There is no question that this pandemic is forcing companies to rethink the way they work. From processes to policies, companies are having to rapidly adjust and mitigate the impacts that this new normal is having on their employees and the organization at large. As we all join to do our part in helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19, there is one question we are all asking: how is work going to change when this is all over?
Whether you are working from home or in the front lines providing an essential service, we are all having to adjust our day-to-day collaborations with colleagues and clients. Out of necessity, most workers are shifting their schedules to adjust to working from home patterns, even those who have been remote workers all along, as juggling children or loved ones sharing our “workspace” is impacting our ability to stay on top of work. Because of this, companies are forced to be flexible and many are adopting new collaboration technologies to help.
When this is all over, we will have learned a lot about how organizations can flexibly adapt to different workstyles. From an organizational behavior perspective, this is an opportunity that helps us understand what collaboration patterns are and aren’t supported by current technologies and processes. What fell through the cracks? What needs to change? Now that people need to intentionally communicate rather than rely on serendipity, how can those patterns better be supported in the future?
Many of us have been taking face-to-face interactions for granted and these last few weeks have shown us that in-person interactions are not only a privilege but also an invaluable tool for collaboration. While virtual meetings facilitate all kinds of work-interactions, short conversation with casual work acquaintances and deep discussions with colleagues about personal issues are much harder to come by. When this is over, people will likely gravitate towards spaces that support these informal conversations, but it’s just as likely that that effect will fade over time. However, this experience drives home the necessity of the office as a powerful tool to shape how we collaborate. We can effortlessly, thoughtlessly collaborate effectively with our coworkers in these real-world spaces. Hopefully, we continue to appreciate that value and invest in improving that experience for the long term.
While the physical office will not go away, remote work will undoubtedly have an impact on how, when, and where we get our work done. We will likely have more flexible remote work policies throughout many industries. However, the biggest impact will come in the way that companies and individuals will adjust and work more effectively with colleagues who were already working remotely. After all, we all now have the experience of working from home and understand the challenges and interruptions that arise.
We can now recognize the need to be more explicit about our collaboration needs. During this time, we have shifted so that all our interactions are planned in a calendar or require explicit intention to reach out over chat or e-mail. Previously we could rely on informal conversations in the hallway or socializing in a cafe space. Some companies have effectively recreated these experiences with virtual socialization mechanisms. Moving forward this intentionality, this understanding of particular collaboration needs, should become standard practice. After all, these needs are only haphazardly fulfilled in normal times and could be so much more effectively addressed with a combination of physical space and rigorous planning and reflection.
Beyond appreciating the importance of informal collaboration, many of us have been exposed to the personal lives of our coworkers. While we all conceptually know that people have lives outside of work, nothing quite drives it home like a child Zoom-bombing a meeting or a dog howling at the window. These responsibilities always intersect with work, and hopefully many people will have a deeper appreciation for how hard their colleagues are working in their personal lives too. Individually, we need to support those coworkers, however, companies also need to proactively support those personal needs. Not just from a moral perspective, but failure will lead to subpar work and ultimately lower performance of the organization as a whole. Moving forward we need to understand these personal constraints consistently and support employees’ physical and mental health.
Companies, individuals, and society as a whole are learning hard lessons right now. As we continue to work to mitigate the public health effort, we must commit to learning these lessons and drawing value out of the experience. Ultimately, that will lead to all of us, including companies at large, to emerge wiser. When this is over, this may be a lasting effect of this shared, global experience.
About the Author: Ben Waber (President and co-founder of Humanyze) received his Ph.D. in Organizational Science from MIT for his work with Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics group. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School. Waber’s work has been featured in major media outlets such as Wired, The Economist, and NPR. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design. His book, People Analytics, was published by the Financial Times Press in 2013.