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The most important workplace lessons of the pandemic

As 2020 is coming to a close, we can reflect on what has been an especially challenging and unprecedented year. With the pandemic changing virtually all aspects of how we lead our lives and businesses, there are valuable lessons we can take away as we plan and prepare for the year ahead.
Post by
YAC Team
December 2020
The most important workplace lessons of the pandemic

Soon, it will be a year from the start of the pandemic. And, although the vaccine is now slowly being rolled, the paradigm shifting impacts the lockdowns had are not something that will simply go away. Why? Because the traditional rules of work were changing anyway. The pandemic just pushed along a process that was already taking place, ever so slowly. But that may not be such a bad thing – many business owners are finding employees are happier and more productive in the new work environment.

The biggest change in many industries is the shift to full or partial work from home. Reflecting on this year-long experiment in working remotely reveals some important changes taking place in how both employees and business owners think about work and productivity.

Of course, not every industry can work remotely. Fortunately, many of the changes discussed below can also be implemented in an in-person work environment. Ultimately, the way you apply these tips depends on your business and circumstances, but we think every business stands to benefit from applying some of these lessons to the way they operate.

Flexible scheduling

Questions about the efficiency and relevance of the eight-hour workday are by no means new. Reflecting on this question in 1932, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell observed that emerging technologies were already making a more balanced lifestyle accessible without hampering productivity. Some 88 years later, we are working just about the same hours as we were back then. From 1976 to today, the average hours worked a week in Canada dropped from 39.2 to 37. Yet, in that time we have seen change in virtually every aspect of work. In just the last 20 years alone, many industries were altogether transformed by developments in technology. Online connectivity makes us all more efficient.

Russell also argued that more leisure would increase the employee’s life and work satisfaction, and recent research supports this notion. Researchers show that productivity in the workplace is significantly correlated with satisfaction in both repetitive industrial tasks and in creative or intellectually demanding roles. Even just reducing the number of work days from 5 to 4 without changing the total hours has a positive impact on both satisfaction and workplace performance. Flexible work hours have a similar effect, maybe because the human mind functions best in bursts of intense concentration which a more flexible schedule accommodates.

So, why is it that despite the changes in technology increasing productivity and an abundance of scientific evidence, the 8-hour workday remains unchanged? The answer may just boil down to habit and common practices. The choice to change is uncomfortable and bears risks, which may explain why so many business owners would ordinarily be hesitant to take the step.

Yet, this year, the pandemic forced nearly 5 million Canadians to work from home, leading many employers to experiment with and change up the old habits of workplace management. Working from home allowed employees the flexibility to shift their schedules to fit their daily routines better, letting night owls work during their best hours and allowing parents to take mid-day breaks to support their kids.

Unsurprisingly, many are finding that there is no drop off in productivity. In fact, some are finding that workers are more productive when working remotely. As business owners, we are responsible for taking stock of the results and outcomes of this experiment in workplace organization and recognize that the benefits of more flexible scheduling should not be limited to the pandemic. Ultimately, a shift to more flexible and balanced schedule means healthier and more productive employees, boosting your businesses’ profitability.

Accountability-first approach

Remote work also encouraged a lot of companies to shift to an accountability-first mindset, tracking progress by paying attention to results as opposed to hour logs or excessive in person oversight. Such micromanagement can be detrimental to productivity. In place of this, a remote-connected workspace could set up key metrics, establish clear expectations, and regularly scheduled check-ins to keep the team on track. A common pitfall is a lack of clarity with respect to what work and results each employee is accountable for. With the shift to remote work, many work environments were in effect forced to provide clearer expectations, which inevitably resulted in increased productivity.

A common concern raised by business owners considering allowing employees to work remotely is the inability to know what employees are doing on company time. By focusing on accountability, the need to know and track employee behavior is dramatically reduced. Provided with clear expectations and performance metrics, you are entrusting your employees to complete their work, while giving them the autonomy and flexibility to figure out some of the details of how they work. This communicates trust to employees and increases their productivity and work satisfaction. In other words, leading by accountability will lead your employees to be more accountable, too.

Besides, if you are ever worried about what’s going on, you can always quickly check-in with each employee by email or your company’s chat app to make sure everything is on track. With so many productivity tools available to business owners and their teams, there is truly no reason to think that productive meetings can only happen in person.

Quality leadership is essential

Maybe the most important lesson reiterated by 2020 is the importance of strong leadership. The success of accomplishing any task, let alone the project of transitioning an entire office to work remotely, largely depends on the quality and approach of the people in charge. As business owners, it is essential to recognize and appreciate the difference between management and leadership. We already discussed above how leading by accountability promotes accountability, and the same is true in many other respects. For example, embracing new modes of collaboration and communication will make them more likely to be used effectively by the team.

The difference between leadership and management is complex, and not necessarily always clear. One way to think of leadership is to view it as the process of successfully framing and defining the reality of others. In contrast, management emphasized rationality to control and organize resources and people for some task. Naturally, a healthy mix of the two is the most desirable outcome. However, while almost anyone can take up the task of managing a team, without the skill of leadership this management becomes a task so time and energy intensive that it is bound to fail.

Instead, we should reframe leadership as the management of meaning. By placing the focus of your actions and statements on the meaning you wish to create for your time, you are more likely to achieve your goals. For many teams transitioning to remote work throughout this year, the success of the transition and the subsequent productivity in the new work environment depended largely on how the transition was led. Those teams whose leaders focused on learning, creativity, and flexibility were certainly more likely to succeed.

It is our responsibility to actively challenge and develop our role as leaders, and much like changing decade-old workplace practices, this can be a challenging and uncomfortable experience. But, as this year has demonstrated, adapting and learning from challenging circumstances can produce results beneficial for you, your team, and your clients.

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