Who’s Going Back to the Office? Who *Should* Be Going Back?

It’s usually not a simple choice – for companies or for individuals. Companies are making very different decisions. If you’re unsure who should go back to the office, how many days per week, and to do what type of work… here’s a bit of help.

Companies are making very different decisions.

Many people are thinking about being back in the office and what post-pandemic work life looks like. They’re asking questions like “why do I need to be in the office? When do I need to be back in the office? Why aren’t we all back in the office?”

The answers seem as varied as the people asking them. We are hearing weekly what different companies are doing, and the decisions are far from consistent.

  • The largest 4-day work week pilot to date is underway in the UK. For six months, 3,300 people, in 70 companies, across a wide variety of industries are testing the feasibility of a 4-day work week. During the program, workers receive 100% of their pay for working only 80% of their usual week, in exchange for promising to maintain 100% of their productivity. Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global says “More and more companies are recognizing that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, productivity-focused working is the vehicle to give them that competitive edge,”
  • Elon Musk made news because of a leaked internal memo to Tesla workersin which he says “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla… not a remote branch office unrelated to the job duties.’ His reasoning seems to be that by not being in the office at least 40-hours per week, you are “phoning it in.”
  • Akamai went in the opposite direction. Full disclosure – I’ve had the privilege of working with them several times. They announced that as of May 2022, 95% of their nearly 10,000 employees around the world have complete flexibility to decide whether they work at home, in the office, or both. In making this decision, they analyzed all roles in the company against the same criteria, regardless of location, and determined 95% could be done with complete flexibility. Flexibility has been part of their culture for years but never to this extent. The analysis bolstered their belief that employees should decide what is best for them.
So, who’s doing what?  A Robin survey of more than 10,000 offices globally found that:
  • Nearly 20 percent of American office workers are back one day a week
  • About 10 percent are back two days a week
  • Just five percent are back three days a week
  • Even fewer are back four or five days a week
  • More than 50 percent do not use the office consistently every week.

The idea of everyone needing to be in the office or at the same site goes back to the industrial and pre-digital work environment. Materials were most efficiently used in a single location. Communication happened face-to-face or by phone. In my early consulting career, I worked for a firm where a large percentage of the consultants coded all day – onsite, in person. The technology was different then so there really wasn’t another option. However, these people spent 90% of their time in their cubes, working individually. With today’s digital environments, you could easily see that being in-person would probably be of little impact on their work.

Recent research finds that working collaboratively face-to-face (F2F) has an impact on creativity. A study of nearly 1,500 engineers in five different countries were randomly paired to create product ideas F2F or via video call. The study showed video conferencing had a negative impact on idea generation but did not make a difference in the ability to critically evaluate creative ideas. Since creativity begins with new or adaptive ideas, face-to-face could be critical to your innovation and problem-solving strategies.

What’s the right model for how we work? Different companies will have different needs, jobs will have different needs, people will have different needs. And, that’s a new way of thinking.  Many roles are much more nuanced than the coder example I shared above, so the choice is not that simple. It will take months, probably years before we understand the benefits and drawbacks of any model. At the end of the day, the answer will probably be, it depends.

“It depends” is not a great response for people seeking answers.  So, here’s a little help figuring things out. If you and your team are still deciding how to manage the Great Transition, you may want to start with looking at the nature of the work. Even if your organization is committed to a consistent hybrid model (i.e., everyone in the office 2 days per week), it may help you determine how to use those in-office days vs remote days.

You can start with a simple 2×3 matrix that allows you to map tasks to three task categories – creative, analytical, or transactional/process — and the degree of interactivity associated with the task – is it primarily individual or collaborative, and the amount of your time you spend on each task.

For example, if I am analyzing the data in a spreadsheet, it is primarily an individual task. If I am one of several people brainstorming a new solution, working collaboratively on this analysis will generate better results. Analyzing different solutions may work as well remotely as FTF depending on the nature of what’s being analyzed.  Also, creative and analytical processes can be co-dependent and concurrent, so working collaboratively, FTF on this analysis might generate better results. Think of this as a continuum between Creative and Transactional.

Here’s an example, below:

We’re working with leaders, teams and organizations right now helping them be successful in the new world of work through customizable programs and consulting engagements.  How can we help you?

5 Minutes. 5 Days. (Re)gaining Joy at Work

Joy and happiness are two different things. Both impact things like creativity, individual productivity, and the company’s bottom line (yes, it’s true). But joy is more sustainable.  Here’s a 5-minute per day, one-week plan for kickstarting your path to getting more joy out of work.

Are you missing joy at work?  Or maybe, you’ve never even put the two words joy and work together in the same sentence.  May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Joy is important to mental health. Finding it at work is very challenging for many of us. However, finding it may be more important than ever.

Isn’t joy just another word for happiness?  Not really. According to Merriam Webster dictionary joy is the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune. Joy comes from being connected to our uniqueness, authenticity, to others and to something meaningful. Joy is something we create and more intrinsic. Happiness is sparked by an external event or situation. Research shows both joy and happiness impact our creativity, energy, productivity, health, ability to handle stress, and the company’s bottom line. Joy is more sustainable.

Interested in (re)gaining joy at work? After all, we do spend most of our days working. Creating joy needs to be an active pursuit made up of small steps we take every day. I challenge you to take the 5-minute, 5-day challenge to (re)gain joy at work. It works best when you implement it over 5 consecutive days and jot your answers down somewhere so you can look back on them.

Day One: 5 minutes:  Reconnect to your North Star.  What is your big why?  Why do you do the work you do? How is it helping you live your values? How does your work connect with other important things in your life? What about it is driving you right now?

Day Two: 5 minutes:  What is one thing you can influence or change at work that will allow you to align with your North Star more completely – even if it’s a small thing. What is one task you could do? Or stop doing? What is one opportunity you could take to give yourself a few minutes to focus on something more meaningful? Or to laugh? Or to take a deep breath?

Day Three: 5 minutes: What colleague could you help?  Maybe you’re thinking you don’t have time to help a colleague because you have so much on your plate.  What if you grabbed them a cup of coffee when you go to grab one yourself? Could you have a walk and talk to help them think through a challenge while you both go to pick up lunch (that you may be eating at your desk so you can keep working!)

Day Four: 5 minutes: What are your strengths?  What energizes you?  What is one way, in the next week, you could more fully use that strength? How could you craft your job so that you are able to do this more consistently and frequently?

Day Five: 5 minutes.  Reflect and reward yourself.  What accomplishment are you proud of this week? How did you live your big why? What one thing did you influence or change? Who did you lend a hand to? How did you use your strengths more fully? Do you feel more joy today than you did 5 days ago?

Integrate this challenge into your daily routine every week. Assess the impact at the end of 3-weeks and 3 months. Let me know what happens.

Worried About Accountability During the “Great Resignation?”

Record numbers of people are leaving their jobs and it’s putting a strain on businesses and their leaders. When you’re concerned about holding onto your best talent (who are usually the first to leave because they have the best options), it may seem like the wrong time to really hold people accountable. To be honest, we have become a little fearful. For many, the thinking is, “if I push my people too much right now, they’ll be even more likely to go.” Losing more good people is a legitimate concern. But here’s how accountability can actually work in your favor and increase your ability to retain and engage your best talent.

Three things you can do now to make accountability work:

  • Align performance with client needs.  It’s a lot easier to talk with someone about their performance if you explain how it matters to clients, including internal clients. “Lisa, let’s talk about ABC Pros. They’re one of our most important clients, so we need to bump up our performance for them. What do you think are the top three ways we can do that?” Add your views and expectations to the discussion. Making clients the focus of the conversation reduces the likelihood that they’ll take it personally. It’s not about what you want, it’s about what the client expects. The same is true about aligning expectations with business strategy. It reminds the individual how they make an important contribution. Connecting to their personal goals can make it even more powerful.
  • Map accountability to your team members’ professional development goals.  This is one of those areas where the art of conversation matters a great deal. Accountability can – and should – be framed up as an exercise in helping your employee meet both their business and development goals. “Mike, we talked last month about your interest in learning how to do more complex data analysis. Let’s look at what you’ve done on this project to see what you’re doing well, and where you can make adjustments that would aid in your development.” This can lead to a constructive discussion about the project goals and parameters you discussed with him earlier.
  • Make accountability a two-way street.  Good leaders know that trust and a sense of fairness are critical to developing a productive working relationship with others, regardless of their role. One of the most effective ways to do that is for you to be accountable to your team members as well. This could mean making time to meet with them on a regular basis, helping them overcome resource issues or other organizational barriers, or following up on your development commitments. When you’re trying to establish their accountability include what commitments you are making to support them. “Alisha, what can I do to make this easier for you to accomplish?” Or “What have I done that’s helped you on this project?  What’s not been helpful? What else can I do?”
All three of these elements of accountability were important before the great resignation. The stakes are higher now, so doing these things well will pay even greater dividends.

What’s Going On With You? A Little Introspection Can Improve Personal Performance

Recently, I’ve been talking with leaders, including mid-level leaders, about the challenges they are facing with staff shortages, continued ambiguity from COVID, and end of year pressures. In these conversations, the underlying theme is the toll these issues are taking on their emotions and their continual effort to push those emotions away or to simply plow through them.

The context for these conversations is a broader discussion about leading with emotional agility. Susan David and Christina Congleton, in their Harvard Business Review article, define emotional agility as the ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings in a mindful, productive way. When most of us get hooked by our negative thoughts, especially at work, we have one of two reactions. We buy into them (“I always do something stupid that gets in the way of my success.”) and avoid the situations that may evoke them. Or, we rationalize them away (“I shouldn’t have these thoughts. Just get on with it.”)

When we get hooked and choose one of these two common reactions, we are not giving ourselves the opportunity to respond effectively and intentionally. To choose to respond rather than react, the first step you must take is to recognize what is going on with you.

When I talk with these leaders, I ask them how many times a day they check in with themselves to assess what they are feeling. The overwhelming response is never. Some will say rarely. A very small fraction will say regularly. Then we do the following exercise:

First, we pause the conversation right there and I give them 30 seconds to just stop and check in with themselves.

Before the pause, I encourage them to work hard to accurately name what they are feeling. Don’t just tell themselves they are feeling stressed. Rather become more granular in the assessment. Are you angry? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Constrained? To respond, rather than react, the first step is to accurately identify and understand what you are feeling. You can’t create an effective response or strategy if you are unable to clearly define what you are responding to.

At the end of 30 seconds, I ask them about their experience. They often say it makes them feel more centered, have more clarity, and are better able to manage those emotions than have the emotions manage them. It provides them the space to choose a response.

We then discuss how pausing 1-2 times a day – taking 1 minute out of an 8, 10 or 12 hour workday– can significantly impact the ability to become more emotionally agile and the impact of that agility on their ability to lead in challenging times.

Over the next few weeks, take a moment or two throughout the day to check in with yourself. What are you feeling? How are you reacting to those emotions? What opportunities do you have to pause to make the choice of how you will respond?

These are stressful times. You’ll find that this technique also works quite well at home.

The Two Keys to Better Results in 2021

In these first few weeks of 2021 one thing is abundantly clear – change, disruption and challenge are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. It’s time to move beyond survival mode and figure out how to thrive. Simplicity and focus are key. The organizations and teams that create sustained alignment, keep engagement high and outperform their competition will start 2021 answering two questions:

What is our North Star?
How will we create and maintain strategic clarity?

Without a clear purpose and understanding of what continues to be important in a rapidly changing environment, work becomes fractured, misaligned and frustrating. Recently, McKinsey examined how 30 top companies are preparing for the future. 83% are taking bold moves around their purpose, their North Star. Research by LSA Global shows that strategic clarity accounts for 31% of the difference between high and low performance in terms of revenue growth, profitability, customer loyalty, leadership effectiveness and employee engagement. Research also tells us that finding meaning – having purpose, a North Star – is a universal intrinsic motivator.

Answering “What Is Our North Star?” Provides Clear Purpose

For centuries, travelers have navigated by the North Star. No matter the circumstance, it was a constant in the night sky. It is the answer to the questions, “why do we exist?  What is our purpose?” With today’s unpredictability and the need for agility, your North Star defines the constant core that will drive strategy, priorities and decisions. Without a North Star, agility becomes chaos. Decision-making and priority setting are reactive, siloed and lack alignment.
Defining the North Star should start with the executive team but not end there. Share the definition. Ask what resonates and what’s missing. Create a short statement that is understandable, memorable and defines the essence of why the organization exists. If the statement sounds something like “to increase shareholder value,” keep asking “is that really the core of who we are? Is our purpose larger than that?” Test how simple and memorable it is. After broad and intentional communication, ask 10 random people what the North Star is. If it’s not consistent, you have more work to do.

Strategic Clarity Provides the Map

Strategic clarity follows from strategic simplicity.
Donald Sull, a global authority on strategy execution, recommends three questions that create simplicity and actionable clarity  out of complex strategies.
  • What are your critical business drivers?
  • What are the 3-5 challenges we need to overcome to succeed in 2021?
  • What are our must-win battles?
I add one more question that I believe is essential in today’s environment:
  • How will we keep ahead of or quickly be responsive to changes that occur?

Answering the first three questions brings clarity to targets and daily choices. Why did we choose these targets and those activities? For example, why is our target 3 % growth instead of 5% growth? Why are we focused on digital transformation? Sure, it’s to stay competitive; but specifically, HOW will it help your organization? What business strategies will it support? Can everyone in the organization explain strategy and how it manifests in their function, and in their role? If not, some of your people may be rowing in the wrong direction.

The final question recognizes that change will remain constant and that as we address the challenges and must-win battles, tactics may need to be altered or changed completely. It tells people we recognize that change will occur and leveraging it (instead of fearing it) is how we succeed.
In 2021 we’ll have our next new normal. My prediction is that many people will still feel like their organization’s goals have little connection to their work because things have shifted… again.
By having a North Star and simplifying your strategy to create clarity, your team will be better aligned and more engaged.

Help Your Team Learn From Mistakes

One of your people walks into your office with that look. You know the look. The one that says… I have something I need to tell you that I really don’t want to tell you.

I’ve written in the Harvard Business Review online about ways to help your team be open to change. How you handle mistakes is key part of helping you team thrive during change and become more innovative themselves. The way you handle mistakes can create psychological safety or fear. You have to ask yourself… what’s my goal here? How can I manage this conversation so that we make the mistake a growth opportunity… one that pays dividends down the road?

Helping your team learn from mistakes includes 5 actions you should take during conversations with your team.  The first and last are actions you should take during conversations with your entire team on a regular basis. The other three are for those times when someone with that look walks into your office:

Action 1: Model the Way

Acknowledge and be accountable for your mistakes, especially if you are a senior leader. Too often, people who are a few layers removed from you in the organization feel like you may be where you are because you did not make significant mistakes. Tell stories of times you made mistakes and how you moved forward. Learning from mistakes is easier if leaders show you how.

Action 2: Respond Rather Than React

When someone comes to you with a mistake, you may feel frustration, disappointment or even anger.  Use your emotional intelligence to respond rather than react. Ask yourself a few questions. How does this make me feel? What would be the most productive response in this situation, if our goal is to use mistakes as a learning and growth opportunity? How is the other person feeling? How can I help both of us use this as a springboard for innovation?

Action 3: Acknowledge feelings first. 

No one feels good about making a mistake. Ask how they feel about the situation. Recognize that it can be difficult to make a mistake, much less to have to tell your boss about it.  You might want to tell them you’ve made that mistake (or one like it) yourself in the past.

Action 4: Ask questions. 

During the conversation, you may be tempted to jump right into problem-solving mode where you explain how to fix things. Resist the urge. Instead, ask questions. Let the individual explain the situation and follow-up with questions that allow the two of you to turn this into a learning conversation.  If you could do this over again, how would you approach it?    What do you think we need to do at this point? What is an important take away you have from this situation? What could I have done to support you differently? How can I help going forward?  When someone figures out how to fix their own mistake, they begin to learn how to fix mistakes in general and even how to avoid similar ones in the future.

Action 5: Champion the mistake-makers (judiciously, of course)

In a 2010 Inc. article, Michael Alter tells the story of how he created a ‘Best New Mistakes” competition at SurePayroll and its impact on the culture. The rules were simple – you must nominate yourself, explain the mistake, and what you learned from it. Entries were read, discussed and winners were chosen at company meetings. It was approached in a light-hearted way, allowing everyone to have fun and learn at the same time. Alter ‘formalized failure’ and allowed people to get over the stigma associated with mistakes.  

When one of your team members comes into your office with that look you want them to walk out feeling understood and even energized by the opportunities created by their mistake.

What other tips do you have for helping your team learn from their mistakes? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at info@nextbridgeconsulting.com.

How is Your Ballast?

For Boston, the connection to the sea is inseparable from its history. The early economy was largely dependent on the captains who sailed the ocean and the materials they brought on their return. On journeys that took months, ships would invariably hit rough seas. To counteract being tossed about in the ocean, ships were loaded with ballast – often heavy stones, that were added to the hull to create greater stability.

Today’s business challenges can feel like those rough seas. And, as leaders we may need to provide ourselves and our teams with some ballast so that we push into the waves without capsizing. We also need to be aware of when it’s time to reduce our ballast so that we can skim along at a faster clip.

Manage your ballast effectively by:

Knowing your true north. Where are you going? Where is the organization going? What is the alignment? Answers to these questions will center you and provide a sense of stability because you know who you are.

Reminding yourself that you are resilient. We’ve all faced strong winds and rough seas before. And here we are on the other shore. What skills, capabilities and attitudes helped you? Would they be helpful now? Most likely at least some of them are applicable in the current situation. Keep them on the ship.

Questioning your assumptions. We all make assumptions about how something will work or what will be effective. Those assumptions can be outdated and not valid, or even more important, valuable anymore. Push back on those assumptions. Question their value in current situations. Before you hold onto them, test that they are still valid. If not, get rid of them and replace them with insights and information that will allow you to move along with the waves rather than fight them.

Making sure it’s balanced. If ballast is not balanced, it’s very difficult to steer the ship. It can pull you too much in one direction or the other. Your ballast needs to help you stay on course but remain agile enough to change and adapt. When innovation and change are required, if all your ballast is keeping you aligned to how we do things now, you’ll soon be off course.

Right now, take a quick assessment of your personal ballast. Are you managing it or is it managing it or is it managing you?

Am I Dressed for This?

Much of the country is experiencing record-breaking, bitter cold this winter.  And yet, some weeks, we’ve had snow storms on one day, with bright sunshine and 50 degrees the next.  In a few months, we’ll be experiencing heat and humidity.  The old saying goes ‘if you wait a minute, the weather will change.” As human beings, we readily adapt to these weather changes. We build a wardrobe for whatever the weather in our area brings – hot, cold, rain, snow, sun, etc. 
 
You could apply that old saying to what happens at work these days – wait a minute, and it will change. As I sat yesterday evening in front of the fire, I was thinking about what kind of wardrobe we are building for ourselves at work so that, when change happens, we have what’s needed to adapt. Are we building an athletic wardrobe so that when we need to reach  across silos we are comfortable and able to move easily?  Do we have our creative hat when we need to approach a challenge in a new and unique way?  Do we have our metaphorical heavy coat so we can get results even when things feel blustery? 

Too often we put on armor to protect ourselves from having to adapt and change.  Wouldn’t a wardrobe with a nice pair of shorts help us to be comfortable when things get heated?  Or a well-tailored coat for when we have to face a cold front?  Or a comfy pair of jeans for when we need to be ready to stretch and reach feel so much better?
 
What are you doing to not only broaden your work wardrobe, but to update it for what’s needed in 2019? How about your teams?  Are they stuck in a snowbank?

Bounce Back!

Resilience: The ability to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness

Resilience is key to the short and long-term success of our careers. Over the course of time, we are thrown curveballs that require us to bounce back and show our toughness. Here are 4 ideas for building resilience for yourself and your team:

  • Frame the Situation.  When a situation turns out badly or something negative impacts you, how do you think about it? Is it a blame game? Do you kick yourself for “doing something stupid?” Stop. In every situation multiple elements impact the outcome. While it’s important to consider your own role, look at the various other players and their roles in the setback. Don’t look at them to place blame, but to learn.
  • Ask Questions to Find Understanding.  After assessing what role various people or institutions or situations played, follow up with questions for yourself. What was controllable? What wasn’t? What lessons can I learn? What could be different next time?
  • Take Time. Sometimes, the curveball has some pretty significant impact. Be sure to set aside some time to work through the emotions. Unpack them, label them, and try to understand them.
  • Be Expansive. Resilient people mark the ending of any setback by moving forward. They acknowledge and attend to their feelings, but don’t wallow in self-pity or self-blame. They put what happened in it’s place and take steps to make new things happen. When one door closes, they open others.

If you think about a difficult experience as an opportunity instead of an obstacle you’re more likely to grow from the experience and more likely to bounce back quickly.

Here’s to resilience in a turbulent world!

Pushing Through the Fears that Hold You Back

I came across a great quote yesterday:

“ When you commit, when you really put yourself forward and push through that fear, even though you can’t see through to the other side because it seems so overwhelming, things start to open up for you.” — Matt Pohlson, co-founder of Omaze

It’s part of a short video on Inc.com about dealing with fear. He shares his own experience of getting his MBA, turning down a lucrative offer from McKinsey, jumping into the unknown and starting his company.

The quote really struck me because I think we all get caught up in the fear of what’s on the other side. We get comfortable. Even if we don’t think what’s going on right now is the best, it’s what we know. When faced with the potential of a new situation, we often fill in the blanks with the downsides. We feel like we’ve had a level of success to this point so why mess with a good thing. Or we just don’t think of ourselves as risk takers.

Pohlson noted that we look at people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk and think of them as fearless innovators. Truth is, every game changer has fear. How do they – and how can you—push through it?

Four Steps

Here are four steps to help you deal with the fears that are holding you back:

1. Recognize the emotion. Fear is an emotion just like happiness, anger, frustration, or joy. Stop, breathe and recognize when you are feeling it.

2. Label the emotion. You have more control over an emotion if you can label it. When you label it, you’ve created a frame of reference to work with.

3. Own the emotion. Too often, we try to suppress negative emotions which allows them to have greater impact on us later. Instead, own the emotion. Tell yourself you are afraid and that it is a natural, normal feeling or emotion.

4. Decide how to move forward. Now that you’ve recognized it, labeled it and owned it, you have more control over what to do with that fear. You can put it in a place just like you would other emotions. You can control what you are going to do. As Pohlson, says, now you have the option to push through it and see what’s on the other side. You can reframe it and see the opportunity rather than the loss. You can decide that, the risk is too much for you, and you need to take a different route. Rather than allowing the fear to make the decision for you, the decision is up to you.

These techniques work whether you’re dealing with your reaction to a major organizational change, a personal life event, or a one-off challenge like giving a big speech in front of a new audience. Give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well it can work.