The Future of Work: It’s Messy!

the future of work

By Lori Gracey, CAE

If you’ve tried to hire a new staff member or replace an existing one recently, you have probably noticed that the fabulous world of work is not the same anymore. The old days of posting a position and getting lots of eager applicants who are willing and able to do the job without any extra incentives are long gone. And the reality is that those days are not coming back. Instead, we are all facing a much “messier” time with hiring and retaining staff. Here are some of the trends impacting work for both the business and the nonprofit sectors and suggested actions we might consider.

Desired Modes of Flexibility for Staff

One thing we all learned from the pandemic is that life is uncertain. We were given a chance to stop and smell the roses, whether we wanted to or not, and we learned that we are not our jobs. Time spent with family, time spent on hobbies, and time spent taking care of ourselves became extremely important. Some people looked at their work – what they had been spending most of their time doing to earn a living – and decided that it simply wasn’t worth it. Others realized that, while they did need to continue working to provide for their families, they needed to look for better opportunities that offered growth, a future, and flexibility. And so, the “Great Resignation” wave began.

Flexibility means variety, choice, and freedom, and there are three main modes of flexibility desired by employees: physical location, work hours, and benefits. Offering this flexibility will greatly improve the chances of you hiring the best talent moving forward. With fewer people in the workforce today, and with this number predicted to continue to decline, the flexibility that leaders offer will have to be ramped up to compete.

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

Employees became very comfortable working from home during the pandemic. They enjoyed the freedom and the flexibility of the familiar environment and convenience choices like “Should I wear pants or pajama bottoms?” or “Will I work from the porch or the bed today?” During the peak of remote work, 45% of American teleworkers regularly worked from the couch, 38% regularly worked from bed, and 20% worked outside, according to a study by the home improvement marketing firm CraftJack.

Most CEOs found that their staff was just as productive, if not more productive, working from home as in the office. A study by Microsoft found that the average employee ended up spending 10% more time “at work” remotely since they could start their tasks immediately without having to commute to the office.

Giving up the newfound freedoms of remote work is not something that most employees find alluring. According to a survey carried out by the polling firm Ipsos, out of 2,700 office workers across nine countries, more than a third of all office workers would quit their current jobs if they were forced to go back into the office full time. It’s clear that permission to work from home or remotely at least some of the workweek is something these employees want to keep.

Flexible Work Hours Are Necessary

The days of clocking in, even if only mentally, and working from 8:00 to 5:00 are gone. We no longer work in Henry Ford’s assembly line factory, where the 40-hour workweek began. Instead, our jobs now require us to get the work done and get it done well, regardless of how long it takes to complete the task and when we complete it. If our child has a program at school at 10:00 a.m., we want to be there in the audience without having to take time off. If we’re not feeling 100%, we want to leave work a little early to complete our work from home. It’s not about the clock anymore. It’s about us, the people. Not only that, but the use of technology has changed how we connect to the workplace. And that connectivity doesn’t necessarily end at 5:00 p.m. So providing flexibility with work hours, as long as the work is being done, is required.

Differentiated Benefits Meet Individual Needs

The third way our staff wants us to be flexible is in the benefits we provide. While we must treat all employees fairly and equitably and avoid discrimination, it’s time to recognize that each team member is different and may need different things. Providing a one-size-fits-all insurance program to staff, for example, may not meet their individual needs. Maybe the young, single mother wants to have not only her insurance paid for but also her children’s, instead of taking advantage of the association’s 401(k) retirement program right now. It’s all about providing options. Trevor Mitchell, MBA, CAE, CDP, Executive Director/CEO of American MENSA, puts it this way: “While policies need to be equitable, they also have to be balanced with the work done. Not everyone will have the same options available to them, and that’s ok as long as we provide people with opportunities and clearly articulate why that is.”

Actions to Consider:

  • Craft a policy for remote work with clear expectations and then get feedback from the staff. TSAE has several of these available in the online community.
  • Make the office a hub of “innovation and social interaction” for employees when they are there. Create spaces where small groups can gather to talk about ideas. Encourage them to spend more time networking with each other. Provide social times for them to grab a snack and chat or participate in a fun activity like axe throwing or playing miniature golf. Get them talking to each other.
  • Ensure that the technology and systems you provide to connect your employees are robust and up to par. Provide frequent, short training times for staff to ensure they have mastered the essential skills to best use technology tools, processes, and procedures. As Jill McClure, CAE, Executive Director of the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations (APRO), says, “Associations are evolving and moving past the rigidity of the former non-digital work environment. We are becoming more efficient using collaboration technologies and better processes, allowing us also to be more flexible with synchronous and asynchronous work.”
  • Examine all of the policies that impact your employees. (Some possible ones to consider are dress code, benefits packages, flextime, workplace/home/remote work safety policies, expense reimbursement, and paid time off.) How might they need to be changed to embrace the concept that “the future of work is as much about the work getting done as it is about how leaders navigate the workforce demands to achieve the organization’s goals,” stated by Trevor Mitchell.
  • Ask your employees what they need. They know the job roles best, and they know how they each work best.

Increased Employee Flexibility Affects Leadership

Leaders aren’t managing employees anymore; we’re helping them manage their lives. Management by walking around is much harder, if not impossible if employees work different hours and from different locations. Instead, we must balance employee empowerment with support and accountability.

Connecting with Employees

Consider having regular meetings with each team member to discuss their goals and their progress toward them. Include what dreams they have for future growth in the organization and how you can support them in achieving those dreams. Jill McClure sums it up this way: “We are investing in our team members’ development more, identifying areas they wish to grow, and then providing hands-on experience in their areas of interest. This match-making between the team’s interests and the association’s work has to be ongoing to retain top performers.”

Partnering in Health and Wellness

Ensure that you are talking with them about their health and wellness (without prying) and explore how they would like the organization to support them in these areas. Also, be on the lookout for the early signs of burnout and make sure you know how to prevent or correct that. It may be time to hire freelancers to help out with the work.

Actions to Consider:

  • Spend more time regularly talking with each staff member. What are they currently working on? Do they foresee any roadblocks? What are they worried about? How can you help them? For leaders, this is the most significant change in the world of work now.
  • Schedule quarterly get-togethers for staff or, even better, create a staff culture committee that comes up with ideas for community building. Be sure to take part in social and community-building activities and don’t stand on the sidelines.
  • Focus less on job roles and more on the skills needed to drive the organization forward. Look at the core processes and projects that need to be done and determine the best employees to complete them.
  • Cross-train where you can to help prevent the feeling of isolation and prevent burnout.
  • Implement periodic health and wellness activities or challenges for the entire staff. Maybe it’s a decision to have some standing meetings instead of sitting so much. Perhaps everyone is counting their steps each day toward a collective goal with a reward. Or it could be taking two minutes at the beginning of meetings to allow everyone to center themselves and focus. Whatever the activity, make sure you get staff input before beginning.

Agility Is Critical

While I know that we’re all tired of being asked to “pivot,” the need for this skill is not going away. And keep in mind that it is a skill, something that must be learned and practiced regularly. “Learning agility is one of the essential skills in considering the future of work. Being willing to learn new things and then apply them in changing conditions can be difficult. We have to develop this skill in our teams while also modeling it as leaders. The rapid pace at which technology and business are advancing requires that we stay on top of professional development for our team and ourselves as leaders, so we are prepared to embrace change as it comes,” says Jill McClure.

Actions to Consider:

  • Take a long look at yourself as the leader. What changes have you had to make over the past few years? How well did you accomplish that? What do you need to do differently to be more agile?
  • How agile is your staff? Are they mired in TTWWADI (That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It), or are they eagerly looking at different ways to accomplish their tasks? What training or practice can you provide them so that they can increase their agility? To help get them “out of the box,” use these strategies:
    • Ask, “What would we do differently if we were starting from scratch?”
    • Ask, “Why?”
    • Ask, “What assumptions are we operating on here?”
    • Simplify the problem to make it more understandable.
    • Draw a picture of what we are currently doing.
    • Identify two aspects of the idea that could change.
    • Offer prizes for the most far-out ideas, even if they are not feasible, just to get staff thinking “beyond.”
  • You may also need to provide agility training for your board of directors. While they have also been asked to “pivot” this past year, they may not realize how much your association and its staff have changed.

The “good ole days” of work aren’t coming back. As Edward MacMahon said, “There isn’t any way of putting the genie back into the bottle.” But good new days are possible if leaders address the key issues of how the workplace and its requirements have changed. Trevor Mitchell puts it like this: “As leaders, we will continue to evolve our skills to foster a thriving culture in the new work demand. Embracing the change that is to come will be more productive than fighting against it.” What will you do for the future?

Lori Gracey, CAE is the executive director of TCEA (Texas Computer Education Association), a global organization that supports the use of technology in education. Founded in 1980, TCEA has been playing a vital role in increasing technology funding and access for PreK-16 schools for nearly 40 years. Learn more at www.tcea.org and contact Lori at .

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