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The business impact: Alarm clock sales doubled in April at Walmart, as Americans apparently have new urgency to get up in the morning. Restaurant reservations were up 46% in April compared with April 2019, and 23,000% compared with a year ago. A majority of Fortune 500 CEOs surveyed said their profits were significantly stronger this year than they expected during the pandemic.
Focus on Organizational Change
Prior to the pandemic, the ways that most companies operated were fairly “frozen,” according to Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School. They’re more likely now to be “unfrozen” and reassessing basic assumptions about work, management, and workplaces. But they’ll “refreeze” again, Gratton has written, as new practices and systems solidify.
To better understand how this could work and how businesses can best navigate it, I recently spoke with Gratton, who also founded the HSM consulting practice, leads the Future of Work Research Consortium, and has written numerous books and articles. Here are excerpts of our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
How quickly will things refreeze, and what do organizations need to tackle before they do?
Companies are beginning to put in place some of the basic infrastructure of what's going to happen next. There's going to be quite a process of iteration, in part because when we think about what it is we want, we're comparing it with now. And actually, it's not going to be the same as now. So there's going to be still quite a lot of learning going on.
But certainly you can see that companies are beginning to say, 'These are our basic principles. This is what's important to us. This is what we value.' I'm studying a bunch of companies—they're each finding their own way. The question really is, is this aligned to what it is you feel will build value in your company and will support the employees?
Are there any best practices for organizations to structure experimentation in terms of how they're returning to the workplace?
We know what experimental best practice looks like, which is that you have an initial situation with condition A and condition B. You measure at the beginning, you run these together, and you measure at the end. The company that I've talked about is British Telecom, who did that with home-working some years ago. Of course, [Stanford professor] Nick Bloom's research was that.
I don't see any of what I would call pure experiments taking place at the moment. We're seeing much more trial and error than we are pure-play experimentation, which is a shame in a way, because what both Nick and BT found was that it took quite a bit of time for things to settle in.
If you try something and it doesn't work, and if you haven't said, 'It's an experiment, we're going to run it for a year,' then you just start panicking. So we're going to see a lot of iteration, when in fact it would have probably been smarter for people to experiment.
Are you saying it’s better practice to assign different cohorts of workers, ideally randomly selected, to different approaches?
That's very difficult for companies to do.
The freeze, the unfreeze, the refreeze—we're in the stage of the slush. Nobody really quite knows what's going on; people are making different views.
Goldman Sachs is getting a lot of footage saying everyone's got to get back. We're working with companies which are not dissimilar to Goldman Sachs, but they've made a completely different point of view about what they want. What I find really interesting is this notion of variety. You're going to see a lot more variety in organizations. I wrote a piece on signature processes for MIT Sloan, years and years ago. I'm using that as a concept at the moment, which is to say, 'What's your signature?' I don't think Goldman is doing the wrong thing, but there are trade-offs associated with that.
What do you mean by signature?
By ‘signature,’ I mean what makes you unique. In fact, when I wrote the piece on signature processes, Goldman Sachs was one of the examples. Their signature process at that stage, I thought, was the whole way they recruited people. It was an incredibly complex recruitment process. So the signature would be what is it you do that brings you value? It's not so much that there's a right or wrong, it's simply a question of the choice you've made.
There's speculation that we might see workers choosing companies based on approaches to work…
I totally agree with that. What we're going to see is a lot of variety, and people will choose. If you look at a two-by-two, which has the extent to which you want flexibility and how brilliant you are, then what Goldman is doing is fishing in a very small talent pool—people who are really brilliant and don't want any flexibility.
But there are other people who are fishing in another talent pool, which is the people who are really brilliant and do want flexibility. The question that Goldman has to ask is, are there enough in that top right-hand corner? Actually, I think there are.
Are there any obvious pitfalls for organizations as they adopt hybrid approaches?
The pitfalls are to move too quickly, saying 'This is what we're going to do,' and not going through any trial and error. I think that's the number one pitfall—companies are rushing into saying that everybody's got to be in the office, or everybody's got to be at home, when in fact we haven't worked that through yet.
The second pitfall is not being imaginative enough about what could be possible. That's why it is important that we actually show companies what others are doing. One of the companies I'm showcasing is entirely virtual and always has been. You'd say, 'How does that work?' They make it work perfectly fine.
And then the third would be about not aligning with the organization, in the sense of not really understanding where the organization is. In my book Living Strategy, I talked about complex systems and unwritten rules of the game. An unwritten rule of the game is 'I've got to see you to promote you.’ If that stays as the unwritten rule, then people will begin to realize that and will start coming back into the office, even though it might not be the best thing for them.
You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of training managers and best practices for collaboration.
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
Going hybrid. In the future of work, 9 out of 10 organizations expect they’ll combine remote and on-site working. But things get hazy when it comes to the details. A new article offers insights for executives still sorting out the particulars.
What Else You Need to Know
Working long hours is dangerous. A new study concluded that about 400,000 people died from stroke and roughly 350,000 from heart disease in 2016 as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week.
- Working that amount resulted in a 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of heart disease compared with working 35 to 40 hours weekly.
- About 9% of the global population worked 55 hours or more weekly as of 2016, and the study’s authors believe the percentage has likely increased.
- “Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, which co-authored the research.
Worker antsiness appears to be rising as the summer approaches. We’re hearing from some HR leaders that there’s an uptick in resignations as employees want to take the summer off before landing their next job, some saying they’re burned out and need a break. Surveys have reported that as many as 40% of workers are considering changing jobs this year, though other polls suggest the number is smaller. Some companies are especially concerned about retention of Black workers right now, given higher levels of burnout.
Some best practices for employers looking to head off a wave of quitting as weather warms:
- Conduct “stay interviews.” Meet with staff individually to better understand any problems they’re having. Good questions to ask include “What do you wish you could spend less time on?” and “What do you wish you could spend more time on?”
- Help staff find the right work/life rhythms. Talk through the specifics of what the return to the workplace will look like, what your colleagues might have learned about their professional and family needs, and help them create and maintain boundaries.
- Connect to purpose. The most successful organizations have a clear purpose at the core of their strategies. And managers can tailor projects to workers’ individual values and purpose.
Writer Charlie Warzel makes the case that organizations should take a “summer slowdown” to address overwork and exhaustion—which could include all-company days off or shutdowns in the depths of the summer—and along the way address broader questions about work-life balance. “A summer slowdown is about giving employees a genuine permission structure to enrich the parts of their lives that aren’t about work,” Warzel writes.
Expect a packed calendar of in-person conferences and events in the fourth quarter. The World Economic Forum this week cancelled its August meeting in Singapore following a recent Covid surge there. But business conference organizers and gala planners say they’re extremely busy preparing for in-person events from September through the end of the year.
- “I must have spoken with at least 100 Fortune 500 CEOs across the last couple of months and I would say more than a very, very high percentage have indicated that they are itching to get out into the world again in person [and] that the fourth quarter of 2021 feels like the right time frame,” said Justin Smith, CEO of Bloomberg Media, which is planning its New Economy Forum for Singapore in November.
Return to workplace speed round:
- Microsoft released its own internal guidebooks for flexible and hybrid work for other organizations to access. (The materials are specific and useful, even if Microsoft interspersed references to its own products amid them.)
- About one-third of office workers in China—where companies have largely returned to the workplace—now say their office feels overcrowded and distracting, and many say they can’t find free private rooms when they need them.
- Saks will require employees to be vaccinated when they come back to the office this fall. Marc Metrick, CEO of the retailer, wants the default for staff to be in-office. “Zoom and the virtual world is a culture killer for companies,” he said.
- Raytheon Technologies, the aerospace and defense company with about 180,000 employees, plans to cut its office space by 25% thanks to a hybrid-work approach.
- Companies are weighing whether to return to the workplace more quickly than planned following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people generally don’t need to wear masks or distance. (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said companies can follow the guidance though governing local and state laws still vary.)
- Lawyers and occupational health specialists generally advise against segregating vaccinated and unvaccinated employees from each other in a workplace because of legal and morale risks.
- Roughly one-quarter of new homeowners said they’d quit their jobs if required by their employer to return to the office.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Think of dealing with your email like doing laundry. Just as you would sort and fold clean clothes, you should sort emails into inbox folders, depending on whether they require action, reading time, or more information, recommends Laura Mae Martin, executive productivity adviser for Google. Then set aside defined times to deal with the piles. “Email is not typically your job; it’s a vehicle to help you accomplish your job,” says Martin.
- Use your organization’s procurement to promote diversity. Seek out diverse suppliers, and set specific goals for sourcing goods and services from them.
- Replace company memos with podcasts. Services like Spokn let you create internal podcasts to share news or information like company history or culture, using audio storytelling as an alternative to Zoom or emails.
- Publicly endorse colleagues’ contributions. Researchers found that when a worker amplified what a coworker said during a meeting, giving them credit, it enhanced both of their statuses in the group. “Amplifying others requires no new ideas nor complicated decision making, and proves to be a very low-risk, easy strategy that can be used by anyone to help themselves and others,” said Nathan Meikle of the University of Notre Dame, a co-author of the study.
Unleash the pandemic pets! Americans adopted 11 million pets in 2020, and veterinary services are reporting intense demand. With offices reopening, companies anticipate greater interest in bringing dogs to work.
- They’re having to draw up new puppy protocols—like no eating out of trash cans—to go along with their plans for hybrid and flexible work.
Big Brother is watching whether you’re sitting at your desk. The Daily Telegraph installed small boxes under desks in 2016 that sensed motion to track when an employee was present, but then removed the devices after staff revolted.
- Other companies, especially banks, have used the technology since—and now experts expect to see a broader rollout as employers intensely monitor worker activity, ostensibly for space planning purposes.
Another reason to feel for teenagers this pandemic year. High schoolers attending proms in San Francisco will be banned from “dancing in the traditional sense” by city health officials.
- That means no dancing cheek-to-cheek, and no sitting closer than six feet from each other if anyone attending is unvaccinated.
Our best wishes, and sympathy, go to the graduates, and their adult chaperones.