Management thinking about business and how work gets done to generate value for customers requires radical revision. Happily, the understanding of complex evolving systems is improving, at least to the point that we can recognize and embrace the consequences of emergence – that property of evolving systems that results in new phenomena and new traits and new patterns that could never have been predicted based on our prior knowledge. We can’t predict future developments of our own systems. We can only observe emergent developments as they occur.
One example of an emergent pattern that no-one predicted is the hybrid workplace. This is the new condition of the office or factory in which the elements of where we do work and how we do work and how we synchronize work with each other have changed beyond recognition. Some people might be in physical proximity in a meeting or gathering, while others are remotely connected through technology from another physical location, and the tools and devices and machines and data we use are in yet another physical place and another digital dimension. Everything is in motion and the relationships between them are fluid.
How can the hybrid workplace be managed for value generation and productivity? Yesterday’s management techniques of hierarchical control no longer fit very well. Two of the best experts to address the challenges of the hybrid workplace are Julie Kantor and Felice Ekelman, authors of the book Thrive With A Hybrid Workplace. Here’s what they say.
First, focus on culture. Culture is a value proposition for employees. Some bosses have claimed that corporate culture can not survive the hybrid workplace without an office or factory where people spend extended periods of time together on a regular basis. But culture stems from intentionality – what kind of a culture do you intend to nurture? Culture is a function of the things that matter to employees, which can include learning and progressing, empowerment, shared vision, connection, collaboration and trust. These are all subjectively evaluated, and it is entirely possible to shape the appropriate value proposition when the right intent is employed and declared. Whether work is hybrid or 100% in-person and on-premise does not have to be the governing variable. Empathy – understanding the things that matter to individual employees – is the binding force.
Second, embrace change. Evolutionary biology suggests that humans prefer predictability and stability to change. But in the emergent upheaval that brought us the hybrid workplace, change came to the forefront. Changes in work habits and practices, changes in relationships and collaboration possibilities, changes in the very nature of work. Part of the new value proposition for employees is that we all are swimming in the river of change together, and we should all be open to the excitement and energy of the experience.
Third, redefine connection. In complex evolving systems, it is the connection and interaction between individuals that opens up new pathways to productivity and value generation. Julie Kantor calls this connection interpersonal glue. If there’s no glue, teams find it harder to work through challenges and conflicts. Julie urges us to find new ways of networking, new forms of “dropping by”, and new forms of mentoring, and new ways of connecting in general.
Communicating and collaboration take new forms as well, when the medium of connection changes. We should be newly sensitive to the subjective interpretation of our communications when they come in new formats (e.g. e-mail and text compared to in-person). “How can I help” becomes the new expression of connection – making communication inbound and not just outbound, and declaring the intent to collaborate.
Be a coach rather than a manager. Coaching is a commitment to help individuals evolve as the ecosystem changes. Coaching involves observation and active listening rather than giving instructions. Coaching provides resources, but doesn’t specify how to use the resources. Coaching facilitates but does not prescribe. Every individual should receive coaching.
With new mindsets, the hybrid workplace can be even more productive than its more restrictive predecessor workplace. Responsiveness to the real things that matter to employees can be tuned to any kind of workplace, including one that changes all the time.