Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Three steps to the “best next” workplace

When COVID-19 wanes, returning to normal won’t be good enough. Leaders need practices to help them create a future that’s amazing.

“I can’t wait to get everyone back to the office!” “I’m never going to need an office again!” From these two extremes to a thousand variations in between, leaders are thinking about what work will look like once a critical mass of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Much of the conversation focuses on what we will do: where we will work and how much flexibility will be permitted (or demanded). A richer, more important question is how we will be with one other as post-pandemic routines emerge.

The coronavirus has been horrific in terms of deaths, suffering, and disruption to people’s lives. It’s been a rough ride for most businesses, too. But a forced period of trial and error has opened people’s minds to new practices. COVID-19 has handed executives in legacy organizations the closest thing they’ll ever get to a blank sheet of paper for rewriting workplace norms and expectations. Everyone is now ready for a wave of change — but visions of what the “best next” looks like vary widely.

To lead your organization into its ideal future, you’ll need to create the space for open, honest conversations so you can harvest wisdom from your people and learn from the pandemic. Here are three related leadership practices to help you move beyond simply a return to normal.

Declare yourselves. This is a practice I picked up from Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company. In his book, TouchPoints, Conant advises leaders to openly share “why you choose to lead and the code you choose to live by.” I suggest extending a version of this challenge to everyone in your workforce and making it more granular. During these past several months, each of us has had the chance to learn what motivates us and how we can be happiest and most productive (or not). Create a forum for team members to share their insights, and use these insights to inform elements of your workplace, such as space configurations, work schedules, norms, and practices.

You might discover that your cool open floor plan wasn’t universally loved, but no one wanted to be the first to say so. Or it could turn out that a lot of people think the features of your online meeting platform make it preferable to in-person gatherings. Maybe you’ll realize that your employees’ primary passion is their kids, not next quarter’s marketing campaign. This feedback is invaluable to understanding how team members can best work together. Adam Segal, CEO of workplace experience design company Cove, said recently in the New York Times, “I think the future is actually having to manage people.” To do that, you must get to know workers as multifaceted human beings. Asking them to declare themselves is a brave first step.

Make the highest, best use of everyone’s time. This is a phrase I heard frequently from Russ Eisenstat when he led the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership. He used this concept as a guide for effectively aligning people with tasks. What would your organization be like if everyone felt they were working at their peak in terms of creating not just corporate value but also personal and professional growth? How would it be if everyone were that deeply engaged?

To get a sense of how you’d achieve that, ask each person to create two pie charts. The first should show how they currently spend their time at work. The second should show how they would ideally spend their time. The design exercise is to then create as much alignment as possible between the two charts. In some cases, it will mean shifting tasks; in others, it will require revamping how work is accomplished. Don’t be surprised if some meetings disappear as a result of this exercise or if you find out that your self-service workflow management portal frustrates more people than you realize. In every case, this exercise can ignite imaginations, unlock potential, cut waste, and drive improvement.

Give everyone a shot at life balance. Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, often says, “People have learned to work on Sunday evening, but haven’t learned to go to the movies on Tuesday afternoon.” For many, working through the pandemic has erased the boundaries between home and office. It’s easier than ever to be always on — and to feel guilty about claiming personal time. COVID-19 has shown that life can be unexpectedly cut short and yet has exacerbated the burnout problem that already existed.

COVID-19 has handed executives in legacy organizations the closest thing they’ll ever get to a blank sheet of paper for rewriting workplace norms and expectations.

Solutions might include integrating personal goals into KPIs, declaring meeting-free days, discouraging evening emails, and, yes, offering work-from-home flexibility. Whatever the particular tactics, the underlying commitment from leaders should be to help everyone in the organization have a fulfilling personal and professional life. As executive coach Dain Dunston told me, “Banish ‘work–life balance,’ where work and life are somehow separate and work always comes first. It’s about life balance.” The way to help people give their best at work is to help them live their best lives.

The reason organizations exist is because some endeavors can only be achieved by people working together. Humans are a social species, and being part of a great team drives satisfaction at work. When an organization serves its people, those people can better serve the organization and its customers. As a leader, you need the wisdom to work with these fundamental truths rather than against them.

The coronavirus pandemic will be remembered as a dark time. Suffering has been great. Yet it can also be remembered as a period of reflection and reinvention. Now — as progress is being made with vaccines and we can see a glimmer of the post-pandemic future on the horizon — it’s the time for you to accelerate into that brighter, more positive “next.” If you do, things could be amazing.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.