I am often asked what the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact has been on my company and what I consider the key leadership learnings from the last two years. From my perspective, one of the most unexpected impacts that the pandemic has had on business is that employee productivity increased when employees shifted to remote work. This was a widespread phenomenon that I witnessed first-hand at Northridge. Remote work empowered employees to have more control over their schedules, getting work done on their terms. While still committed to meeting customer expectations, employees could now complete their “desk work” outside the standard 8 am to 5 pm window. This enabled many to better manage their personal and family priorities.
The New Reality of Work
This new reality has caused many to re-assess their work-life balance, which has been a primary trigger for employees pursuing other employment options. A survey by the Society for Human Resources Managers conducted in the Spring of 2021 found that less than one-third of mothers who left the workforce because of the pandemic planned to return to work in the next year. The mothers surveyed said, if they do return to work, they will only do so if their employers deliver on work-life balance.
The great migration to remote work during the pandemic profoundly impacted the way people think about work. “We have changed. Work has changed. The way we think about time and space has changed,” says Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School. “Workers now crave the flexibility given to them in the pandemic — which had previously been unattainable.”
The Uncertain Future of Work
As we usher in 2022, the uncertain future of work is a pressing concern on the minds of most business leaders. Among their greatest apprehensions are how to hire and retain good talent and how to maintain or increase productivity with teams that may be leaner than in pre-pandemic times. My advice to leaders is to consider the following:
- Empower people throughout your entire organization to manage their own work and develop new skills. Nothing de-motivates people more than being micro-managed or feeling pigeon-holed. Motivated employees are productive employees.
- Create opportunities for professional growth and development. Anytime someone leaves your organization, a new opportunity to rethink your staffing strategy arises. Take advantage of the opportunity to ensure you have the right people in the right roles. Employees thrive when they are challenged with new opportunities and offered a chance for personal growth.
- Adapt your communication tactics to ensure that you are soliciting ideas and feedback from the entire team. With remote work, you can no longer get a pulse on the organization through random conversations at the coffee pot. Establish a steady cadence of communication.
- Accept the fact that there is a new normal for how the workforce gets work done. But acknowledge the reality that customers must always be at the forefront of our decision-making. Determine which jobs can still deliver excellent customer service remotely and which ones require in-person interaction. Once that determination is made, establish expectations for your employees for in-person, remote or hybrid work options. Communicate your rationale and also express your openness to finding ways to achieve the flexibility and work-life balance that employees seek.
Commit to our Children
A personal passion of mine centers on our children, the workforce of our future. I admire those who are re-evaluating how they can manage to be both a good parent and a good employee. An enabler to achieving this goal is not only a flexible, remote work environment but also affordable, accessible childcare and available venues for early childhood development.
As business leaders, corporate social responsibility is important. Paying it forward in the communities where our employees live can make a true difference. Regardless of politics, leaders must realize that investments in early childhood education, such as universal preschool, are good for business. Such investments help parents return to work and increase their productivity while ensuring the next generation gets an early start on education and is better prepared to ultimately enter the workforce. If business leaders prioritize childcare issues and early childhood development as part of their corporate strategies, we as a country will realize our goals of increasing our talent pools and our productivity.
The New Normal
As we move forward to 2022, leaders everywhere are pondering what the workforce and productivity will look like in the future. What will the new normal be? The pandemic has changed the rules of the game. Employees are now demanding work-life balance. Yet customer service must remain at the forefront. Embrace the new normal while addressing both customer and employee needs. My suggestion to leaders is to create plans with a focus on the future productive workforce. My hope for all of us is that we learn from these pandemic years and develop workforce strategies that align employee needs with business demands. It can be a win-win proposition that creates success for everyone.
Therese Fauerbach is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Northridge Group, a growing management consulting firm that specializes in delivering value to clients and ensuring a better experience for their customers. To learn more, contact us.