’s likely most businesses will move toward a mixture of both in the future.

To accelerate cultural transformation, rather than prioritising either office workers or remote workers, organisations need to focus on building autonomy, diversity and psychological safety across the board. And, they shouldn’t be afraid to experiment to get approaches right.

Businesses should take action to deliver a work-life balance based on what employees need, such as flexible working, as well as encouraging continuous feedback cycles and creating culture-oriented digital spaces for mentorship and support, casual catch-ups, questions from new joiners or on work-adjacent topics, like parenting.

In short, laser-focus on employees, adapt and learn from them.

Let’s go forward, faster

None of these working transformations were caused by the pandemic alone. And not all of these factors will be felt equally by every business.

But what everyone has in common today is a chance to rethink and change the way they work. Moments of upheaval are a chance to let go of legacies that hold us back. Those legacies might be the multi-hour commute, needless wasting of energy, or a closed-off business culture.

We can do better. It’s time now to learn, listen and fully embrace the opportunities created by ‘the next normal’.

By Stuart Templeton

Stuart Templeton is the head of UK at Slack.

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