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Thought Leadership

3 Aspects of Virtual Work to Unlearn Post-Pandemic

Arvind Malhotra Return to Work

The pandemic caused many organizations to pivot from in-person workforces and offices to a virtual environment. Much of this disruption has led to positive outcomes. For example, a study by Prodoscore concluded that productivity increased by 5% comparing May-August 2019 to May-August 2020. We have also seen that flexibility and convenience are important aspects to generating work-life balance and that wearing business attire only from the waist-up has its comforts. Research suggests that as it relates to returning to work, 73% of employees want flex work to continue post-pandemic. 

The move to virtual work also had downsides, especially as it relates to the mental and emotional well-being of our workforces. Polling suggests that as much of 67% of workers are craving more in-person time with their teams. As organizations contemplate how to return to work, they can support these conversations and provide structure that will help workers unlearn or undo the negative aspects of virtual work and find a new hybrid model that allows for employees to have the best of both worlds. 

1. The Work-Life Merger

For much of the workforce, the pandemic meant balancing new demands. These impacts were especially challenging for women, frontline workers, Gen Z, singles and individuals new to their career or organization. Fifty-four percent of employees say they are overworked, with 39% going even further to say they are exhausted. For some, the pandemic threw their family together, adding new tasks, especially caregiving and homeschooling, to personal to-do lists. Many also dealt with the urgent needs of their organizations, some of which had to furlough staff or radically change their business model to survive. As a result, many of us have learned a new approach to work, including longer hours, increased availability and more time being “on.” Responding to everything in the firefighting manner of the past months has resulted in an untenable work-life merger.   

Moving forward, organizations should focus on creating a new normal where the work design is more mindful and cognizant of employees’ mental health. Zoom fatigue, mental anxiety and isolation are all real costs for having responded resiliently to the pandemic. The move to four-day workweeks (which is fraught with its own controversy), Zoom-free days and working to have fewer virtual meetings are the first steps to recognizing the need for more mindful work. However, these practices by themselves will not end up achieving work-life balance unless they are supplemented by work design that supports these organizational-level practices. For example, what we are seeing with the four-day workweek, said to be tested by companies such as Amazon, Google and Deloitte, is that employees now feel pressured to cram five days of work into four days and/or that those four days are crammed with up to 15-hour days.  

Additionally, the notion of time worked may be the bane of all things mindful in work. Work has to be designed so that it performance is measured in the output rather than the old notion of “hours worked.” If an employee comes in before their boss and leaves after he/she leaves, that does not always translate to efficient and effective output for the employee or the organization as a whole.  

Mindful work that does not impede on life may also mean rethinking the notion of slack time for thinking. Taking time to do things one is passionate about, even if it is not associated with core work, can provide incredible benefits, both to the wellbeing of employees, and for the organizations hoping to generate more innovation.  

2. De-Zooming

The impact of the deluge of all-hands-on deck synchronous meetings is clear, and unfavorable. Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat and requires more work to process non-verbal cues like tone of voice and facial expressions. Organizations should be cognizant of how they are creating “Zoom fatigue” through back-to-back video conference meetings throughout the day. Often, these issues point to a poor work design and a less-trusting culture which perpetuates the need to “monitor” employees. The injudicious use of synchronicity and occupying work hours for the sake of 9-to-5 thinking has put us in a place where we have employees who may be, and recent trends tell us are, less mentally healthy than before the pandemic.  

Organizations will have to unlearn synchronicity all the time. Part of unlearning these habits is to ask the fundamental question of why we all have to meet for everything? What are the back-to-back meetings meant to achieve? Desynchronizing work into components that can be accomplished by individuals (on teams or otherwise) separately and then synchronizing to resolve work conflicts (not raise interpersonal ones) may be the antidote to Zoom fatigue. Organizations can accomplish this by modularizing work at the individual level and then synchronizing it periodically, rather than constant meeting to show that we are working (the performative process). Synchronous meetings can be a powerful part of work, but only if used appropriately and as part of asynchronous-synchronous rhythm (whereby the asynchronous part of work is dominant). 

Synchronicity can and should be more focused on team building or to increase socialization, an aspect of the all-hands meetings which is underutilized in our virtual working landscape. Rather than getting straight to business, these are times which checking in with each other, or encouraging a few minutes of socializing can go a long way to building team rapport and boosting feelings of wellbeing.  

3. Substituting Work Comfort for Work Etiquette Once Again

As a part of the pandemic, each employee has established their own work etiquette — from their choices of what to wear, where to take video meetings and occasionally having video transmission turned off for any number of reasons. While we may have established our own etiquette for our work lives at home, many of these things might have to be unlearned or integrated and instituted as new flexible organizational etiquettes. In terms of organizational policies, how does meeting etiquette change now? And how should it accommodate those who are in-person while others dial in?  

Similarly, employees have become used to turning off their webcams and attending the meeting with audio only, whether they are dealing with children, taking a break during a part of the meeting when they are not needed, grabbing a refreshment or bathroom break in their back-to-back schedule, or checking on something urgent. However, others may construe this as a lack of attention and wonder if they are being heard. When teams met pre-pandemic, they had to be preset and pay attention. How do organizations bring this etiquette back as they return to hybrid work? Should there be a no-cameras-off rule as an etiquette?  

Frequent check-ins with each and every one attending the meeting may need to be adopted as the new universal etiquette. Many urgent needs may also come up when meeting in-person once more, and organizations should work to establish new norms allowing for increased flexibility, when a chat function cannot be used to explain what an employee is doing and why they need a moment to take care of something.  

Many organizations can also look at taking the good, more flexible aspects from virtual work and integrate it to in-person work — perhaps not unlearning as much as establishing the right etiquettes for a new normal. Organizations have to decide if employees must trade comfort and virtual shields for more professionalism, or if they are ok putting comfort for productivity and mental health at the forefront. Perhaps professionalism lies in ensuring work is done in a timely, and high-quality manner. At the least, etiquettes might need to be unlearned so that the new normal of in-person etiquettes are focused on attending to the needs of others in meetings.  

As we return to the workplace, 66% of leaders say their companies are considering redesigning their office for hybrid work. Organizations can keep these three aspects worth unlearning in mind and help lead the charge in ensuring workers are establishing more boundaries between their personal and professional lives, synchronous meetings are purposeful and intentional, and new etiquettes and norms are established. By ensuring that the best aspects of virtual work are kept while leveraging the benefits of in-person, we can more seamlessly integrate workforces back to in-person and encourage employee wellbeing. We can also use the unfortunate circumstances of the Pandemic to re-envision our approach to workplaces and working, enabling a better future for individuals and organizational outcomes. 

Arvind Malhotra

6.24.2021