For more than a year, we’ve been wondering what work will look like when the pandemic ends. And for an increasing number of companies, the answer is a hybrid model that combines in-person and remote work. The conversation has now moved to what will happen to the commercial real estate market, how office and desk design will change and what tech tools we will need in our new hybrid future.
But even more important than the organizational design and the tech tools of our hybrid world order are the hybrid skills we’ll need to develop wherever and however we’re working. Of course, hard skills and expertise are always going to be table stakes, but to successfully navigate the new hybrid world defined by changing routines and continuing uncertainty we’ll need human skills — empathy, resilience, collaboration, team building and creativity. These are the skills that will allow us to adapt to new environments and constant changes, and use all of our other skills in a sustainable way without burning out. As Alexander Westerdahl, Vice President of Human Resources at Spotify, told The New York Times, “we’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time.” And when our workplaces are distributed, how we work and nurture what are called “soft skills” becomes all the more important.
In fact, the term “soft” dramatically undersells how powerful these human skills are for success, both for individuals and companies. They’re actually essential skills that allow us to maximize whatever job- or task-specific skills and expertise we’ve acquired. And because they’re skills, we can practice and get better at them. Indeed the distinction between soft and hard skills is no longer meaningful, and it’s time to retire it — a positive casualty of the pandemic.
On the new season of my podcast, “What I’ve Learned,” Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff spoke about how he’s had to create a new way to run his company and support his people. “We have to enable important skills, like mental health skills,” he told me. “We have to unlock them to get people back to being productive and successful.”
The need for hybrid skills was increasing even before the pandemic. Automation and machine learning were already putting a premium on all the skills — creativity, empathy, collaboration, innovation, complex problem solving, teamwork — that can’t be automated. These are skills that are severely undermined when people are stressed, burned out and depleted. And burnout has only gotten worse in the last year. So the pandemic has been a forcing function, taking a wrecking ball to a model of work that was already crumbling. By accelerating both the crisis and the solution — a way of working that prioritizes these human skills — the pandemic has fast-forwarded our future. As Erica Pandey wrote in Axios, “The pandemic has been an accelerant for every work trend — good and bad.”
As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that people want to hang on to the flexibility of hybrid working. In March, the jobs website Indeed reported that listings in the U.S. that offer remote work have doubled since the pandemic began. And in a Return to the Workplace Report, nearly half the employees surveyed said they’d quit if an employer didn’t offer a hybrid option.
At the same time, we’re not ready to give up on the benefits of working together in person. A PwC report on reimagining the workplace found that nearly 90% of employees say a physical office is vital for collaborating and team building. And as the research shows, we connect with others differently in person than we do online, especially when we’re stressed. “Virtual communication, not to mention the experience of being in crisis mode, makes people more negative, more distracted, less willing to cooperate with others, less likely to share useful information, less trusting, and less willing to listen to new ideas,” write Daniel Levin and Terri Kurtzberg, management professors at Rutgers Business School. A recent internal survey by Microsoft found that the number of employees feeling connected fell from 91% in April of 2020 to 71% by February of 2021. “As we adjust to hybrid work, our job is to look for ways to bring those levels back up to where they used to be,” Microsoft’s head of people analytics, Dawn Klinghoffer, said.
Managing all these conflicting needs will be as significant a disruption as the urgent move to all-remote work at the beginning of the pandemic. And it will come at a time when people are particularly worn out from a year of pandemic fatigue. That’s why human skills will be central to whatever hybrid combination a company chooses for the future. At Thrive, we’ve spent the past year working with customers and company leaders in a range of industries, and here is what we’ve learned that can help us navigate this transition to a hybrid world.
Seize the Moment to Rethink Productivity
Not since the Industrial Revolution have we so fundamentally rethought everything about where and how we work. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a new normal that’s based on the way we actually perform at our best. “People are now stepping back and thinking about the qualitative aspects of being productive over the quantitative,” said Sandra Bond Chapman, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dallas. “Instead of how many things we have done, we now have an opportunity to shift towards the measures that matter most — was I more innovative? Was I more purpose-driven? Was I more socially driven?”
When our workforce is distributed, we might think that messages get dampened, but it’s actually the opposite. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant put it: “One of my favorite insights about teams is that they’re kind of like amplifiers — whatever you put in comes out louder. When we go remote, that’s even more true. All of our microphones are blasting at once, and that can cause problems.” So this is the time to amplify the important message that we need to abandon the collective delusion that to be productive we need to be on 24/7 and push through exhaustion. Instead we can spread the latest science and data about diminishing returns and the importance of managing our energy, not our time.
Embed Well-being — It’s the Foundation of Developing and Nurturing Human Skills
Many companies brought mental health to the center of their workplace conversation during the pandemic. “We recognized that our employees were coming to us for guidance for everything: the pandemic, how they lived, wanting to know what was safe and what wasn’t safe,” said Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s Chief People Officer. “It became very natural for us to have meetings where we had medical and mental health practitioners and discussions about business strategy, all in the same meeting.” Yet a Gartner survey of HR leaders found that though 64% of companies offered new well-being programs during the pandemic, only a quarter of them plan to continue them.
Companies need to not only continue these programs, but expand them. In a hybrid world, embedded well-being solutions are the foundation of hybrid skills. In Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index for 2021, employees rating their mental health as poor or very poor more than tripled over the previous year. Nearly half say their levels of stress are high or very high. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist who has studied remote work for years, fears that “an extended period of working from home will not only kill office productivity but is building a mental health crisis.”
Use Technology to Augment Humanity — and Productivity
Technology has obviously been a lifeline during the pandemic, and the accelerated buildout of communication technology is what’s making our new hybrid world possible. At the same time, much of that same technology is also fueling burnout. In Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index for 2021, there was a direct connection between rates of burnout and how dependent workers were on their devices. The report also notes that though we put in an average of 213 hours more in 2020 than in 2019, the number of missed deadlines actually went up. That’s the productivity paradox: we’re working more, but getting less done.
Even worse, Asana found that teams are using 13% of their time to duplicate work they’ve already done, resulting in 236 hours of lost time each year. And the more apps employees used, the more likely it was that they were duplicating work. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents said they feel pressure throughout the day to multitask, and employees were more likely to experience app overload the more senior they were. And an astounding 60% of employee time was spent on “work about work” — looking for information, coordinating with colleagues, and generally doing all the things we need to do to begin work on the actual task at hand. That means that only 26% of the day was spent on doing job-specific skilled work.
And then of course, there are virtual meetings, which have made us all familiar with Zoom fatigue (“Lorraine. Lorraine? Lorraine! You’re on mute.”). According to Microsoft, in February of 2021, employees spent 148% more time in meetings than they did in February of last year. And that can be costly even beyond the staggering waste of time since it’s harder to achieve successful teamwork while remote. As Martine Haas, who studies collaboration, said, “It’s basically the problem that you kind of have incomplete information. You don’t have a good understanding of each other’s contexts, right? So this is actually why it’s really valuable to ask members of your remote team, ‘What does your workplace look like? Who else is there? Do you have a dog? Are you watching your kid? What else is going on?’” We assume video always gives us more of that context. But that isn’t always the case. A fascinating study by Michael Kraus, a professor at Yale, found that people were better able to perceive other people’s emotions with the lights off — using audio only. Which is why Adam Grant says, “When people ask what video conference platform I prefer I often tell them ‘audio.’”
Which isn’t to say you should ditch all those amazing video conferencing tools you’ve just learned how to use — my Zoom knowledge has been too hard-won to abandon now — but more that we should ask ourselves, is technology at our company being used to enhance productivity, or are our team members drowning in it? And if it’s the latter, which Microsteps or mindset shifts can help us quickly course-correct?
Leaders Need to Model Hybrid Skills
If leaders aren’t taking steps to nurture empathy, creativity and mental resilience, their teams won’t either. And it goes beyond just setting an example. According to a KPMG survey, managers were more likely than non-managers to have trouble dealing with work-life issues. At Salesforce, Marc Benioff has been outspoken about how mindfulness and meditation guide him in making decisions as a leader. “I’m listening for the deeper message, I’m getting more connected to a deeper part of myself,” he told me. “How do I come together right now in this moment as a leader? Meditation helps me to answer that key question.”
So in addition to whatever other titles they have, leaders need to be Chief Well-being Officers. Modeling ways of living and working that boost hybrid skills will inspire and give permission to others to do the same. Again and again at Thrive, we see that having buy-in from company leaders ignites a network effect that creates positive change across teams and entire organizations.
In 1989, Emmy Warner, then a researcher at the University of California, Davis, published a famous longitudinal study in which high-risk children were followed for 32 years. What she found was that the more resilient children had an “internal locus of control” that allowed them “to meet the world on their own terms.” She also found that some who lacked resilience early on were able to learn resilience as they got older.
In The Distributed Age, where our workplaces are going to be hybrid, having that internal locus of control is going to be more important than ever. And companies that prioritize well-being and nurture the human skills of empathy, creativity and resilience are going to be the ones to thrive in our hybrid world.
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