5 Steps for Creating Mindful & Adaptive “New Work” Strategies
For the last three years, companies have seen tremendous advantages in staying remote or hybrid. Cost benefits and increased flexibility for employees seemed to speak a clear language: Remote or hybrid work models pay off. However, over the last 6-12 months, many companies decided to return to the office oftentimes via a company-wide mandate. In 2022, merely 31% of US businesses functioned on-site. That included those unable to operate remotely due to the nature of their work (e.g., factories or retail). In 2023, this figure jumped to 50%.
Increased Return-To-Office (RTO) Mandates Due to Struggles with Engagement
What triggered the dramatic increase in RTO mandates? A recent Chief Executive poll of over 150 U.S. CEOs found that the move back onsite is at least partly owed to the perceived lack of engagement and productivity in remote and hybrid settings. Apparently, many organizations struggle to foster strong communication, collaboration, and team bonding. Some argue it’s simply harder to forge a cohesive culture. Others feel more in control of productivity levels in the office.
An RTO policy seems to be the most logical, immediate response in the hope that 1:1 encounters will elevate learning and productivity. However, there isn’t much data to support that office attendance increases productivity. According to the Gallup Global Indicator of Hybrid Work, hybrid options offer more work-life balance, less fatigue and burn-out, and a higher productivity rate. The latest Cushman & Wakefield Experience per Square Foot report indicates that only 15% of employees link productivity to office attendance. For employees, productivity hinges on aspects such as energy maintenance (63%), time to focus (62%), and flexible options for connecting with colleagues (65%).
Retrieved from the September 2023 Experience per Square Foot report by Cushman & Wakefield
Additionally, the backlash of reducing workplace flexibility has been significant for several companies. Amazon employees, for example, rallied in afternoon walkouts to protest the company's RTO policy. Grindr’s call for its employees to return to the office in September 2023 resulted in 45% of its workforce quitting. Last, silent quitting is on the rise as well as the number of people who state they would leave their organization if it reduced workplace flexibility.
The discrepancy between the claimed desired end result and the actual impact of the mandated RTOs has caused some people to think that they could be lay-offs in disguise.
Others are very clear in their statement that mandated RTOs have been failing and that location cannot replace a clear and proactive management strategy. After all, there's a critical difference between merely bringing people back to the physical workspace and intentionally fostering an environment that cultivates learning, cultural vibrancy, and productivity. If companies can’t create the ideal conditions for their employees to engage remotely, can the return to a physical workspace really make the desired difference?
Adaptive and Reactive Responses
If we are serious about creating engagement and productivity-conducive conditions, we have to ask ourselves what a mindful strategy could look like. To tackle that question, it is crucial to look at the origins of the New Work strategies, i.e., whether they are created to react or to adapt to changing circumstances.
Reactive and adaptive mindsets are two different response forms to rapidly changing environments and uncertainty.
A reactive work strategy
- focuses on responding to isolated challenges as they occur.
- tackles issues on the most immediately impacted organizational level.
- hopes for a solution to fix the situation while ignoring further emergent change needs.
- focus on organizational needs more than on people.
- fails to adjust underlying processes increasing rigidity.
An adaptive work strategy
- puts change needs into a bigger perspective.
- examines underlying driving factors.
- seeks to achieve long-term adaptability and change readiness.
- focuses on people & organizational needs. seeks to achieve long-term adaptability and change readiness.
- flexibly & mindfully adjusts team processes to the new situation.
When we are in a reactive, firefighting mode, it is difficult to see the broader picture or even only overlaps between organizational needs and employee interests. For creating a mindful, adaptive New Work strategy it is crucial to shift focus first. Here are five ways that can assist with that shift.
5 Steps for developing a mindful, adaptive “New Work” Strategy
- Shift from quick solutions to supportive context building: For an adaptive work strategy, we must shift our focus from the immediate perceived problem and potential quick fixes to building a conducive context for solution-enabling behavior. For productivity that means developing an environment that helps accentuate rather than deplete behavior that enables productivity.
- Find collaborative, engagement-driving ways of understanding employee needs: Organizations in firefighting mode tend to ignore employee needs. This tendency can backfire tremendously, especially in current talent scenarios. Find creative and engagement-driving ways of discovering what your employees truly need. Suggestions include a stay interview rather than an exit interview as well as focus group work and creative think tanks. The more creative and collaborative you become, the more you build that productivity-enabling context in your organization.
- Break desired results down into smaller elements of supportive behavior. Reactive strategies tend to tackle big-picture issues such as productivity or culture. Ironically, big-picture solutions almost always lead to no change at all or to worsened situations. Ask yourself (and your employees) which smaller sets of behavior would enable the desired cultural shift or increase in productivity. That could be the maintenance of a healthy energy level or more balance between focus time and meetings.
- Build practices and processes around the enabling elements. Once isolated, we can start building practices around the identified elements. E.g., how can you change your meeting cadence to ensure a better balance of focus time and meetings? Which process and practices would help your employees to stay energized throughout the day and the year?
- Develop mindful support mechanisms and policies. After isolating smaller elements and building healthy practices around them, you can continue with developing a healthy support mechanism. That could be broader policies that e.g., incentivize conducive behavior (e.g. taking breaks) and disincentivize disruptive behavior (e.g. scheduling too many meetings per day leaving no time for productivity).
It is evident that these steps do not depend on your current policy. In fact, they can and should be conducted for all settings, from remote and hybrid to onsite. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s worth mentioning that most reactive work strategies skip the first four steps and start with new policy development. You have the choice – The proof will always be in the pudding, in this case, your engagement levels.