For many of us, the last 12 months have felt like walking a high wire with no net. When companies went full- or partially-remote for the first time, with little warning — it was a reckoning many weren’t prepared for. With workforces physically dispersed, and company culture and employee connection strained, it was a challenging time for organizations as we tried to figure out our new normal.
But in the best cases, these challenges acted as a catalyst, ushering in an overwhelming amount of positive strategic, organizational and operational advancements in areas where change was only incremental before. And while these changes might have seemed drastic, many companies found they’d actually been laying the groundwork all along: for increased diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; a fuller digital transformation; and more flexible work options.
Here’s how these advancements transformed our organizations last year and what we need to focus on this year to ensure we continue to make an impact.
Heightened Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I)
In 2020, employees and customers alike demanded that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts become a non-negotiable, integral part of business. Today’s workers expect employers to weigh in on issues of justice and equality. They demand thoughtful plans and proactive movement toward equal representation and measures of respect.
And they should. DE&I is not only good for society, it’s good for business, too. A recent McKinsey study found businesses with top rates of ethnic diversity on executive teams outperformed those with the lowest diversity by a margin of at least 30%. And companies with 30% or more females in executive leadership roles were 48% more likely to financially outperform those with the least female representation.
Now more than ever it’s clear how strategic DE&I pays off in improved workplace culture, better innovation, increased retention and boosted profitability. When looking forward at DE&I efforts, the next challenge for businesses will be making this a continued commitment rather than a one-off line item that you lose track of in a few years. Now is the time to figure out how your organization will measure your DE&I efforts and how you will hold your company accountable.
Full Digital Transformation Was Closer Than We Realized
To say society leaned into technology last year would be an understatement. The digital transformation across the board was a major accomplishment, with McKinsey recently estimating digitization efforts were the equivalent of three to four years’ worth of change. But contrary to popular belief, successful digital transformation isn't only about technology — it also includes culture, leadership and people.
And while the last year carried us into uncharted territory, many companies found the technology they were already familiar with could be leveraged in new ways to bring employees together while working apart. Services like cloud-based platforms for training, communication and project management; chatbots to streamline customer service; and the plethora of videoconferencing options kept our businesses moving forward. The key will be to figure out how we optimize this digital transformation in the hybrid work model that’s set to be the next stage for our businesses.
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The Future Is Hybrid
When the world began to shut down and entire organizations started working remotely for the first time, there was a collective pause as we all grappled with the uncertainty of how our business would survive remote life. Fast forward a few months and we’ve adjusted — for the most part — and now many of our employees have no desire to return to the office once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.
And while employees have reported greater productivity and engagement when working from home, there’s a certain synergy we get from working face-to-face in a collaborative environment. Now that companies have overcome the barriers that kept them from offering a hybrid model in the past, many businesses are trying to figure out how to give employees the best of both worlds without sacrificing this increased productivity and engagement.
As we move to this next phase of work, the goal should be to up-level managers in your organization to better navigate the relationship with their employees in a hybrid work model. When looking back at the past year, managers who excelled in their employee relationships during the shift to remote work adopted a coaching model of leadership to encourage connection and engagement. This frame of mind will be extremely important as we move toward continued hybridization to ensure the manager/employee relationship isn’t negatively impacted in the process.
The past 12 months have undoubtedly changed the world of work as we knew it. As organizational leaders, there will be no returning to the way things were before. But by reflecting on the challenges of the past year, as well as the possibilities those challenges have created, we can make plans for a better future.
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