The COVID-19 pandemic spurred the largest work-from-home experiment in history. In the pre-coronavirus era, working remotely was an alternative for a chosen few, and even then, it was expected to mirror the experience of working in an office.
That meant no children running in the background during virtual meetings or extended breaks to handle lunches for the entire family. That’s why, when the experiment began, several leaders were skeptical of the success of working remotely and expected employee performance to deteriorate severely.
Now we know that the opposite happened.
The largest work-from-home experiment in history
The pandemic achieved a five-year acceleration of a trend that was slowly making headway—virtual work. Despite concerns from businesses worldwide, employees could adjust to virtual work while taking care of children and household activities, with many reports of employees being just as productive as in an office (and in some cases, more productive).
Navigating a massive workplace shift during a pandemic is a remarkable feat, especially as many studies predict a drop in productivity when faced with large-scale changes. According to HBR, employee stress, negativity, and work-related conflicts have dropped by at least 10%, and employees have witnessed roughly 10% improvement in self-efficacy and focus at work.
As we enter the post-coronavirus era—a phase The Economist playfully terms as the After Domestication (AD) age—and office spaces reopen, a significant chunk of the workforce might never go back to the office. The trend’s already growing roots with tech giants like Google allowing employees to work from home until at least July 2021.
Besides, it’s hard to imagine workers looking forward to excruciating commutes in crowded trains and buses or enduring vexing traffic jams to get to the office for five days a week.
The age of workplace digital dexterity
In the post-coronavirus era, organizations must brace themselves and rethink the purpose of a physical workplace as an increasing number of employees realize that they don’t need an office to work. Organizations should focus on building hybrid workplaces that support all employees, both on-premise and virtual.
Previous work-from-home experiments failed because when only a handful work virtually, they weren’t as engaged as the ones in the office. Consequently, the virtual employees felt left out and didn’t identify much with the organization’s goals and values. That has changed now as everyone had to work remotely together, shaping a completely different work culture.
Organizations must continue this culture and morph it for a hybrid workplace. What they need is digital dexterity at the workplace. Analyst firm Gartner coined the term "digital dexterity" to stand for organizations' ability to use technology for better business outcomes. The digital workplace concept is less about the technology itself and more about the shift needed in mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors.
Implementing such a digital workplace concept, however, might be easier said than done.
The challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce
Even in the pre-coronavirus era, organizations were witnessing a period where at least four generations— Baby boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1980), Gen Y or the millennials (1981-1996), and Gen Z (1997-2012)—were working within teams.
Each generation has had a different set of beliefs, skills, attitudes, and stereotypes—the boomers who feel perplexed by technology and seem resistant to change, the millennials who care less about office formalities and more about meaningful work, or the Gen Zs who appear to be surgically attached to their smartphones.
The older generations might feel particularly frustrated or left out with the plethora of changes underway. The rapid adoption of a multitude of technologies for virtual collaboration and communication such as virtual point networks (VPNs), the G Suite (and the concept of different people working virtually on the same file), video calls, and apps like Teams or Zoom, isn’t easy for a generation used to having face-to-face interactions.
On the other hand, the younger generations might find everyday commute meaningless and instead, favor flexible work options as offices reopen. Such frustrations affect the entire team, and as a result, the overall performance of an organization suffers.
Navigating such differences is crucial—easier said than done. Add virtual work and a raging pandemic to the mix, and you've got a sweet pickle. Is there a way to foster workplace digital dexterity in such an environment?
Embracing digital dexterity with a multigenerational workforce and a raging pandemic
Leaders must understand what motivates each generation to create relevant incentives rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach. The first step is to study the different demographics of the workforce to gauge their job expectations and understand what they bring to the table.
The next step would be to identify what drives each generation. While the younger employees might feel driven by fresh experiences or training programs, the older ones with responsibilities like children or mortgages might favor work appreciation or money.
Using such insights, organizations should engineer opportunities for multigenerational teams to work together on projects and learn from each other. Mastercard achieved something similar by launching a reciprocal mentoring program that paired younger employees with their older colleagues to work on tech skills. In one such initiative, the millennial drew insights on her career path and communication skills, whereas the baby boomer learned the importance of researching and engaging on social media to relate with millennial consumers and employees.
Lastly, leaders need to facilitate compassionate change management.
Global health and economic crises can be disorienting and emotionally overwhelming, with each generation facing a unique set of difficulties. This requires empathetic change management. In a recent McKinsey survey, almost half of the respondents stated how the pandemic adversely affected their mental health. Organizations should build an environment with considerate change management practices spearheaded by empathetic business leaders who are aware of such issues and compassionate toward their employees.
From taking an interest in employees' problems and facilitating an open dialogue with various stakeholders to expressing gratitude through thoughtful acts, compassionate business leaders can steer the ship toward business recovery. As a result, they can build a thriving workplace with a brighter future.