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Alternative Work Arrangements: Questions to Guide the Change

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” You would probably agree with that insomuch as your employees’ ideas of workplace arrangements have been stretched by the work-from-home adjustments made for the COVID-19 pandemic. As we continue to navigate the pandemic and begin to prepare for life after it, many employees are reluctant – or even resistant – to return to old workplace arrangements. Thus, several of you are trying to figure out the best workplace arrangements for your employees.

As my team and I work with you to help you determine potential post-COVID work arrangements for your organizations, I find myself reflecting upon the evolution of organizational theory and how that has shaped workplace arrangements. It’s helpful to reflect upon where we have been to understand where we are now.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Classical school of organizational thought was prominent. The objective was to maximize efficiency, and the best form of organization was mechanistic (or bureaucratic), which led to the management of employees as objects. The mid-twentieth century heralded the Neoclassical or Human Relations school of organizational thought. The objective evolved to maximizing effectiveness, and the best form of organization was organic rather than mechanistic. Leadership practices moved toward encouraging employees to work together, and leaders tried to manage teams of people in a way that would encourage open communication. In the latter portion of the twentieth century, the Modern school of organizational thought emerged. It is based on the contingency theory, which advocates that organizations should determine the appropriate combination of Classical and Human Relations principles to tailor a balance between efficiency and effectiveness based on their needs.

Now, in today’s Post-Modern school of organizational thought, organizations are “characterized by having developed new and original forms and practices in response to the changing environmental conditions of postmodern society.” Leadership has moved toward “post-heroic” practices of shared leadership. Employees are certainly no longer managed as objects, and our expectations of where and how they work together have rapidly evolved.

It seems to me that our workplace arrangements – from where and how our employees contribute to our organizations – have, in large part, been stuck in the pre-modern or Modern schools of organizational thought. In other words, for many of us, our workplace arrangements have not kept pace with the current school of organizational thought, and our organizations were ripe for disruption. The pandemic provided that disruption as we revamped our workplace arrangements to keep our employees working and our businesses afloat during social distancing shutdowns.

That experience has stretched our ideas of workplace arrangements and, in the name of continued growth and organizational evolution, we probably shouldn’t try to go back to old schools of thought. Rather, we should be intentional about evolving our workplace arrangements to today’s reality. To that end, here are some questions for you to contemplate as you employ Post-Modern organizational theory and post-heroic leadership to your workplace arrangements:

  • What are the risks to your organization if you don’t consider alternative workplace arrangements? How might it impact retention of your current talent? How might it impact building your future pipeline of talent?
  • Could employees who do not need to be onsite to serve external or internal clients work remotely most of the time? If so, what technological upgrades or process redesigns could you invest in to create greater flexibility and, potentially, increased productivity or performance?
  • How might organizational evolution within vendor, partner, or client organizations require changes within your organization? What can you do now to future-proof your organization’s structure, workplace arrangements, and responsiveness?
  • If, due to the nature of the work, you are only able to employ flexible work arrangements for some functions or divisions, how will you communicate those differences to other functions? What expectations should be put in place for remote teams to ensure seamless internal communication with onsite teams?
  • Could employees be invited to determine whether they want to work remotely or onsite any given day based upon the type of work they are doing that day? Could you craft guidelines to help them determine when to be onsite and when they are able to work remotely?
    • For example, one coachee of mine who leads Technology teams has been crafting a customized hybrid work arrangement proposal for her portion of the organization. The goal is to “create a Technology culture that embraces remote work for completing deep-focus tasks while balancing in-office time for things more focused around collaboration with others.” Their onsite location will be used to “ideate and solve complex problems and find opportunities for socializing and developing relationships within our teams.” To help team members determine whether to be in person or remote, they have outlined recommendations for the type of work that is most beneficial for employees to complete in person and what works well remotely.
  • Would it be beneficial to host occasional in-person and/or online social events to ensure ongoing relationship development within the organization or department in lieu of remote work arrangements? Or, what training might people managers need to ensure that they know how to help employees who work remotely or in hybrid arrangements stay connected?
  • How might you think beyond the old face-time metrics or hours logged metrics to craft better leadership and performance management of remote workers? Could deliverables or results serve as a better metric? If so, what training might people managers need to lead remote workers well?
  • How can you help other leaders who may be hesitant to change the old ways of working to explore the benefits of Post-Modern workplace arrangements? What data or information would be useful for you to help inform them?

These questions – and others that you have likely come up with – offer ample opportunity for creativity and customization of updated workplace arrangements. Think about what may work for your organization. Gather input from your peers and employees. Move forward, not backward. And, do not hesitate to reach out to us if we can help you adapt to the newly-stretched, Post-Modern mental models for workplace arrangements.

 

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