COVID-19 struck fast and hard. And most of us had to hit the ground running to accommodate our attitudes and habits as we started working from home. Sharat Sharan, CEO, President, and Co-Founder of ON24 described it as a tsunami, “While we could see it coming, once it hit, the pandemic changed business overnight. And when a crisis like this happens, the pace of business is totally different. Weeks start to feel like months, and outcomes are impossible to predict.”
Under these conditions, business leaders had to consider more personal issues than ever to accommodate parents who are homeschooling and providing the tech equipment for teleworking. As a result of these accommodations, attitudes and habits have changed, and things will never be the same. Experts predict we won’t go back to “normal.” We will go back to “a new normal,” and that’s not all bad, according to many sources who cite the unexpected benefits of WFH. But what will that look like?
The Breakdown of Emotional Barriers
Embedded in the hardships of the lockdown are silver linings that have sensitized business leaders and employees that can be used for good in the new work world order. The office-to-home transitions have caused workers to break down emotional barriers, giving both colleagues and clients a true lens into who people become once they leave the office—a side many colleagues never shared previously. Meena Krenek, Principal and Interior Design Director at global architecture and design firm Perkins and Will in Los Angeles says we’re sharing more of our personal lives with others. While not wearing super corporate attire or makeup, often while simultaneously soothing a fussy child, we’re learning new ways of social engagement with coworkers and clients that we can take back to humanize our work environments:
“The landscape of the virtual calls entailed unique experiences from coworkers’ children participating in our conversations, from cats walking across keyboards as clients were talking, to getting a virtual tour of their new workspace at home . . . I believe we are sharing different sides of ourselves. Our perception of each other seems more genuine, which makes us feel much more connected and is allowing us to be more comfortably vulnerable. We are listening harder on thee video calls and developing greater value for empathy. We need to continue to inspire, provide mental safety and support feelings of fulfillment.”
Daniel Stillman, author of the forthcoming book, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations That Matter, argues that WFH and collaborating remotely is strangely intimate because we’re peering into coworkers’ homes and getting a window into their personal lives. He is hopeful that some of this humanity will stick upon re-entry:
“Many people hadn’t planned to be in this situation, so we’re meeting their pets and their kids, too. But we’ve also been given an opportunity. Our default tools and default ways of meeting don’t work as well virtually. Working remotely asks us to be more intentional in how we talk and collaborate — in this way, we’re better able to design the experience in ways we weren’t able to before. I hope people will learn to bring some of these insights back into how we communicate ‘in real life’ . . . once we can do that again. My hope is also that we learn that we don’t have to get on a plane and get into the same physical room in order to have an impactful, human conversation.”
As we transition back to our offices, Cara Pelletier, Director of Diversity, Equity and Belonging at Ultimate Software believes many of the intimate adaptions we made to remote working can be used to reshape a more humane workplace:
“The hope is that as our workforce evolves as a result of the crisis, we bring more empathy to our everyday connections. If things go back to normal for most people, we must lean on our WFH experience to remember that adaptations gave us equal access to participation and productivity. Our eventual transition back to the office presents an opportunity for us to better support one another, anticipate the needs of our teams, and pave the way for a more empathetic and human workplace.”
Krenek observes how social distancing has created a new spatial awareness, reflected in our body language as we use elbows instead of hands to navigate the world: “How the elbow is used to touch buttons, the popularity of elbow bumps, and how the six-foot spacing is being interpreted in queues in public spaces. The pandemic has created a new way of moving through space, with a deeper consciousness to what we are touching and how we maneuver through people and environments, like a choreographed dance.”
Virtual Onboarding and Rise in Teleworking
Scheduling platform Doodle compared meetings that took place between February 1 and March 1, 2020 to unpack just how much virtual meeting habits have changed as a result of the Coronavirus. In March, Doodle reported a 42% increase in the number of virtual meetings—inclusive of both Group meetings and 1:1 meetings—created by Doodle premium users compared to the same period in February. In March, a total of 1,309,165 minutes of meetings were booked on Doodle. And at least 11% of those minutes were spent in virtual meetings in March.
Studies are predicting an increase in remote working as part of the “new normal.” A survey conducted by Amdocs queried 2,000 consumers regarding their opinions on future 5G experiences (the fifth generation of wireless communications technologies supporting cellular data networks) and found that 35% of respondents believe the technology will lead to better video conference options, 32% anticipate better video training and development opportunities, and 61% said 5G will create more opportunities to work remotely with ubiquitous success. According to Anthony Goonetilleke, Group President, Media, Network and Technology at Amdocs, the trend of remote work continues to grow at a rapid pace and will play a critical role in supporting next-generation work forces by breaking down barriers between the physical and virtual workplaces.
But despite a surge in virtual meetings, a new Doodle survey of 300 HR professionals found that they are ill-prepared to transition to a fully virtual recruitment and onboarding model amidst COVID-19. The findings showed remote meeting tools are the lowest priority in HR budgets. And HR professionals are struggling to make remote workers feel like part of the team but find it difficult to integrate remote workers into company culture.
Leadership and Empathy From Afar
Traditionally, business leaders have argued against the concept of WFH due to productivity concerns and tactical problems that limit a supervisor’s ability to observe and coach employees. According to Josh Feast, CEO and Co-founder of the software company, Cogito Corporation, supervisors are forced to find innovative ways to connect with and manage workers from afar, but it can be accomplished:
“Supervisors can effectively support employees from a distance, by ensuring their colleagues feel heard and know they are not alone. Exhibiting heightened sensitivity to emotional intelligence – particularly in a time where physical isolation has become a necessity – is vital. Human-to-human connections still matter . . . it’s important to go beyond just mindlessly asking how your employees are doing, especially when supervisors can’t simply pass by desks and wave hello. To ensure everyone feels fully supported – emotionally – supervisors must set up alternate methods of oversight. Fortunately, technology is now more human-aware and can aid us in these efforts to remain connected and lead with empathy.”
Alice Hricak, Managing Principal of Corporate Interiors at Perkins and Will, agrees. She believes WFH is showcasing new ways of working and habits debunking old ideas that it leads to low productivity, less visibility and little opportunity for collaboration: “When adequate home infrastructure and employer-provided tools are in place, the concern about privacy and the need for a dedicated space ‘at the office’ can be eliminated . . . This could include establishing teams that are better suited for working from home and finding a balance of working from home and physical office time. Employers will need to be patient with this flow back to the office, understand individuals’ work styles and support their productivity. This greater understanding of bringing your ‘whole self to work’ and understanding personal circumstances will likely need to be considered and curated.”
Corporate heads are speaking out more about their concerns for employee mental health as it relates to stress and anxiety, which is a shift for many business leaders. Joe Lallouz, CEO and Co-founder of technology platform Bison Trails, points out that people aren’t just choosing to work from home. They have to work remotely because of the global health crisis. And if you’re going to reduce people’s stress and anxiety about a shift in the way they work, it’s important to try to make them feel more comfortable, and a little empathy goes a long way:
“The most important thing that CEOs and their leadership teams need to do is recognize that this can be very difficult for their teams. Exercising extra patience and empathy is probably the most important thing that anyone in a leadership position can do in an organization. Remember to give people the actual time it takes to adjust to these work style shifts . . . Arm your team the way you can by providing them with the information and resources they need, not just for their physical well-being, but also for their psychological and mental well-being.”
And ON24’s corporate head Sharan told me that black swan events like COVID-19 are the ultimate trials of leadership and business sustainability, suggesting that leaders find outlets to stay calm because your personal health and energy are passed down to your team: “After the great recession, I started meditating and now begin every day with 12 minutes of meditation. That routine has helped me stay mindful, pragmatic and put out positive energy. In the midst of a crisis, you need to personally embody the attitude that you want your team and your own business to demonstrate.”
The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Gradifi. We make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained here. Readers should consult their own attorneys or other tax or financial advisors to understand the tax, financial and legal consequences of any strategies mentioned in this article.