In February 2020, a few weeks before the coronavirus put Australia into lockdown, I wrote a blog post, “Ready for the Flexible Work Revolution?”, and asked the then hypothetical question, “What if offices didn’t exist or were illegal?” I suggested we would face new challenges, such as less social interaction, lower quality of face-to-face interactions with video, and technology glitches with online meeting software.
I didn’t write that post with an impending global pandemic in mind, but a few weeks later the office did become illegal, and the things I suggested came true. The point of my blog post was to advance an idea that wasn’t new but also wasn’t common: that the office didn’t have to be the default workplace for knowledge workers.
The pandemic forced this idea on us, and for knowledge workers, the biggest workplace change was people working from home for the first time. To their surprise, both employers and employees found it more effective than expected – even in the middle of a global crisis.
As restrictions eased and offices became safe workplaces again, employers urged their people to return to the office, because that felt more familiar and comfortable. But it would be a pity to lose the opportunity to explore a broader view of the future workplace.
The office has only been the workplace of teams for 200 years, and only by necessity: You had to go there to find files, secretarial staff, and colleagues. But those needs no longer exist, so we can consider other workplaces as well.
There are three levels for the workplace of the future:
- Hybrid team: Many organisations will operate hybrid teams, with team members in more than one place – sometimes in the office and sometimes away from the office.
- Distributed team: Teams will include people who don’t live within commuting distance of the office, and could be working at different times.
- Fluid team: The best teams are assembled dynamically, with different people coming in and out as required for specific project needs.
Many leaders and managers don’t have much experience leading teams in such a disrupted, fast-changing world. This is true even if you’re an experienced leader – perhaps even especially if you’re an experienced leader. What used to work doesn’t work anymore, and you need new strategies to lead and manage effectively.
Just as an airline pilot needs different leadership skills than a ship’s captain, you need different skills to build a thriving culture in the best workplace of the future.
Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, writes about change this way:
“Next time you’re in a situation that feels completely outside your comfort zone … consider it your opportunity to learn from your missteps and to bring forth a new perspective that others may not have.”
You might despair at the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment through which you must steer your team and organisation. But know this is the time when people are looking for real leadership, and it’s the time for real leaders stand up and lead the way.