Barry Moline is the Executive Director and CEO of the California Municipal Utilities Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since March 2020 — when Covid-19 first caused shutdowns in the U.S. — so much has changed about the world of work that it can be difficult to keep up. In fact, we’re not keeping up; we’re just experiencing changes on the fly and trying to figure out what the next move might be. Let’s admit it, it’s stressful.
It can feel like we’re in a work time warp. So much has changed so quickly, and we’ve entered a new era of employment expectations that will impact us for years. Depending on your perspective, some for better, some for worse.
I’ve been studying the data for the past year as part of an effort to keep my industry — electric and water utilities — current on these changes. I’ve conducted scientific and social media surveys, interviewed CEOs and HR professionals and read countless research and popular press articles. Here are the highlights of what I’ve learned.
Covid-19 accelerated our thinking and action.
Who would ever have imagined that both business and government could move so fast? But they did. If you wanted to stay in business, you had to think and change fast. We collaborated with our coworkers and broadly as a society. Standing back, it’s fascinating how we accelerated so much action related to working from home, virtual meetings and employee engagement while simultaneously experiencing and addressing anxiety and stress.
I would not say we’ve done it perfectly, but as we come out on the other side, we need to understand what will stick and why. Nevertheless, even low-innovative organizations are capable of fast thinking, action and change. Everyone did it, and if necessary, we could do it again.
Working from home is now acceptable.
It might be full- or part-time, but the stigma has been shed around lack of productivity when employees are out of the office. There are still some managers who don’t get it, but without question, productivity did not suffer; in many organizations, it flourished.
In my own company, I was suspicious. Early on, I did a lot of checking in with staff but found everyone was producing at a higher level. Once my company recognized the benefits of flexibility, employees embraced the opportunity to work early in the morning or in the evening to match family responsibilities. Some dealt with serious family illnesses. One employee found two extra hours per day by avoiding his commute — a widespread side benefit experienced by many people. We saw so much appreciation for this flexibility that everyone wanted to do the best job they could.
Managers may need to approach their jobs differently.
I think it is incumbent on managers to change the way they engage with employees so that work gets done. Many managers are learning they must manage to the completed task rather than worry about watching how each employee puts in the time. For some, this is a tough transition. Managers must assure their employees are being accountable and take this one action to bring employees on board: They must put the responsibility for communication on the employee. This may seem easier on managers, but it’s just different. Employees must also recognize their responsibility to be accountable.
Your employee value proposition must match or be near your competitors.
Simply said, some companies are just not compensating enough. That’s part of the reason why there are worker shortages in low-paying jobs like school bus drivers and restaurant and delivery workers. People are looking closely at the hours required and the wages and benefits offered and choosing carefully. If you are not an employer of choice, staying in business may be a challenge. Will there be upward pressure on prices? Yes, and as a society, it looks like we’re entering a phase of modest inflation.
Collaboration must be intentional.
Many employees feel most engaged — and will even accept less than the highest wages — if they feel involved in the company. Focus on three things: First, supervisors should communicate regularly with their team, getting to know individuals and what’s going on in their lives; second, establish a clear strategic direction for the organization, and make sure everyone knows how their contribution helps accomplish the mission; and third, offer feedback with the intent to encourage and improve, not reprimand or belittle.
Many younger employees expect flexibility.
Many of the best organizations are carefully evaluating their need for in-person working and offering flexible schedules. This doesn’t mean everyone works from home; on the contrary, many employees want to work in the office. Evaluate your needs and remake the organization accordingly. For those who can work remotely while maintaining productivity and engagement, let them. Schedule all-hands days where everyone comes into the office to collaborate. Recognize it doesn’t have to happen every day. In my office, we were more productive during the pandemic because we engaged with staff frequently and planned better. My personal goal is to maintain that positive vibe and output.
Workplace stress is real, and managers must address it instead of causing it.
Some employees are hesitant or anxious about returning to the office for various reasons. They might be able to handle being in the office if the rules are reasonable and followed. But it is not their job to maintain balance in the workplace; that responsibility rests on management. If you do not take issues seriously, your company is likely creating extra stress. Take an honest look at your company culture and practices, get your management team on board and be accountable for creating a positive work environment.
The future holds many options, accelerated by innovation.
Because we changed so much, so fast, everyone can see what we’re capable of. The use of gig workers may grow. Staff will likely receive some office accessories in their homes. I think commercial real estate will suffer, as will nearby restaurants that supported worker lunches and business dinners. Cost savings abound and will shift. We need to stay on top of these changes to improve efficiency and grow the bottom line.
Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?