Without a doubt, the world has experienced a hard change. “Hard” because the world has reached a point of no return in so many ways.
When it comes to work, some of these changes were needed. They provide an opportunity for all of us to show the world who we are and what we stand for as organizations, individuals, employees, or leaders.
Before the shift, most of us took our routines, work, and built-in structures for granted. The “old” approach of learning through corporate osmosis and drawing culture from watching others doesn’t apply anymore. In most cases, we are too far physically separated to pick up on nuance that we formally observed up close.
For example, as an organization, we at TOPdesk had to adapt quickly to the online onboarding of newly hired employees. Interviews for open positions promptly became (and remain) virtual; people hired are trained virtually; newly hired employees must learn our culture virtually from their internet connection. Teams and teamwork operate in a virtual hub. That’s a lot of virtual. Nothing remains the same, including annual performance reviews, standup meetings, coaching, sales team check-ins, technology implementations, and client-side relationship management.
I believe eventually we will go back to an office-driven approach. However, the dynamics of running an organization have shifted beyond what an office provides and how people in them participate in an office setting.
All the lights are out, but work is getting done
In some ways, we're feeling our way around in the dark without a light. We're experiencing significant cultural change for the first time, and those who come behind us will never know the world in any other way. The way of the workplace before compared to "after" COVID is similar to the differences in first-generation internet users' experiences compared to those who grew up in the computer age.
For workplace leaders, now there's no visibility into our team members’ lives once the Zoom or Teams video is turned off. Current reality forces us to conceive ways to build and nurture teamwork. Leaders must best determine how their teams work, how they spend their time, and how team members can remain visible and show what they're working on in a workday. We’re no longer able to overhear other’s people’s sales calls, nor “feel” each other’s mood, nor experience their professional and personal growth -- or lack of it. The whole concept of group dynamics is challenged from a team lead and employee perspective.
Pillars of freedom, trust, and responsibility for employee outcomes
In our organization, the three foundational pillars are freedom, trust, and responsibility. Each of these has become more important to us as an organization and as individuals as we attempt to shed light on best practices for success and cohesiveness despite our lack of proximity. Each of these pillars was challenged throughout this experiment. Our organizational leaders encourage team members to take the freedom needed to transition their lives from the office to a remote work environment and respond to challenges as best they can from wherever they are working.
Personal freedom is necessary for the health of the organization and its individuals. However, any level of freedom and independence is built only upon trust and responsibility. Without trust and responsibility, there can be no freedom. They all function in tandem.
If you don’t maintain regular interaction with your employees, how do you know they're working, performing the proper tasks, if they're okay, and keep track of their growth? We have our reports on output per employee in the software we utilize, of course, but the soft side of their well-being is harder to measure in a video call. People can fake being “okay” during a 30-minute check-in call, when actually they are not. It's easier to determine how a team member is doing in an office or co-working environment.
Some of the things we've done to mitigate these limitations include intensifying the one-on-one weekly calls with all employees, in addition to team standups. Making sure we have multiple touchpoints a week with every employee matters. We're also inviting all employees to be open about their well-being – which is culturally divergent from how business is usually conducted but does bring us closer to creating a non-fear-driven work culture.
Outdated processes finally challenged
The belief that shared workspaces are necessary to avoid broken processes and build teams is outdated. However, returning to a shared workspace likely will require some otherwise unattainable reward for employees doing so. While I'm personally committed to shared workspaces and believe in having my teams in our office, a return to such an environment is not more important than the well-being of the individual team members. Until we figure out how to safely return and reward employees for doing so, we should maintain our current remote-based practices.
Since we’ve reached the point of no return, organizations must provide a remote-office balance for employees. Many leading organizations (Salesforce, Google, TOPdesk) are choosing this path. If not, organizations miss out on opportunities to enrich employees and attract the best future employees to the organization.
Another complexity caused by COVID is the significant shift in where people choose to do their work. Many people have relocated to other regions outside of those surrounding the corporate environment because they no longer are tied to an office. Their reasoning for relocation varies -- cheaper locales, closer to family, new adventure calling – but it doesn’t matter why. It only matters that if they’ve chosen to do so, they must prove that they can work effectively from anywhere, but you, as their leader, must ensure they have the freedom to soar in their role despite this continual separation from a shared space.
Leaders must adapt and respond to thrive
Personally, I prefer the buzz and personality created by a shared workspace, but I've learned through my COVID experiences that employee location doesn't matter. As each team member has taken on the responsibility of independently managing their workloads over the last several months, they continue to earn my trust and more freedom to perform in a manner that's best for them.
So, we must adapt and respond if we have not. Our response to COVID over the last year is no different than our response to other organizational obstacles. Though not easy, how we respond to this and other stimuli determines our internal culture even when facing external influence.
Ultimately and evermore, we must stand for our people; their well-being comes first, and positive results will follow. When the focus is employee happiness and well-being, business results are soon to follow, too, whether in a shared office space or not.
Ruben Franzen is president of TOPDesk and has spent his entire career at the company. He joined the company about 15 years ago as a sales representative, based in the company’s global headquarters in Delft, The Netherlands. His other roles included inside sales account manager, key account manager, and head of sales for TOPdesk US. His areas of expertise include leadership, customer experience, sales and business development, and service management (especially IT service management, or ITSM). Born in the Netherlands, Ruben was educated at Leiden University in Leiden, Netherlands (Psychology). He spent more than 30 years in the Netherlands before moving to the United States in 2017. Ruben speaks English and Dutch fluently.