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.

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.

When Your Team Needs to Redefine Itself

Most organizations are either operating in a permanent hybrid model or they’re planning to go there early in 2022. That means redefining who you are as an organization and as a team. How will you do that successfully?

Lots of Questions

How’s your team adjusting to hybrid work or planning for a hybrid future? This next-new-normal way of working will be most successful if you start the transition by deeply reflecting on who you are now and, often, redefining who you will be 

 –as an individual and a team. What goals are a priority? How will you prepare for the inevitable shift in priorities? How will people really work together? How will you navigate and build our relationships? Even in ‘normal’ years, these questions take center stage during the business planning cycles many of you are immersed in right now.

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with two executive teams. Their businesses are very different. One is over 20 years old with almost 4000 employees. The second is a start-up driving towards commercializing its first product. While different, both of them were exploring a common question…

Who are we today and who do we want to be?

In both cases we started with who the team wanted to be so we could frame that sometimes more difficult conversation – who are we now?

Answering this question requires that these executives become aware of and more comfortable with the answers to several other, deeper questions about themselves and the team:

  • Do we fully understand who each of us is?  Do we understand how each of us filters information, makes decisions, and communicates?
  • Are we aligned around a common vision of where this company or department is going? And how are we, as a team, are leading it? This may seem obvious, but misalignment amongst leadership is a common cause of organizational dysfunction and average performance.
  • Are we role-modelling the characteristics we want this organization to exhibit?
  • How are we pushing each other to step out of our comfort zones in a productive and effective way? Innovation doesn’t happen when everyone is comfortable.
  • How do we provide impactful feedback to each other so that we increase the team’s effectiveness rather than diminishing it?
  • What about when the inevitable happens – when we’re sometimes annoying each other? Are we avoiding certain people? Aggressively confronting them? How well is it working? Is there a another option that gets better results.
Why so many questions? Because good answers require good questions… and these are all stones that need to be turned over.  In today’s environment, personal and organizational curiosity is a prerequisite for leadership and business growth. And if you’re not digging deeply enough, you’re limiting the depth and speed of your growth.
Want some guidance on asking the right questions and ensuring you get meaningful answers? We’ve been helping individual leaders, teams and organizations do just that for over 20 years.  Let’s talk.  978-475-8424 or e.onderick-harvey@NextBridgeConsulting.com

 

Unintended Consequences of Hot Desking

Is your company considering hot desking as it returns to the office in a hybrid model? Hot Desking is a flexible workspace arrangement similar to hoteling. It saves companies a lot of money. It can also have unintended consequences.

As companies are planning their back-to-work hybrid models, hot desking is becoming an idea that’s being explored again. I say again because it’s not completely new. I first experienced it in the early 90’s when I worked for a global consulting firm. Colleagues of mine experienced something similar when their companies developed broader telework options over the past decade or so. Hot desking is similar to hoteling. In a hoteling model, individuals reserve space prior to coming to the office. Pure hot desking removes the reservation system. Individuals choose a workstation that best meets their criteria when they are in the office.

There are benefits to hot desking. On a macro level, it provides flexibility and cost-savings for the company from a facilities perspective. Optimally, space will be used based on what kind of work needs to be done that day. If a team needs to do highly collaborative work, they could grab a collaborative workspace. If someone needs to do work that requires more individual focus, they would choose an individual workspace. Facilities costs are adapted to the hybrid model, saving the company money and leveraging the desire for flexibility.

On the flip side, it can have unintended consequences on engagement, productivity, and team performance – all predictors of increased revenue and higher returns. When I think about the execution of this model, based on my 30+ years exploring how to create organizations that allow people to be as engaged and impactful as possible, I wonder about potential unintended consequences:

  • Is it detrimental to diversity, equity and inclusion? Humans are naturally social creatures who tend to think of the world as groups we belong to and groups we don’t. When given a choice, most people will gravitate towards people they are familiar with or who seem, in some way, to be like them. Will this natural propensity actually get in the way of great diversity, equity, and inclusion? Even putting aside the most obvious forms of diversity, could hot desking make it easier to exclude the team member who is shy or difficult to get along with, or allow certain people to choose those workstations that give them greater visibility to senior leaders or decision makers just because they got to work first?
  • Will hierarchy undermine the model? Even the flattest, most egalitarian organizations have a degree of hierarchy. In the hot-seat model I experienced in the consulting firm, partners and managers had dedicated offices. Consultants were able to use one of the manager offices when we were in the office, which was somewhat infrequent. Of course, if all the manager offices were full that day, there was a problem. Let’s fast forward to 2021 and a purely hotseat model.  What happens if a senior leader arrives at the office to find that the type of workspace they need is already filled? If you modify the hot-desk approach and have advanced reservations for space, is it first-come, first-serve or do some people get priority? If hierarchy influences the decisions too much, does it lower trust and feel unfair? These are two key components of high performing organizations.
  • What impact will the need for confidentiality have? Some people in organizations have highly confidential information and highly confidential conversations. Think HR or Finance. It is reasonable that these roles would require dedicated spaces of their own. People managers also often need to have confidential conversations. Do they also get dedicated spaces? If not, how will your model account for that need? Will managers be expected to schedule space based on planned confidential conversations? That works some of the time. Does your model have enough private space for unplanned confidential conversations that can pop up at any time?  Otherwise, it forces managers to choose between delaying important conversations and having them in a semi-public setting.
  • Does it penalize those who can be less flexible? If someone chooses a space when they get to the office, the ‘prime’ spots typically go to those who arrive earlier in the day. Does that penalize those who are tied to a particular train schedule or need to drop a child at school or simply prefer to come in later and work later? Does it create a less equitable model for some, at least on the days they are in the office?

These are just a few potential unintended consequences that need to be considered if hot desking is part of your hybrid model. We can help you think through your model and get your team ready for Day One.

What other potential consequences could you see?

Tell the Truth – Are You Bored at Work?

It’s the dreaded phrase all parents hear that makes them want to pull their hair out –“I’m bored.”  Boredom isn’t just a complaint of many an eight-year-old.  It’s emerging as a key contributor to what people are calling “The Great Resignation.” Proactive leadership can make a difference.

Chances are, You’re Not Alone

The BBC recently had an article about the rise of a condition they call “boreout.” We’re much more familiar with its fellow work ailment, burnout. Boreout is defined as being bored by your work to the point that one feels it is meaningless. It can be created by an environment that feels demoralizing, by feeling underchallenged for a prolonged period of time, and, yes, from being confined to Zoom and the same four walls for months on end.  Burnout and boreout have very similar impacts. Among them are higher turnover, checking-the-box behavior, lost productivity, decreased strategic thinking and innovation, and lost opportunity.

The difference between the two is that burnout can be seen as a badge of honor.  You suffer from it because you’ve really been driven and making things happen.  Suffering from boreout is perceived as not being motivated enough.

We probably can sense boreout quickly when (or if) it happens to our high performers and we will jump into to help them re-engage. For our poor performers, we assume they lack motivation. It can go unrecognized in the core of our team – those 60-80% who are good, solid performers who are less likely to actively voice what they are experiencing. Boreout among this group is going to have the most significant impact. That’s because of the sheer volume of that segment of our workforce… and because it goes undiagnosed for a longer period of time. But make no mistake, if you miss the signs of boreout with your top tier talent, or don’t address it effectively, it’s impact is obvious and has long-term leadership consequences. Top performers are more likely to leave because they know they have more career mobility.

We shouldn’t assume that boreout only happens to front-line team members. Senior leaders sometimes confide in me that they feel a strong need to find something new because they aren’t challenged by their role anymore. Our conversations then focus on how we can make that happen within their organization.

No matter what level of leader you’re managing, making it okay to talk about prolonged boredom or lack of challenge has to be the first step in addressing the issue. It’s not a sign that they are unmotivated. Actually, quite the opposite. Boredom means they’re motivated to do more. So, create relationships built on high levels of trust.  Make sure there is the safety to talk about tough issues – boredom being only one of them.  Let people know that you don’t see boredom as their failing, but as an opportunity to expand or change their role so that they have new challenges. The organization gains from their increased engagement, productivity and impact. Some people will still perform well, for a certain period of time, when bored. But don’t wait to check in until you see a drop off in performance, or worse, see talent walking out the door. Be proactive about it.

5 Powerful Tools for Quick Situation Analysis

Today’s leaders need to rapidly understand evolving situations. How can analytical tools help you make these assessments? By providing a structure to help you brainstorm and organize your thoughts in a relatively timely manner… which in turn provides the building blocks for better decision-making. While many of these tools are meant to provide in-depth assessments, they can also be used for more abbreviated uses, including “back of the envelope” type analysis when speed is important. Here are five tools that can be used to help you analyze a variety of situations.

Analytical tools are a staple of business. They are available to assist with everything from strategic planning to problem solving to communications planning. You can use these tools by yourself, as a team, or at an organizational level. They range from conceptual frameworks to highly structured models that include formal step by step processes. Here are five tools that give you a wide range of options:

1. People-Process-Technology/Tools (PPT): This is my personal favorite because of the simplicity and flexibility it offers. Originally, this framework was used to understand and maintain balance between those three dynamics in business situations, particularly with process design and reorganization… and typically related to technology impact. However, it also can be used quickly to frame up any number of things; for yourself, or when brainstorming with teams.

I add Financial to this to make it more robust. Hundreds of times, I’ve used this construct as a “white board” exercise. I’ve used it to understand the implications of a new client satisfaction initiative for my own teams, to prepare a recommendation about adopting a new technology, and with clients to help them work through potential organizational changes. It’s amazing what you can uncover with this exercise… including downstream impacts, important ancillary issues, and traps to avoid. And yes, I have literally done this on the back of an envelope in “emergency” situations, where I had less than 10 minutes to prepare. I wrote the situation (or question) at the top of the page or envelope, drew 4 swim lanes with category headings and jotted down some quick details. I went into the meeting better prepared and mentally more organized.

There have been numerous updated versions of this construct over the years. Here is some additional information on the original People Process Technology.

2. MOST: stands for Mission, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics. A lot of leaders have a hard time understanding (or, at least, explaining) how lofty mission statements become specific processes, actions steps or behaviors on the part of their team members. This powerful alignment tool helps you analyze how mission translates into action. It’s effective for both leadership teams and work groups alike. MOST helps refocus teams or business areas on organizational goals and better alignment from one level to the next. Again, while it’s an effective in-depth tool, it can be used to do a “quick study” of a situation. Here’s more on MOST.

3. STEEPLE: is primarily used as an external environmental scanning construct. The acronym stands for Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political, Legal, Ethical. It helps you look, as an organization, at all these factors in a structured way to better understand the external forces impacting your organization. For example, what are the trends around emerging technologies that could force major changes in your business, like your own early adoption, service delivery models, or pricing implications? For more on STEEPLE.

4. The 5C Analysis model is used for marketing purposes. It helps you analyze both internal and external factors impacting your marketing decisions. 5C stands for Customers, Competitors, Company, Collaborators, Climate. This is usually meant for in-depth assessment and strategic planning. Each one of these factors has you focus on multiple sub-factors. For example, Customers looks at: market segments, customer requirements and demands, market size and growth, retail channel and information sources, buying process, consumer trends, etc. I haven’t used this approach, but I know that it can be highly effective for those taking a deep dive. For more on 5C Analysis.

5. McKinsey 7S Framework: This is the ultimate organizational alignment tool. It guides you through a process that to understand where seven key internal elements are in sync and where they’re not. This framework was originally developed by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, who once worked for McKinsey. Terminology commonly used to discuss organizational dynamics has changed since then, but the basic construct is still very effective. It has been used for performance improvement, to aid strategy implementation, and for organizational change initiatives. The model is broken down into three Hard elements; Strategy, Structure, Systems, and Soft elements: Shared Values, Skills, Style and Staff. There’s a great Mind Tools article on how to use this model that includes worksheets.

I didn’t include tools like SWOT Analysis and Stakeholder Analysis because they’re very well-known and you’ve probably used one or both of them at some point in your careers. I also didn’t cover things like mind-mapping for similar reasons. However, the links above provide good explanations and tools.

For each of these analytical constructs, you can literally find dozens of sites that provide good content and supplementary tools for each of them. And there are many more analysis constructs to explore. Some people blend concepts or steps from one construct into another for a tool that better fits their unique business needs or analytical styles. Whether you use them to do in-depth assessment at an organizational level, a 10-minute “emergency” exercise, or anything in-between, you’ll develop a more thorough analysis of the situation at hand. And that typically leads to better decision-making.

Improve Remote Performance – The Power of Connection

High-performing individuals and teams feel well-connected to the things that matter most. That includes a deeper connection to mission and strategy, their goals, and to you and their fellow team members. Working remotely often leads to lower levels of connection. Here are some ways you can build a more connected – and better performing – team.

A good deal of research shows that remote employees are often more productive than their on-site peers.  But, as a manager, as a leader, you’re more interested in performance than productivity.  Productivity is a measure of how much you do… in other words, activity. “I get a lot done when I work from home.” Performance is about how effective your work is. “My team improved client satisfaction by 5% over last quarter.”  Certainly, productivity and performance often go hand in hand, but not always. We all know people who work hard and get a lot done; but, still, they just don’t seem to be able to move the needle far enough.

No doubt, over the last year or so, you’ve been flooded with all kinds of advice on how to keep your newly remote team of managers or professionals engaged and performing well .  Here’s a slightly different way of looking at how to make that happen – by leveraging key leadership techniques in ways that keep people connected. Connected to their mission, their goals and to you and their team.

Connect Your Team to Mission / Vision / Strategy 
Working through COVID conditions has meant facing and overcoming a lot of challenges.  People have had to deal with a myriad of urgent and often difficult changes to our personal and work lives.  When that happens, it’s easy to get distracted.  It’s critical that we focus and refocus our team members on why we’re here.  What’s our purpose? What’s our strategy for making that happen?
  • Keep it in front of them.  You can do this at team meetings.  “This new project aligns with our mission to…”  And when problem solving.  “Part of our strategy calls for cross selling more technology products.  With that as our primary criteria, let’s discuss which of these projects will make that happen more quickly?”  When answering questions.  “The reason we’re going to move to a 70/30 remote model is because of the upcoming business acquisition.  We’ll need maximum levels of trust and collaboration to make this work.  And that means more face-to-face time in the office.”
  • Make it personal.  Virtually every organization has a mission or vision and a business strategy. So too should every team. How does the overall business strategy map to your team? How do you make high-level strategy make sense in your part of the organization? In fact, how do you help each of your team members align what they do with mission and strategy? Take the time for a formal process of aligning your team’s mission and goals with the organization’s. One meeting isn’t likely to be enough. Make it a short project, assign a lead to it, and ask people to come prepared to the meetings with their own ideas.
Connect Them to Their Goals and Objectives
This is another important touchstone that drives connection and improves performance. With organizations facing an evolving post-pandemic world, significant changes are already taking place again. For many, if not most, that means more disruption. Another way to reel people back in is to help them stay focused on their goals.
  • Keep their formal goals up to date. Don’t wait until the end of the year to align their work goals to new business goals and initiatives and new ways of working.  These changes provide a perfect opportunity to get their attention. Talk about goals, find out what challenges they have, and help them create a plan for addressing them. Remember to make this a robust two-way conversation.
  • Set clear expectations.  Remote management is usually harder because communication is more difficult and less frequent. Don’t let distance get in the way of clarity. You’ll want to let your team and your employees know exactly what’s expected. For example, it’s not enough to tell them you want them to maintain or improve collaboration. How do you expect them to do that?  “Remember, we’ll be switching to Flowdock next quarter. I expect everyone to have 100% of their team members attend the product training by no later than September 15th.”
  • Hold people and teams accountable. Expectations without accountability are a half-measure. Even highly motivated people need to be accountable for how effectively they perform. Remember to role-model what you want to see. If you ask the managers who report to you to update their team’s performance goals, but you don’t do it with your own team, it’s likely to elicit a half-hearted and incomplete effort on their part as well.  For more on remote accountability, look for our upcoming article.
Connect Them to Their Team and to You
We’re saving the best for last. It’s a well-established fact that personal connectivity to one’s team and boss positively impact engagement, talent retention and performance. Even for those who love to work remotely, almost all of them still need to connect with the people they work with. In addition to holding regular individual and team meetings and events, here are some ways to improve personal connectivity.
  • Empathy (and loads of it), not Sympathy.  As organizations continue to sort out the future of their organization’s work structures and practices, it’s important that leaders be empathetic. Note that I did not say sympathetic. Here’s the difference. When a leader is empathetic, they understand and share the feelings of another person. They recognize the person’s challenges. “It must be hard to have to re-organize your personal life around the new work arrangements.” It’s supportive. On the other hand, when someone is sympathetic, they are signaling that they feel pity or distress for them. “I’m so sorry that you have to come back to work in the office full time. It really stinks.” This also sounds supportive. But managers who sympathize (instead of empathize) are more likely to excuse poor performance and lower their expectations. It also crosses the manager/employee boundary and makes it harder to be objective with an employee.
  • Help them help themselves.  People like and respect leaders who help them solve problems, not managers who dictate solutions. Ask questions. “You’ve been late getting the financials to me two months in a row. What’s going on? Why do you suppose that’s happening? What do you think will solve that problem?” Of course, if you see something else, you’ll want to mention it, but collaborative course corrections are the most effective. It’s also important to ask how you can help. This technique also works well for teams. Help them define and then solve the collaborative challenges they have, and ask what you can do to help.
  • Set team goals.  Individuals need to know that they will be held accountable for how well their team(s) perform, and that collaboration is critical to their success. See above.
  • Remain focused on professional development. Don’t lose sight of helping your team members develop their skills and acquire important experiences. Remote employees are more likely to be overlooked when it comes to development opportunities. Pick your times wisely, but make sure it remains part of the ongoing dialogue you have with them.

Connection is Powerful. Connecting with others and with purpose are deep-seated personal needs, and that includes in one’s work life. High-performing teams thrive on the level of trust and respect that connection helps drive.

3 Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking

You may have heard the story of the truck that was immovably stuck under a bridge and how the solution came from an unlikely source. If you don’t know it, I’ll share it at the end of this newsletter.

I was thinking about this story when recalling a professional meeting where the topic was developing a global mindset. One of the speakers was talking about their company’s research showing that experiencing another culture has a significant impact on one’s strategic thinking. “Experiencing” didn’t mean going there on a vacation. It was an immersive, longer-term experience, like ex pat assignments or managing a global team where you had to travel to work within their culture somewhat regularly.

The speaker noted that these assignments have this profound impact because they challenge your perceptions and perspectives of the world. These different perspectives allow you to be more nuanced in your thinking about how different parts of a whole interact, the variables that impact it, and the resulting implications. Your competitors are increasingly global, not just national or local. Therefore, such experiences help you to think more like (and outthink) your competitors, to anticipate trends, and to consider solutions and strategies from a broader array of possibilities.

How, then, can you stretch your perspectives to help develop your strategic thinking when working globally isn’t a possibility (or, at least, not yet)?

  • Regularly interact with people in a different function or area of the company. Marketers and engineers don’t think alike. Operations people think differently than researchers. See how someone different from you may experience the same issues or the organization itself.
  • Interact with those outside your industry.  For years, benchmarking was the buzzword when you wanted to get a more strategic perspective and to gain some competitive advantage. Benchmarking is often practiced with a closed-system approach. Life science companies benchmark other life science companies. Tech firms benchmark other tech firms. That’s important, but it’s also somewhat limiting, especially in a world where industries and disciplines are bleeding together like never before. The perspective of someone in a different industry about your issue or situation will cause you to think about the variables and interactions more broadly, more strategically. One of the things that made Steve Jobs so successful at product design was that he included perspectives he gained from things as diverse as digital animation, calligraphy and architecture.

When we hire people who are mostly like ourselves we multiply our strengths… but also our weaknesses and blind spots.

  • Hire people who are different from you. We’re all familiar with research which shows that diverse organizations are generally more successful. In addition to the typical diversity categories we’re used to thinking about (gender, race, age, etc.) we should look for diversity of thought, experience, and education, among many other factors. When we hire people who are mostly like ourselves, we multiply our strengths… but also our weaknesses and blind spots. Make sure to regularly ask those you’ve hired for their perspective and input on the business issues you are working to address.

Thinking about your daily business interactions expansively will help you develop the broader perspective needed for strategic thinking.

So, the story of the truck goes like this. The top of the truck was wedged against the underside of a bridge, and it could go neither forward nor backward. It just wouldn’t budge. Traffic was backed up and police and tow trucks were trying to figure out how to get it out. A little boy walked up and asked what was going on.  The police officer explained the dilemma. The little boy looked at him and said, “let the air out of the tires.”

Alignment + Agility = Competitive Advantage

Our previous two articles talked about creating alignment for success in 2021. First, your organization (and your teams) need a clearly articulated North Star and strategic clarity. Second, it is imperative to build a culture that reinforces alignment between how you work and what you aim to achieve. Alignment is essential for success. However, agility – in addition to alignment – will lead to competitive advantage.

Alignment without agility is stagnation.

Agility without alignment is chaos.

Over the past year, rapid response and breakneck adaptation have been watchwords for successful businesses in the COVID environment. The pace of that agile response has left people exhausted and organizations risking burnout among their teams. Some organizations have been changing so quickly that they have prioritized adaptation too highly. They are no longer aligned with or certain about their business strategy. And some feel they no longer recognize their culture. In a deep and dire emergency, business survival trumps culture.  Nevertheless, it has its negative consequences.

On the other hand, some of my clients are already worried that, as we approach a post-pandemic world, the desire for a sense of “normalcy” and decompression will result in a temporary, but dangerous stagnation. It could be very tempting to feed the longing for some stability, and focus too heavily on alignment, deprioritizing agility.

And therein lies the conundrum. Organizations that build and maintain competitive advantage create a balance between two competing elements: alignment and agility. It can be convincingly argued that the benefits of agility are only achieved within the context of ongoing alignment with strategy and culture. It is also a fact that change and alignment are, at their core, competing forces that require constant attention.

How can you create alignment and agility within your team?

  • Clearly focus on only a handful of strategic imperatives. And don’t assume clarity. Revisit those imperatives regularly with your team and discuss how the team’s work contributes to them. Use them as your guardrails.
  • Help strategy bubble up from the bottom.  People in the organization who are closer to the customers, operations and technologies often see opportunities and threats more quickly than executives do. In my HBR article, “5 Behaviors of Leaders Who Embrace Change”, I shared these two ideas for building this capability in your team:
    • Make opportunity-seeking part of the regular conversation. Simply asking questions like “What are our customers talking about? What do you think they will want a year or two from now? What new trends do you think will impact us?” sends the message that looking ahead is important. And that you value their input.
    • Advertise successes. Nothing breeds success like success. Tell the stories at company events and recognize team members who are looking ahead and identifying opportunities. Demonstrate that the status quo is not enough anymore.
  • Encourage experimentation and learn from failure:  Too often, traditional organizations’ first response to a risk is to ask, “Why?” Change agility requires leaders to ask “why not?” and to establish opportunities for pilots, prototypes, and experimentation. Experimentation is an integral part of R&D. While an overall strategy informs the researchers’ focus, any R&D scientist will tell you that there are sometimes dozens of experiments that don’t get results and that, without those failures, they wouldn’t have been able to find the successes.
  • Reallocate resources with discipline.  As Sulls’ and Homkes research found, organizations tend to move too slowly or move quickly but lose sight of the strategy. I consulted to an organization a few years ago where moving too quickly without discipline was hampering their ability to achieve results. The CEO had started the company and was the classic early-stage entrepreneur; extremely responsive to market needs, ready and willing to change strategy, and endlessly shifting resources. However, the company was not early stage anymore and this nearly sole focus on agility led to a complete lack of follow-through, very little alignment and was seriously impacting results. The board removed him and named a new CEO who added a new level of discipline to resource allocation through a combination of centralized oversight and distributed decision-making.

Start 2021 with the ideas we’ve discussed in these three articles – defining your North Star, creating strategic clarity, building a strong culture and creating aligned agility – and you will have improved your ability to thrive.