After a year of unprecedented anguish and pivoting, we’ve finally begun to arrive at “The Human Spring.” What happens now around hybrid working models, approaches to management and leadership, and increasing employee autonomy, will change the way we work for the next 30 years.

This is simultaneously a scary and uplifting time.

The bottom line on what organizations should be trying to accomplish now is:

Solve for autonomy, but manage for fairness.

While COVID has been tremendously stressful, it also provided nearly-unprecedented levels of autonomy for many knowledge workers. They don’t want to give that up so easily. But …if some workers go back into offices more, and those workers get access to more perks and benefits because of their proximity (distance bias), that’s not fair.

You need a mix of autonomy and fairness in this Build-Back period. And along the way, we might see some unexpected benefits as well.

1. More diverse hiring

Companies have been more receptive to hiring outside of their HQ and location bases, which means we finally might get to more diverse, more dispersed, and more cognitively-different teams. The most likely outcome is a hybrid model, meaning a good chunk of employees will still be WFH 2-3 days a week.

The brain science benefit: Diverse teams feel less comfortable, but in the long run they’re smarter and outperform less-diverse teams. One client we work with, for example, doubled down on allyship and inclusion about six months into COVID. Why? The leaders needed to be able to lead in a more inclusive manner, because the team was now more regionally-diverse, as opposed to just hires from the HQ city.

2. More inclusive practices and less bias

When your job was predominantly in-office, you often sat near the same people, and attended meetings with those same people constantly. (In other words, silos.) Zoom, Skype, Teams, etc. are not particularly great technologies for world-class ideation, but are inclusive technologies in that you can see more people and hear from more voices, and cross-functional Zoom/Skype meetings have a high possibility of inclusivity. This inclusive nature of more faces, more voices, more people, and more opinions and ideas helps to build smarter teams.

One of my favorite questions is: ‘I want a comment from everyone here in the chat right now, as if you’re here, it’s because I value your opinion’. On a platform, you can hear from 20 people in parallel in the chat, something you would never do in-person — where you’d likely just hear from the extroverts — ensuring the best ideas rise to the top, not just those from the loudest voices.

For one client, we actually created an inclusion framework that provided them with specific habits aligned to their values on how to lead inclusively virtually, and elements like the above are included.

A rule to consider: if anyone is out of the meeting room, everyone is on their own laptop on a platform. The only exception to this is if meeting rooms have been exceptionally well-designed, and tested over time, to ensure a seamless ability to hear and see each other at all times. At the NeuroLeadership Institute, where we went hybrid years ago, this took over a year of tinkering. Even with now the ideal technology, people have to be regularly reminded to speak exactly one foot from the microphone, for one person to speak at a time, and to involve people out of the room first, not last.

The brain science benefit: We’re all incredibly biased, and biased all the time — and the best solution has always been to remove biases from processes, not from people. The very nature of hybrid work will allow organizations to constantly tinker with that and follow the results. (More on setting up those experiments in future articles.)

3. Greater innovation

We know from research that insight is increased by fewer distractions. Wait, fewer distractions? Doesn’t at-home work create more distractions? In some ways, yes. But keep this in context: the “Hey, got a minute?” culture of in-office is responsible for about $588 billion of lost productivity per year. When you’re always getting pinged, you lose a lot of opportunity for insight. So while it’s not always comfortable to be taking simultaneous video calls opposite your wife, what is comfortable is that 2pm walk talking about work and kids and dogs and career, and what insights may emerge there that shape an organizations’ next step.

The brain science benefit: There have been calls from many, including Microsoft and JP Morgan, to say that the primary demerit of hybrid is “innovation will leave the building.” The problem with these statements is that they’re often assumptive and not rooted in experiments and data. Brain science has said for generations that autonomy helps drive innovation — we mentioned this in a 2009 article — and greater autonomy afforded in hybrid will drive it for organizations.

4. Greater employee well-being

Seems a bit counterintuitive, as we did see personal horrors during this period. But people are considering their health, mental and physical, more than before. There’s been a telehealth surge. Employees in-office honestly lack a lot of control over their day — where they sit, who they interact with, where/what they have for lunch, etc. These seem like small things, but they add up. When you’re WFH, you have more options, and thus more autonomy over how you move through a day. More autonomy = more engagement = more general well-being.

An opportunity for more data: There’s some evidence (although more needs to be collected, which is something we’ve been working on at NLI) that the very nature of the manager-employee relationship may be shifting. When you connect for a 1-on-1 tech stack call, some managers are right down to business, yes. But there’s more acknowledgment of the hybrid work shift, more small talk where there might not be in “Conference Room A,” and more coaching and guidance than we’ve seen in the old model. That’s all good. We needed managers to focus less on KPIs, and more on developing their people. We may be able to maximize that in coming years.

5. Faster, cheaper, more effective learning

We have written about this issue widely. At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we believed so firmly in the power of learning virtually that we built our entire business model around it. Before March 2020, 78% of all learning events were delivered without any in person experience. By May 2020 that was 100%, which excited us, because we had data showing that the same learning experience was significantly better at building habits when virtual, than something in person.

The brain science benefit: All it takes is a few key principles to follow. In fact, we found one simple tweak can make learning up to 7 times more effective than in person. If companies can stay the course on virtual learning, and do it right, there are dramatic benefits to building habits. On top of that, an ability to include the right people in cohorts, not just the people in-office. Plus: there are significant benefits to scale and speed. This is not a small issue at a time when massive re-skilling is required for millions of workers, and the half-life of workplace skills has been rapidly shrinking for some time.

Different isn’t always bad

A lot of work was hideously broken before COVID. As Stanford’s Business School wrote, “The Workplace Is Killing People And No One Cares,”

Job engagement, according to Gallup, is low. Distrust in management, according to the Edelman trust index, is high. Job satisfaction, according to the Conference Board, is low and has been in continual decline. The gig economy is growing, economic insecurity is growing, and wage growth overall has stagnated. Fewer people are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance than in the past, according to Kaiser Foundation surveys. And a strikingly high percentage of people, even those covered by insurance, say they forgo treatment and medications because of cost issues. I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity. I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane.

“Shockingly inhumane.” For many people — true. But we can fix this, with a mix of understanding brain science, thinking through the steps, defining process, valuing people, and realizing the power of the moment. There are tremendous possible benefits to this new era, to the humans involved but also to the productivity and effectiveness of organizations themselves.

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