Now is the Time to Think about the Future of Work

With at least two vaccines on the horizon, and vaccination starting in Great Britain, it’s time to give some serious thought to how we’re going to work when we don’t all have to work from home.  What do we do when we can come back to the office?

This question presents a complicated set of issues.  I’ve been thinking about it while my wife and I have been binge watching The West Wing on Netflix.  I’ve noticed a couple of things about how people work on that show.  First, they never seem to leave the office. They come in at 5:00 am and seem to be there until after midnight.  The only lesson I take from this is that they should try and get a life!

Second, and this is the real point, the day is filled with planned and impromptu meetings, discussions in the hallways, dropping into other offices, eating meals together, quick calls from the boss for quick team and one-on-one meetings, and all significant discussions happening in-person.  They talk very little on the phone.  Virtually nothing is done at a distance.  Josh Lyman said it this way, “I’ll just walk around some more and see if I can get into a pick-up meeting.”  This work style got me thinking.

How they work is more or less the way that many teams do their jobs: constant planned and spontaneous personal interactions interspersed with solitary work.  We run into each other, walk over to someone’s workspace to discuss something, go to lunch together, and have in-person interactions all day long.  People are social and work best when they know each other.  High performing teams need to develop chemistry bred of personal contact, including non-work-related discussions.  When we’ve all been vaccinated, we might go back to that way of working.  Can we?  Should we? As President Bartlett says, “What’s next?”  Do we go back to the way it was or design new ways to work that mix working from home with in-person work?  Answering that question is neither simple nor easy.

No doubt we have team members who can’t wait to return the office and go back to the way it was.  For others, they’d prefer to work from home as much as they can and don’t want to revert to the previous work style.  How it is for one isn’t necessarily how it is for another.  Our preferences aren’t going to be shared by everyone.

Now is the time to be intentional about future work design.

Now is the time to be intentional about future work design.  I invite us all to think about the teams in our organization.  We should talk to each other now about how we want to work together in the future.  We need to understand the preferences of our co-workers, how to use technology, what can best be done remotely, and what can/might/should be done in-person.  The solutions will vary between teams and organizations.

As we do some serious thinking about the right way to work after this pandemic, and talk it over with our colleagues, let’s consider appropriate opportunities for organizational transformation.  What a wonderful opportunity for visionary leadership.  As President Bartlett also says, “We will do what is hard”.  We will achieve what is great.

by Bruce Elkington, Senior Strategic Advisor