It’s time to thrive
Here we are in December, approaching the end of 2021. Most business leaders would say with some certainty that this year was better than 2020 — and thankfully so. Yet, as much as we’d like to say that COVID times are behind us, the return of cold weather and the indoor season keeps things uncertain. Business is definitely better, but the changes of the past two years will not be forgotten.
Unless you are in an industry that cannot be delivered remotely, like manufacturing, food prep, construction, airlines or hotels, your work environment has probably changed irrevocably. This is a secular shift and not a cyclical change. As tiring as virtual meetings can be, we’re still doing a lot more Zooming in than zooming out.
The ghost vacancy rate in office space, meaning the square footage that is under lease but not fully utilized, is probably at its highest ever. Airplanes may seem fuller, but there are still fewer flights and airports seem about half empty. The same goes for foot traffic in the business districts of most cities. Legions of workers have yet to return to the office.
For business leaders, these are difficult times. What does it mean when you have company values emblazoned on the wall in large letters, but no one comes in to see them? Companies have proven their ability to survive remotely, but isn’t the opportunity to thrive and not just survive what business growth is really all about?
Long before there was something called “The Great Resignation,” businesses were deeply concerned about an aging workforce. With baby boomers approaching retirement and new age cohorts replacing them, what was going to happen to hands-on experience and institutional knowledge? Today’s scramble for talent has been predicted for decades.
At the same time, wage stagnation and unprecedented income inequality have left many feeling that the rewards of work are more myth than fact. Especially for working women, jobs became less valuable amid the pandemic in the face of keeping homes running and meeting new demands like supervising remote learning for children.
This has forced a reevaluation of the financial costs of work — day care, dry cleaning, commuting costs such as gasoline and tolls — versus the after-tax value of wages earned. Even after supplemental unemployment assistance came to an end in September, many of these workers have yet to return to workforce. As for baby boomers, many have accelerated their plans for retirement, pulling the rip cord now instead of waiting.
These are not things that can be simply blamed on politics. The reality is more complex.
So, what’s a good leader to do? Companies have tried calling workers back to the office, but “my way or the highway” tactics are ill-advised, especially when talent is in short supply. Some have tried phased-in approaches, alternating office days with telework days.
Working remotely does have benefits, but a “choose your own approach” leaves many questions unanswered. Not everyone gets the need for coming back; some workers prefer screen time to face time. Hybrid arrangements leave staffers wondering what’s really expected, adding technology costs to office space costs while creating a divide between who’s physically in the room versus those who are working remotely.
Setting clear expectations while granting fresh ideas and emerging technologies an equal voice to experience and mentorship is a tall order for leadership. Arguably, the newest employees are the most at-risk. They tend to be the most technologically adept, but also stand to benefit the most from peer support, collaboration and mentorship. These intangibles do not happen by appointment; they develop through more casual interactions.
Is this really all about the revenge of the introverts? I hope not. Business thrives on being out and about. The few business events I’ve attended in recent months have been filled with people overjoyed to be around others again. This is critical to regaining, accelerating and sustaining the momentum of our economy.
My best advice is to be authentic. Nice people really don’t finish last. It’s not just all about business; it’s about life — that’s why these ideas work. We’ve proven that we can survive. Now it’s time to thrive.