Early in February 2020, a client called who was fighting back tears. “Jerry, I have no business.” After 30 years of building a successful public events business, all clients canceled events due to the Covid-19 outbreak. His business was a leading indicator of the still-not-labeled “pandemic.”
I went into high gear to understand what was happening and what impact the pandemic might have on businesses, workers and society. I soon realized that the media was wrong; we would never return to the “normal” we just left. By adapting, we’d be forging a new era, which I nicknamed “ATP”: after the pandemic. Like a caterpillar emerges from a cocoon to become a butterfly, we would emerge from the pandemic changed. Helping my clients navigate a better future was my priority.
Workers Rediscover Their Essential Selves
The stay-at-home orders began the process of many people putting health and safety first. We celebrated essential workers for their heroic efforts. People’s home lives transformed as adults and children learned to cooperate and manage time, space and personal limits while adapting to remote work, remote education and living with and caring for others. Many workers invested former commuting time into getting work done, and a number of studies found that productivity did not deteriorate and even increased for some.
Why were people able to handle so much despite the enormous real-life stresses? I believe one reason is that people began reintegrating their many “selves” (e.g., parent, worker, housekeeper, cook, student, teacher, community participant, etc.) into one “holistic self” that made the most sense for them. For instance, they might have been able to take time for meals with their family while working remotely during the day. They might have also been able to dedicate more time to personal projects, self-care and errands.
By exploring one’s values, taking control of their time and flexibly integrating life’s essentials, many people achieved a better work-life balance. From my perspective, we should not be surprised that their “great exploration” led to a “great resignation” of about 47 million people in 2021. Despite all the stress and anxieties of working from home, for many people, the genie was out of the bottle: They rediscovered their fundamental selves. For those who reintegrated life’s essentials into a holistic lifestyle, giving it up didn’t make sense.
Businesses Rediscover Their Essential Capabilities
Over the past century, the industrial age and scientific management introduced the world to factories that use standardization and automation for production. Unfortunately, as the funny I Love Lucy scene of Lucille Ball working at a chocolate factory demonstrates, they’re not always a fit with workers.
Just as the pandemic unleashed self-discovery among many workers, it did the same for companies. Businesses launched solutions to meet consumers and business needs for production, e-commerce and communications in days and weeks that previously took months and years. They did so by being flexible and eliminating bureaucratic and restrictive policies that can hamper smart decision-making and service delivery.
Once stay-at-home orders ended and workplaces started reopening, companies had to consider workers’ new preferences. For many businesses, this meant adopting a hybrid model. Whether their original hybrid approach remains depends on how well the company can incorporate the best features of work-from-home and work-at-office while also ensuring optimal productivity for the company.
Five Principles For ATP Businesses And Workers
We’re now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which knowledge and wisdom workers increasingly use interconnectivity and smart automation. Business leaders have the opportunity to forge strategies and cultures to make the best use of the ATP workforce. Here are five principles to guide you.
1. Consider developing flexible hybrid workplace policies.
We’re in the early stages of ATP, and change is life’s constant. By developing flexible policies, I believe you can demonstrate you’re focused on the current and future wants of workers and that you are committed to serving them in the future. In my experience, activities such as onboarding, training and collaborating generally benefit from workplace interactions, while building financial models, writing reports and other individual activities might benefit from isolation and quiet.
2. Understand your employees’ wants and needs.
While many workers prefer a hybrid work style, I’ve observed their preferences can depend on many factors. Some groups, for example, might have long commutes and/or family-care demands that favor work-from-home arrangements; others might have restrictive space and equipment or home environments that make working from home difficult every day. Some might be pleased in their current jobs; others might want to take on higher responsibilities and/or expand to new areas within the company. The key is that leaders understand their workers. This is what will help them best unleash the potential of their employees.
3. Develop purpose-driven, high-potential workers.
Knowing workers’ needs and aspirations can help you retain them and encourage them to become future leaders. This means upskilling workers’ soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, communication and leadership, as well as their technical and hard skills. In other words, become a “CILO,” a continuous improvement learning organization.
4. Develop worker-centric accountability systems.
Several of my clients noted that the pandemic revealed excellent workers who exceeded productivity norms and exposed poor performers who no could longer hide behind others’ work. Enabling them to do so was the use of individual accountability systems with clear success metrics in terms of timeliness, quality, quantity, etc. With objective data, micromanagement wasn’t necessary.
5. Identify and monitor appropriate key performance indicators.
Changes that happen both inside and outside your company require your business to continue to evolve. Develop a new set of both internal and external key performance indicators that let you monitor, evaluate and plan for the future, and review them at least quarterly.
Now is the time to upgrade your business’s capabilities for the future. As you do so, you can share lessons learned with others so everyone can unleash both worker and business growth.