cartwheel on the beach at sunset
PHOTO: Dominic Sansotta | unsplash

We made it. We powered through yet another year colored by the global pandemic and major shocks to our economy. Yet as we set up our goals for the new year, a lot of organizations are contending with a new reality.

We can’t keep team members engaged by reverting to pre-pandemic workstyles.

So, what will it take for our teams to stick together through the end of 2022? It depends. When your organization is small, keeping team members engaged is a matter of empathy and personal relationships. By having open and honest conversations with every single person, you can leverage their strengths, tap into their individual passions, and give them the freedom to work in the way that best suits them. You have the time to listen to every opinion, learn people's backgrounds and make the most of your team’s diversity.

It’s when organizations grow that we start to see cracks in the human dimension of teamwork. To save time on personal conversations, managers turn to rules and procedures. What started off as a rule of thumb — meant to help team members balance their work obligations with their non-work needs — becomes the law. 

We start hearing, “I’m sorry, the employee manual says so,” which really translates to, “I don’t want to spend time on you, so I’ll hide behind these arbitrary rules.”

One-rule-fits-all is Industrial Age thinking. As a society, we can do better. The Great Resignation we’re going through should serve to remind us that we can’t afford to think of employees as cogs in a corporate machine. We can’t have entitled managers barking orders from 10 feet above the factory floor. We also don’t want middle managers with nothing better to do than to micromanage their team members.

In this piece, the fourth in a series on digital transformation, we'll drill down on the importance of respecting individuality, looking at the conditions needed to empower team members so that each person can find the workstyle that best suits them. At my company, we call this environment “100 people, 100 workstyles,” and realized that, in order to get there, your organization needs to meet three key conditions.

1. The Right Tools and Policies to Work Flexibly

The first step toward achieving “100 people, 100 workstyles” is not just to get the right tools, but to also institute the policies that allow team members to make the most of their tools.

On the tools side, we use video conferencing and instant messaging software — just like most companies in our industry. We’ve also decided that sharing information through email and spreadsheets was a waste of time, so all our internal communication and company data is stored on a cloud-based collaboration platform.

If you need a piece of information that someone else has, your work depends on their time. If your information is shared within a common platform, you have much more control over how you set up your schedule. I’ve covered this aspect of digital transformation extensively in my previous piece on transparency: Don't Just Say 'Transparency Is Good.' Ingrain It in Your Policies, Culture and Technology.

On the policy side, provided our team members communicate clearly what they’re contributing and how, our default is to trust. Need time off to deal with a family emergency? Let your team know and you can go. Work better late in the evening? You’re free to set your public schedule to work from 9pm to 5am. Feel like you could be more engaged and productive while working abroad? There’s free seating in our Tokyo office.

The important thing to keep in mind is that flexibility serves a purpose: For team members to choose the workstyle they know is best for them. If you can justify that your workstyle is conducive to achieving better work-life balance while also contributing to the team’s mission, no one will get in your way.

Related Article: Digital Workplace Flexibility Is Far From Being a Done Deal

2. Diverse Communication Channels

When companies discuss workplace flexibility, we often limit ourselves to where and when people work, but really, it’s about how people work.

An important part of that “how” is communication. Some people come up with their best ideas during giant brainstorming sessions via Zoom. Others find taking an afternoon walk in their local park inspirational. Creativity takes many forms, and the more communication channels your company provides, the more forms you’ll be able to take advantage of.

Whether we’re making major decisions, providing feedback, or solving problems within our company, we ask our team members how they feel they can most comfortably contribute. We use video conferencing and live chat for immediate discussion and rapid exchange of ideas. We use public conversation threads for more deliberate, asynchronous discussion. We also provide opportunities for employees to share anonymous feedback, complaints and suggestions they'd rather not make public.

I’ve seen so many companies where only a single style of communication gets rewarded and promoted: the loud and confident type. But loud and confident doesn’t always translate to bright and competent. Brilliance comes in all shapes and sizes, which we can’t fully appreciate or harness if we’re constantly pushing our teams to give all their ideas instantly and publicly.

Related Article: How to Manage Introverts in the Digital Workplace

3. A Sense of Connection

The final, and perhaps most important condition to achieving “100 people, 100 workstyles” is creating a work environment where diverse individuals with various workstyles feel included and part of the organization’s broader mission. If your company has yet to develop a clear overarching common vision, you may want to go back and check out the second article in this series: "Having a Vision Is Not Enough, You Need a Shared Common Vision."

Giving people appropriate channels within which to communicate only makes sense if you’ve created an environment where everyone’s communication is taken into account.

One of the most pernicious barriers to achieving a flexible work culture is hidden biases. For example, if senior managers in your company are convinced they always know better than their junior team members, those junior members won’t speak up, no matter how flexible their hours or how many communication channels they can access.

Hidden biases have the power to undo any good intentions you might have for your company’s culture. The most effective countermeasure I’ve found is for leadership to tear them down in public.

I regularly hold company-wide sessions in which any team member can submit (anonymously, or not) an issue for feedback or discussion. We’ve had tough conversations about everything from our broad organizational values to details on how individual departments can better collaborate. We’ve even discussed topics that most companies wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, like how to calculate salaries and bonuses. Debates can get heated, but every time, we’ve come out more united and focused on our common purpose.

We also make sure our leadership practices the flexible workstyles we preach. Even before the pandemic, I worked in part from home, adapting my work schedule so I had time to spend with my family. The CEO of our parent company publicly took paternity leave — a move so rare it made news in his native Japan and opened the door for young fathers to have more time to connect with their children. We have several managers who work either in part or fully from overseas, demonstrating that in our new digital age geography doesn’t have to be a barrier to a fulfilling and productive lifestyle.

Related Article: Are Your Culture Building Initiatives Actually Hurting Your Culture?

Possible, Comfortable and Easy

Our technology and policies make flexible workstyles possible, our varied communication channels make them comfortable, and our efforts to quash hidden biases make them psychologically safe. There’s still a lot more we can do to promote open communication and a safe, flexible work environment for all — but with these three conditions met, I’m confident we’re on track to make it through the year, and beyond.

If you’re keen on providing your team members with the environment they need to be their best selves in 2022, get started now. The easiest first step is to set up the right tools and policies. After that, it shouldn’t be too difficult to demonstrate the benefits of diverse communication channels. Then all you have to do is walk the walk.

The last part will take time. Don’t be surprised or disheartened if at first people don’t feel like they have the freedom or psychological safety to truly personalize their workstyle. Any year has its ups and downs. Stick to what you can control. Customize your own workstyle and encourage leadership to do the same. Congratulate team members who dare give flexibility a try. Address your biases in public. If you persist, over time, your organization will build resilience, and will eventually become an amazing place to work.

Once you get there, macro trends like The Great Resignation won’t seem as scary. When people love their workplace, they don’t just stay — they invite more people. An inflexible company’s resignation is a flexible company’s new hire.

Cheers to a fulfilling, motivating and team-driven new year! I look forward to seeing you again for my next piece on technology and practices that encourage team members to raise their hand and take responsibility.