exhausted woman on laptop with two very active kids behind her
PHOTO: Ketut Subiyanto

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”   

The statement above — commonly attributed to Vladimir Lenin — still rings true for nearly everyone across the globe this year, as the COVID-19 crisis upended life as we knew it. Since March, the world has changed more dramatically than we ever could have imagined and it’s our job as leaders to focus on what’s next and keep our teams prepared.

Here are nine shifts happening in today’s workplace. While they may seem obvious at first, less obvious is the way they’re impacting your employees — and how you, as a leader, need to respond.

1. More Remote Work / Less Commuting

While this pandemic won’t last forever, the increase in remote work will. By the end of 2021, roughly 30% of American workers are expected to be fully remote. (That’s about 10 times higher than what the number was pre-pandemic.) And without the proximity of an office, communication can be a real challenge.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Do a remote work pulse survey. During times of rapid change, it’s critical to get frequent feedback from your employees. Send a short, simple survey on a biweekly basis to get a read on your employee experience in real-time.

Invest in technology that enhances remote work. Most communication issues don’t arise from remote work itself, but from formerly-used channels that haven’t been adapted appropriately for a remote team. To circumvent this, make sure everyone is communicating with the same tech, in the same channels.

Related Article: Will We Ever Go Back to the Office Again?

2. A Need for Greater Flexibility

Speaking of remote work, the “remote” part isn't even what’s best about it — it’s having the flexibility to decide when, where and how to get your work done. Since all employees have unique needs, the key here is customization. Organizations that offer the flexibility to customize work hours and location will have a competitive advantage in the new age of work.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Choose your non-negotiables. Does everyone need to be online at certain hours? Which meetings are necessary? How about dress code? Take time to define what counts, then communicate it to your team. With the house rules in order, you’re free to be flexible with the rest.

Create clear, company-wide boundaries around flexibility. If the upside of flexibility is freedom, the downside is ambiguity. To set everyone up for maximum success, set standards for communication and expectations at the company level.

3. Fewer Meetings and Emails, More Video and Chat

Disruption has a way of revealing what’s essential. Six months into this pandemic, many organizations and individuals alike are finding ways to combat Zoom fatigue and endless email chains, and in doing so, finding considerable efficiencies in their work days. The transition to real-time communication — in the form of messaging and video applications — is helping us adapt to this increasingly flexible new style of work.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Block out meeting-free hours. To help your employees reclaim a productive flow state, establish a set of team or company-wide “quiet hours.” These time blocks should be meeting-free, so employees can make progress on important projects.

Eliminate Zoom fatigue. Despite what we believed way back in March, defaulting to video to meet every communication need is not the way to go. It’s exhausting. Instead, use Slack, email or a good old-fashioned phone call whenever possible.

Related Article: Building a New Model for Remote Work

4. More Empowerment, Accountability and Ownership

With greater flexibility comes greater autonomy. And increased autonomy at work has been linked to increased motivation, productivity and job satisfaction. As long as expectations are clearly defined, more autonomy leads to more and more good things.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Reset the why — together. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re operating in survival mode. Start the move back toward alignment by inviting your team to reassess together what your organization is all about, how it might have changed in the recent past, and why it matters.

Stay on top of performance management. Performance management delivers better business results, plain and simple. Make it easy for individuals and teams to  stay aligned on goals, track progress, and put feedback front and center — whether from a shared office or from across the globe.

5. Less Hierarchy, Faster Decision-Making

This era of disruption is paving the way to success for “flat” organizations, or those with less bureaucracy, and more shared ownership and decision-making. Flattening the organizational structure has been a growing trend as it’s been proven to lead to more agile, innovative output.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Broaden job descriptions. Instead of focusing on a long list of specific responsibilities, focus on the skills or experience needed to navigate the dynamics of the work and get the job done, such as creativity, problem-solving and sharp communication skills.

Eliminate a layer of management. Characteristics of a successful flat structure include fewer levels of management with horizontal career paths, and flexible boundaries between units. By organizing work around small, autonomous teams, companies are able to increase agility and speed up decision-making.

Related Article: Remote Work: What We've Lost and What We've Gained

6. A Reset of Trust, Mutually Rebuilt Over Time

As the social contract between company and employee has evolved in recent decades, trust has become increasingly important. And according to Wharton School professor Adam Grant, in the wake of this crisis, “we don’t need micromanagers; we need “macromanagers” who create clarity amid chaos with meaningful and purposeful roles.”

Ways to navigate this shift:

Regular check-ins. Many leaders are finding that, because of efficiencies found elsewhere on their calendar, they’re better equipped for 1-on-1 check-ins with their team. Doing so sets a productive cadence toward better feedback and communication.

Be honest about what’s changed. No one will navigate the new normal perfectly, but the leaders who communicate purposefully and proactively will win trust with their teams, no matter what the news is that they’re delivering.

7. A Pushback on 'Busyness,' the Pressure to Always Be On

Despite research suggesting that being busy makes us less productive, employees have increasingly felt a pull to be constantly “on.” But that’s about to change. It’s time to set clear boundaries around work hours, simplify our lives and make work easier.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Set work-life boundaries, and stick to them. With the recent global reminder of the value of personal health, it’s time to set better boundaries that support a healthy work-life balance. Encourage your employees to log off each evening, and resist the urge to check back in until the next workday.

Do more with less. Over the last decade of intense growth, many companies have layered on new employees, technologies and overhead, without ever stripping anything away. Responding to the intense disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis presents a unique opportunity to assess any processes, committees or conferences that no longer add value to your business anymore, and bid them farewell.

8. A New Emphasis on Mental Health in the Workplace

The employee of the future wants to know their all-around wellbeing really matters to their employer. As a result, future-forward organizations are ramping up support for employees, especially when it comes to mental health.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Make mental health part of the conversation. Communicate to your team that their mental health is important, and make sure they’re aware of any mental health resources they have access to.

Make mental health crisis training part of your benefits package. Mental health crisis training can equip employees to respond early to concerns, yet only 15% of companies offer it. To get started, find an external specialist, or encourage an internal HR leader to get certified in Psychological First Aid through the Red Cross.

9. A New Culture: Community Without Proximity

Meaningful relationships just make work better — and as a result, they make companies more productive and profitable. The employee of the future expects much more from their work environment than just a paycheck. They expect connection, belonging and impact.

Ways to navigate this shift:

Encourage remote 1-on-1 bonding. Large-group Zoom calls don’t feel quite like the party we thought they’d be; however, using a simple #get_to_know_you Slack channel, or using a formal service like Donut can facilitate community-building in a virtual world.

Onboard remote new hires as if they were in the office. Make it a priority to connect new employees to your culture by giving them a warm and welcoming “tour” of their new work environment, and proactively setting times for them to get to know their new peers.

The organizations that succeed in the new world of work will be the ones that adapt to these changes quickly — and prioritize communicating candidly, embracing flexibility and finding alignment in a workplace centered on workers as people. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.