If the Future of Work has been a theoretical conversation until now, the events of the last several weeks have changed that forever.
Around the world, organizations have sent many of their workers home — whether or not they were ready to deal with the cultural and technological demands that would bring.
(Let me take a quick moment to recognize our frontline healthcare workers, delivery people, and folks working in the grocery stores and warehouses that are bravely showing up for us every day. They are true heroes.)
The results of the so-called WFH (work from home) mandate have given us countless moments of hilarity, but as this continues, organizations will adapt more fully, and we will begin to see the reshaping of organizational culture take root — whether you want it to or not.
As this cultural transformation occurs, digital era leaders will have to make some critical choices that will have long-lasting repercussions. Choose wisely.
The Big Idea: Going Beyond Workplace Replication
As this whole thing was unfolding last week, I wrote a piece exploring just how physical our supposedly digital-first world has remained.
It’s almost shocking — at least for those of us who spend our lives immersed in a digital world — how forcing us all into a physically-isolated reality has dramatically changed our human experience.
It also made clear that, for most people, work has remained tethered to that physical reality in many ways.
As organizations have attempted to adapt to this new all-digital work reality, therefore, their first inclination is to replicate their analog workplace in their new digital reality.
It’s a natural response and one, I almost hate to admit, that I’m as guilty of as anyone.
Just the other day, my wife and I were talking about the possibility of giving “virtual keynotes” in which she would film me giving a talk as if I were on-stage somewhere. But I got my own slap in the face in the form of an article by Jay Acunzo that challenged us speakers to re-envision how we deliver events on a digital medium. (I’m a huge fan of Jay’s and this is definitely worth the read if you are planning any upcoming virtual events.)
That reminder brought me back to what I already knew: merely attempting to keep things going as they always have — trying to maintain business as usual — is not only unrealistic, it’s a missed opportunity.
The Impact: Choose to Transform the Nature of Work
As a digital leader, there are two big takeaways here. First, I think that this way of working is going to be our new normal, at least for a while. Any way we cut this, it is likely that we will remain in a mandated WFH state for some time to come.
As this extends over several weeks or months, it WILL change your organizational culture. There’s no avoiding that. The only question will be whether you guide its change deliberately or if you merely allow it to unfold in unpredictable ways.
Second, whenever this is over — and it will eventually end — you will not be able to put this genie back in the bottle. There will be no going back to the way things have always been.
Sure, you may have your workers showing up in the office again, but how they work will be different.
The key is to understand that the same principles that underly the WFH mandate will apply more broadly as we step full force into the Digital Era. With people working from home, they are naturally going to function more asynchronously, embrace higher levels of self-organization and management, and find new ways to collaborate without being physically present with their co-workers.
These will be the very same tenets that will define what we call the future of work.
And any efforts to replicate the physical workplace in this digital reality will only hinder what will otherwise be a natural, cultural evolution towards the workplace of the future— an evolution that you need to happen.
Moreover, this transformation of the workplace was always going to be a difficult
As long, that is, as you don’t get in the way.
The Next Step: Make the Right Choices
So what, as a digital leader, should you be doing in the face of all this mandated, WFH-powered cultural transformation? Simple: make the right choices.
The first choice is to get out of the way.
Don’t try to enforce the same workplace policies designed for an on-site staffing paradigm. Don’t try to replicate physical meetings with online versions. Don’t mandate that people work their normal, set-hours as if they were commuting to an office.
Let this be an opportunity to free people from those constraints and begin to experiment with new ways of working.
Second, choose to embrace transparency and inclusivity.
One of the most significant barriers to transforming work — and particularly to remote, asynchronous work — is the tendency of leaders to foster cliques and in-the-know trusted cohorts. This modality encourages physical proximity as off-hand conversations and drive-by discussions, gossip, or bitch sessions become the predominant form of communication.
You will need to actively and deliberately compensate for that in a remote, all-digital world. You must choose to embrace transparency and inclusivity so that you can guide your cultural transformation in a way that will foster a positive, digital era working environment.
While I usually focus on giving you an exercise, today is no drill. These are the real-deal choices that you need to make right now.
What you choose to do today will set the stage for how your organization will respond in the short-term, and will also determine its long-term viability as we come out of this and head straight into the Digital Era.