The pundit class is often quick to seize on “lessons learned” from whatever event has recently taken place. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to this rule. What are the lessons learned from the pandemic? My tagline has been this: whatever work looks like going forward, it is not going to look like work in 2020. I know, way to be bold, Dan! In my defense, the pandemic is not over. Things are getting better, people are getting vaccinated, but we are far from “out of the woods” on this. Moreover, to paraphrase the futurist Paul Saffo, we will likely overestimate the short-term impacts of the pandemic and underestimate its long-term impacts.
I have my lessons learned about my experience with this pandemic; I have subjected many of you to a few of them. I was interested to see Microsoft come out with this piece on how the pandemic changed the global nature of work. It is a fascinating read, and I encourage you to have a look. (For those with short attention spans, there is a nice presentation you can download.) The paper focused on what are the lessons learned and what are the impacts on work going forward.
This is not your usual corporate “white paper.” Some of the data are drawn from Microsoft 365/Office 365 telemetry, but there is no attempt to sell you on Microsoft products. It is the kind of paper I want to see from an organization that is thinking deeply about the future of work and how, eventually, they can support and shape that future. I want to highlight a couple of topics that are especially relevant to managers as organizations find their way back to a new way of working. But first, let us look at some numbers.
The Digital Shift Has Been a Success… But for Whom?
Here are some data points from the Microsoft report, comparing February 2020 and 2021, that I find interesting.
- Time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings has more than doubled (2.5X) globally and, aside from a holiday dip in December, continues to climb.
- The average Teams meeting is 10 minutes longer, up from 35 to 45 minutes year-over-year.
- The average Teams user is sending 45 percent more chats per week and 42 percent more chats per person after hours, with chats per week still on the rise.
- The number of emails delivered to commercial and education customers in February, when compared to the same month last year, is up by 40.6 billion.
- There was a 66 percent increase in the number of people working on documents.
- Users report responding to most chats within five minutes of receipt.
Those with decision-making authority report feeling more empowered than before. But Generation Z, women, frontline workers and those new in their careers felt much less empowered.
Lessons Learned: Innovation and Employee Retention
The Microsoft report notes that, globally, 41% of employees are considering a work move in the next year. Certainly, we have seen (for jobs that can be performed remotely) a demographic shift. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there has been a shift in population from the cities (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose) to communities further away with a lower cost of living. The hottest housing market in California right now? Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.
We have employee population segments that are feeling lonely, isolated, and burned out. A good many of these employees are looking to change jobs and/or change where they live.
On the innovation side, the lessons learned are that isolation inhibits innovation. Anyone familiar with the work of Tom Allen will not find this surprising. Regardless, we have learned that innovation does better when there are more interactions, especially with individuals and groups outside our normal associates. Despite attempts to create virtual lounges and coffee break channels, the lesson learned is that there is no adequate substitute for unplanned interaction. We have been more siloed than ever before. We are working more with our immediate teams, but less than before with more distantly connected teams.
Ideas for Moving Forward
As organizations formulate plans for “returning to work,” what are some of the lessons learned that can be applied? I like these tips.
- Enact thoughtful policies on remote work. If the choice exists to work from home or from the office, what does management say about their preferences? “Work where you want, whenever you want” is likely too extreme for most organizations. Who can work remotely? How often? Under what guidelines?
- Rethink physical space. Previously, we might have tilted toward space decisions that favored individual productivity—how to create quiet, calm spaces where folks could think. Now, we likely must respond to the pent-up demand for socialization. When I get to work, I want first to meet up with my colleagues, not wander off to an office or cube.
- As we respond to lessons learned supporting remote work, we must address technology choices that best support remote work, office work, and—critically—a hybrid of the two. How can technology enable a meeting that has half the participants in a room together and half connecting via home? As well, how do we ensure everyone feels like they are part of the meeting and are being heard?
- Finally (hat tip to Arun Baheti for this one), how do we work to restore the “social capital” that we have used up in the past year? Judy Belk wrote about locking the doors to the California Wellness Foundation for “the next two weeks.” A year later, how have we drawn down that reserve of employee goodwill? How do we replenish it? And how do we integrate all the employees who have never set foot in our offices or met another employee face to face since they started working for us?
What Matters is What We Do Next
We live in interesting times, to put it mildly. As managers, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild our organizations based on the lessons learned from this pandemic. It is up to us to apply those lessons in a way that makes the past year’s pain worth enduring.