COVID19 surges, confusing leaders, and stalling remote work progress

When the pandemic started, employers reacted to the first surge and warning by health officials. They sent employees home to work remotely and to be safe. But as the stay at home orders were canceled, and the public ventured out. COVID19 returned.

Without a coherent national strategy to fight COVID19, company executives need to articulate their long-term strategy for the new normal and to keep workers safe and productive and their companies growing and profitable.

Gallup has recently released a survey from its June research showing that the initial high confidence employees had in leaders at the beginning of the pandemic has fallen. Gallup data shows that younger, front-line, blue-collar, on-site employees struggle more with feeling informed, cared for, and prepared than do older, white-collar, remote-working employees. The former groups of workers are even more vulnerable than the latter to performance setbacks if leaders allow remote work efforts to wane.

Even managers are stressed, feeling less informed and engaged now than back in April, as Gallup’s chart below shows.

Managers are the linchpin for implementing organizational strategy, effecting change, enhancing team effectiveness and engaging with the workforce. If they feel lost, so will your organization. It is time to lead.

With the US still floundering for a coherent national strategy to fight the pandemic and a strong resurgence of COVID19 across most of the country, it is time for company leaders to articulate their long-term strategy for how the workforce can be safe, productive, and aligned to the company’s purpose and clients.

My advice is to change your paradigm of “the office.” Rather than seeing it as a daily, 9-5, gathering place for head’s-down work, collaboration, and team meetings, think instead of the following paradigm:

It is your responsibility to enable your workforce with the technology, space, and time for where, when, and how to work effectively. It isn’t the office for  everybody.

When such a paradigm was implemented for divisions of Medtronic in Santa Rosa CA during 2012 – long before COVID19 – about 45% of the total workforce could work at home three to four days a week. This included accountants, IT professionals, recruiters, supply chain professionals, analysts, clinical researchers, regulatory affairs professionals, brand marketers, and sales people. They were sent home with their ergonomically correct chairs, laptops, and printers. We paid for their WiFi. We upgraded our investment in broadband, digital file storage, videoconferencing technology, collaboration software, and cyber security.

The productivity of our remote workers shot up 22%. They had 98% satisfaction with the change and high morale. Half of their saved commute time, they used to work for the company. The other half they kept for themselves. They reported a widespread improvement in work-life integration. Remote work thrives there still today.

With these employees, most of their work was done through their computers and most communications with teleconferences, video conferencing, texting and email. We still wanted them to come into the office one or two days a week for one-on-one meetings with their leaders and clients. They also came into the office for important meetings to review detailed complex analytics or when significant decisions were to be made. With these meetings, we felt the face-to-face discussions were useful for understanding the nuance of the data and everyone’s point of view. When they came into the office, they went to conference rooms or did heads-down work at “touchdown” stations like those you see at airports. They no longer needed their own cubes. This space reduction enabled us to vacate two facilities and save real estate costs.

During today’s COVID19 re-surge, I would keep most of these workers at home five days a week until the community spread of COVID19 abates.

Other workers who were tied to lab equipment, manufacturing, or data stored only in the office, had to come in about four to five days a week. From time-to-time, some of them could go home for an afternoon to write up reports away from the din of the office. These workers were often mechanical, electrical, and biomedical engineers, technicians, machinists, or assemblers. Also, they were workers from various professions on innovation or strategic project teams.

These workers kept their cubes, but we added more conference rooms for teleconferencing and small conference rooms, called huddle rooms, for quick meetings. During today’s COVID19 era, which may last for two years until we have a reliable vaccine or herd immunity, it will be necessary to follow CDC guidelines for any office reopening.

The courageous leadership shown by these Medtronic divisions represented a mammoth change. We articulated our vision for the new office environment and its burning platform. We invited employees to ask questions in various forums and on surveys. We updated them on our progress and hurdles and invited them to help us implement the change.

I learned in managing restructuring and layoffs for thousands of employees that management silence only leads to workforce confusion, disillusionment, and rumors. In a crisis, it is up top management to lead. Clarity settles the confusion and allows employees to engage with management. Employees will accept a strategy and an admission that leaders still need to figure out all the details, especially when employees are invited to ask questions and join project teams.

Do not let today’s confusion stall your progress and financial growth. Lead. Get a long-term strategy for the COVID19 office paradigm. Relentlessly communicate it, and invite employees to ask questions and help you implement the new paradigm. At the end of this journey is an improved bottom line.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and to develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and cultures of innovation. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at 

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