Drawing of four people with different work from home environments on different sides of a globe

Rethinking Assumptions About How Employees Work

George Westerman

Many companies pivoted to deal with the challenges of the pandemic. But preparing for the next era will require a change in leaders’ mindsets.

A management meme of the last year asks, “Who led digital transformation in your company?” The answer is not the CEO or COO or CIO. It’s COVID-19.

While darkly funny, it highlights an important point. The pandemic unleashed unprecedented levels of change in the business environment. In April 2020, soon after much of the world entered lockdown, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”

In the year and a half since then, organizations have implemented changes that once felt impossibly far off:

  • Working from home: While the pandemic upended many jobs that could be done only in person, such as waiting tables and working in retail stores, managers learned that many other roles could be done very effectively from home.
  • Teaching online: Schools shifted very quickly from in-person to remote or hybrid learning. For many young students and their families, it was difficult. But, particularly for adults, remote learning worked relatively well.
  • Remote health care: Doctors pivoted quickly to remote appointments. As is usual for many innovations, those who were already doing some work virtually, such as psychologists, made the transition more easily than those who had never done so. Over time, medical practitioners learned how to separate what had to happen in person from what could be done online.

It’s important to recognize that COVID-19 didn’t lead the transformation. People did. COVID-19 was an impetus and a lesson. It taught us that when we want to change, we can. We just have to want it — and need it — enough. Of course, not all people would agree that these new ways of working are good — just ask the parent of any young schoolchild. But these experiments made it possible to work in ways that organizations once felt customers wouldn’t accept — or that they as providers couldn’t execute.

Preparing for the post-pandemic era requires that leaders now weigh what’s possible and what’s not. This means thinking about more than just technological or organizational capabilities. It means asking what’s worth going after and what will be too hard. At its heart, it will require a radical rethinking of the assumptions that drive managerial decision-making and a change in mindset for leaders at all levels.

Five Assumptions About Employees That Demand Reconsideration

Assumptions are a fundamental component of decision-making for people at all levels of an organization. In a complex world, assumptions provide a quickly accessible representation of how things work. They help establish boundaries about what should and should not be considered valid. They are a critical part of organizational culture, influencing individual behavior and helping to distinguish organizational right from wrong.

However, assumptions can also have a negative effect by preventing people from considering new ways of working. They can create biases that reinforce the status quo and reject creative innovations. When Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” he meant, at least in part, that if strategy runs counter to the unconscious assumptions of our people, it won’t fly.

The last decade of digital transformation has required leaders to rethink assumptions about what customers want and how business works to meet those desires. The COVID-19 era took this rethinking even further, as pandemic-era restrictions shifted the preferences of employees as well as customers and changed the way businesses do business day to day. When considering how to come back stronger from the pandemic era, leaders need to rethink their assumptions about what employees want, what customers want, and what it means to manage well. While not all pre-COVID-19 assumptions are outdated, it would be wrong to assume that they are all still correct.

In this first of three articles, I lay out a set of assumptions about how employees work that may need rethinking in your business. In my next two articles, I will examine assumptions around the customer experience and digital transformation.

Work Assumption 1:
If people aren’t in the office, they’re not productive.

Although managers in the past year and a half opened up to the idea of having people work from home, many still harbor doubts about its effectiveness. As with every assumption, the task is not to consider this belief to be untrue but rather to question when and how it is true. The debate over this assumption is not new — remember the uproar at Yahoo in 2013, when the company ended all work-from-home arrangements? — but it became more broadly relevant during the pandemic.

Some jobs can be done just as productively at home — such as coding or writing. Highly motivated workers are more likely to thrive outside of a supervisor’s direct vision than others. Jobs measured by output rather than input are more amenable to remote work. Other jobs will require more thought about where they can be done and why they are designed the way they are.

In considering a return to the office environment, managers need to think more broadly than a simple binary in/out decision. They need to think about how to restructure jobs so that they can be better managed through a remote approach, where they don’t need as much top-down supervision. Workers in these redesigned jobs could end up being more productive wherever they work.

Questions to consider:

  • What tasks must be done in the office versus remotely?
  • Can you reconfigure tasks — or outputs — to align more effectively with a remote approach?
  • How will you set appropriate productivity goals and ensure that people meet them?

Work Assumption 2:
The same rules should apply to everybody.

Just as COVID-19 broke the barrier between work and home, it broke apart the contiguous 9-to-5 workday and brought more attention to employees’ nonwork lives. Parents felt freer to discuss the challenges of interspersing their jobs with family tasks. Coworkers developed greater empathy for colleagues who couldn’t work the same schedules as others. Bosses learned the need to be more flexible in managing employee time.

Unfortunately, many HR organizations thrive on standardization. The concern is that special treatment, such as offering benefits that differ from what’s offered to others in the same role, can open the door to favoritism and bias, neither of which is acceptable.

However, companies have always made exceptions in special circumstances. What’s new is that now organizations need to recognize the need to give everyone special treatment, within boundaries.

This is important because, pre-COVID-19, many people encountered real trouble managing their outside-work lives while complying with standard office expectations. This created extra stress — they had to work early or late hours to catch up, or rush frantically between work and nonwork appointments. Introverts would end their days exhausted from being with other people nonstop, when a few periods alone might have recharged them.

The one-size-fits-all approach also fostered a culture of hiding. People would take the flexibility they needed and hope they didn’t get caught. At best, the hiding was stressful. At worst, it could encourage a culture of dishonesty or disrespect.

Going forward, it will be important to meet requirements for fairness and nondiscrimination while also recognizing the specific needs of each person. For example, organizations from MIT to Mondelēz are using hybrid arrangements that require staff members to be in the office for core meeting hours on specific days and give autonomy at other times. General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently released a two-word rule for her company’s return-to-work strategy: “Work appropriately.” This type of flexibility, while more difficult to administer than the inflexible HR rules of the past, is likely to become more common for many workplace situations.

Questions to consider:

  • What special exceptions do your employees ask for?
  • How can you give each employee the special treatment they need while ensuring fairness and equity?
  • Under what circumstances is special treatment not appropriate?

Work Assumption 3:
We need to locate where the talent is.

To access top technical talent, companies opened offices near universities or in cities known for their high-tech cultures (and often their high costs of living). Prime locations eased the hiring of the best graduates. Others located in areas focused on their industries, such as fashion in New York or finance in London.

The past year has begun to call that assumption into question. Engineers from high-cost, high-density locations like San Francisco and Seattle found that they could work very effectively from other cities and even small towns, and many do not want to return. Companies found that they can access talent well beyond their commuting zones if they are willing to allow remote work.

These experiments will have profound implications for talent acquisition and compensation. Google’s discussion of paying employees less if they live outside of Silicon Valley is one that many companies may soon encounter. One model may be that of the U.S. federal government, which pays a base wage rate plus locality-based increases for higher-cost cities.

The change has implications for collaborative opportunities. Nearly every major pharma company in the world has a research lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near MIT and Harvard University. They want access to the best professors, not just students. It is unclear whether colocation — or how much in-person collaboration — will be required for this type of talent acquisition in the future.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you need to locate near top universities to access new talent or top scholars?
  • Do you need to locate near hub cities for your industry? If not, how can you attract and retain good people to less-attractive locations?
  • How will you ensure fairness in wages and benefits for workers in different areas or with different levels of in-office and remote working?

Work Assumption 4:
When they’re working for me, they’re not working for anyone else.

The concept of a side gig was common well before COVID-19. Employees did their day jobs and then worked other jobs part time to earn extra money or pursue their passions. With staff members in the office and using company computers, it was reasonable to assume that work happening onsite was mostly related to the company. When employees work remotely, the challenge becomes more complex. Anecdotes about workers having two full-time employers are becoming common enough to merit attention.

When a worker shows a lapse in productivity while working at home, is it due to illness, family needs, or difficulty collaborating remotely? What if it’s because they’re not putting in enough hours? Or, worse, putting in hours for another “full-time” employer?

The point is not to mistrust employees. It’s to double down on two things we know are essential: motivation and monitoring. Rather than installing Big Brother-like monitoring, it is far better to design jobs to make productivity more transparent and then ensure that employees find the work meaningful. Of course, there is drudge work and unproductive time in many jobs — but in a virtual environment, the consequences of poor management competence, occupational design, or organizational culture get amplified.

Questions to consider:

  • How can you make each job more meaningful and measurable?
  • Do you need new job descriptions and work contracts to enable effective remote working and inhibit abuse?

Work Assumption 5:
Employees will work the way we tell them to.

It is essential to balance the preferences of employees with the needs of the company. You are paying people to work, and you need to ensure that investment pays off. However, recent years have shown workers — especially the most talented white-collar workers — that they do not need to follow work rules that were established before the internet. The most talented and productive people have more flexibility in whom they want to work for and are thus more demanding about the conditions they want to work under. People in all occupations are questioning whether to accept work conditions that feel unnecessarily stressful.

Rather than blindly returning to the old ways of operating, it will be important to include employees in establishing new expectations while maintaining some control over the final outcome. This is not new — we’ve known it for years. But as the disparities between work conditions become more stark — between jobs with flexibility and those without, and between what the organization needs and what workers want — it becomes more important to remember.

Questions to consider:

  • How can you incorporate greater voice from employees into how their jobs and organizational units are designed?
  • How can you position your organization to keep your best talent?

These are just some of the employee-related assumptions that leaders should reexamine for the pandemic age. Many leaders will come up with more. Not every pre-COVID-19 assumption needs to be rejected. But after the upheaval of the pandemic and while considering stages to come, this is the right time to think carefully about the assumptions that shape decision-making processes.

Originally published on MIT Sloan Management Review.


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