What does the future of work look like? That’s always been the crystal ball question. Until the pandemic and subsequent shutdown, I often found predictions from my peers could go in nearly any direction — and the answers were fascinating. 

Many centered around the workplace, and its expansion to a multi-location, global network connected by digital tools and empowered by a thriving work culture. But while we were already leaning toward a new concept of the workspace itself, the office was our de facto, our status quo. 

Not anymore. Now we have to acknowledge that there is work pre-pandemic, and there is work during the pandemic. We haven’t gotten to the post-pandemic era yet, and it may be quite a while until we do, so the near future may look a lot like it does now. 

The good news is that we’ll be able to draw on the lessons we’ve learned about what enables a workplace to function. Here’s a hint: it’s not about space, it’s about people — and that shift in and of itself requires a big change in how we shape, manage, lead and tend.

Pivoting forward

Let’s think about the massive pivot we had to make in the spring. Yes, it felt sudden and bracing. And yes, it was an enormous disruption: Gallup data shows that between mid-March and April, the percentage of employed Americans working at home doubled. 

But forward-thinking workplaces already understood the importance of flexibility and remote working arrangements in terms of engagement and retention. Just two months before the shutdown, Gallup research found that 54 percent of office workers would leave their job if they could have another position that offered more flexibility. 

Other workplace surveys found that a full two-thirds of employees said less flexibility could prompt them to look for another job, while 78% of respondents listed flexible schedules and telecommuting as the most effective, non-monetary ways to retain employees.

We already knew where we were headed, but the pandemic pushed us into the future. It wasn’t enough to just keep talking about it. 

Reengagement challenges

What happens as we try to bring our workforce back, once we can safely reopen? A more recent study — conducted by the Wellbeing Lab and George Mason University in the midst of the pandemic — found that for many American employees, the tide has already turned. 

As reopening starts, it’s going to be a challenge to reengage people back in the office.

Only slightly more than one-fifth (21.6%) of them feel positive about heading back to their offices. They’re concerned about their health, and have discovered that both life and work is easier with a flexible schedule and the ability to work from home. The upshot: as reopening starts, it’s going to be a challenge to reengage people back in the office. 

The pandemic jitters are also not going to go away: 85% expressed concern about catching COVID-19, and 75.6% are unclear about what precautions they need to take. Given the confusion over guidance and best practices for a post-pandemic workplace, it’s going to take a while before that’s all straightened out. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it certainly overrules engagement. 

New expectations

From concerns about safety to a growing affinity for flexibility and remote work, leaders need to accept that this is, in many ways, a changed workforce. Many non-essential workers aren’t going to want to go back to full-time, in-house, nonstop workdays bookended by long commutes or stints on public transportation. They’re going to want to be near their children and their loved ones, and safely insulated from exposure as much as possible.

Leaders need to accept that this is, in many ways, a changed workforce.

While it’s not possible in all industries or businesses to allow employees to be fully remote, providing that option is going to be a competitive differentiator for employers in those that are. In certain industries, the option to be remote and flexible is going to be seen not as a nicety, but a must — one that’s high on the list of employee expectations. 

This creates a new set of responsibilities for HR teams. They need to create a whole framework around onboarding that focuses on facilitating remote access and communication, as well as transmitting the work culture and ensuring connection. 

Acknowledging the pressures of work and life in the presence and aftermath of a pandemic means a lot of contact, a lot of surveys and a lot of informal reaching out. That has to become part of the new hire’s experience — and it will have a profound (and positive) impact on their feelings toward their new employer, and the likelihood that they stay.

Whatever osmosis went on when a new hire came into the physical workplace has to transfer into the digital one. There’s no reason, in late 2020, that it can’t.

Engaged, involved managers

The role of managers in crafting and maintaining a great work culture is undeniable, and 2020 hasn’t made it any easier. I’ve long thought we needed a different kind of language for managers that would give them a better vision of their position; managing implies being above and outside, taking a top-down approach. 

Managers now need to spend a lot of time understanding and empathizing with their team.

But managers now need to spend a lot of time understanding and empathizing with their team. It’s more like tending — a kind of intentional relationship-building that fosters a sense of community and well-being. It also humanizes the workforce, as noted in the Harvard Business Review

What does tending look like now? We’ve been talking about the need for team leaders and managers to “get out of the office” and walk the halls for ages (as if they have the time, admittedly). I remember listening to a keynote about the advantages of having senior managers actually going onto the warehouse floor to talk to employees as if that very activity would be an anomaly — and unfortunately, it often was. 

But now, we can’t manage by absence and we can’t manage by osmosis. Remote requires that we be a lot more hands-on, and in real time. And, tending at scale requires way more than a general commitment. 

As with leaders, moving to a remote workplace has exposed the need for a new skill set. It requires the ability to leverage digital tools: recognition, feedback, surveys and communication — to become engaged in the lives of employees. 

It requires an expansion of empathy so managers can understand the signals that are transmitted via digital channels. It means paying close attention to solicited feedback and responses to check-ins, and being able to take meaningful action to address the pain points. 

That also means that managers may need to be given a lot more room to tend, as opposed to oversee. And that means building trust between leaders and managers — so trust can be built between managers and their teams.

The future is no longer an open-ended ideal, certainly; the pandemic has put a stop to that. Once we’re through the experience, it will have changed how we view the workplace for good. By shifting to remote and flexible, we’ve also shifted, finally, to understanding that life and work do truly need to be integrated for people to thrive.  
Whether our post-pandemic workplace puts us back in the office or back in the living room, that’s going to be universal.

Meghan M. Biro is a globally recognized analyst, author, speaker and brand strategist. The founder of TalentCulture, she hosts #WorkTrends, a popular weekly Twitter Chat and podcast. Her career spans across recruiting, talent management, digital media and brand strategy for hundreds of companies, from startups to global brands like Microsoft, IBM and Google. She also serves on advisory boards for leading HR technology brands. Meghan can be regularly found on Forbes, SHRM, and a variety of other outlets. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Indeed.