While Covid-19 has forced most knowledge-work environments to embrace the work from home (WFH) workstyle, this temporary need gives many small businesses an opportunity to rethink something far more profound about their cultures.
You have the opportunity to reimagine the balance between collaboration (the work you do together) and productivity (the work you do alone) to usher in a new renaissance of individual productivity.
Why is this? The simple answer is the modern company is a lousy place to think. Open office environments, the cultural need to embrace the idea "I exist because my calendar is booked full of back-to-back meetings," and the overt drive for greater collaboration all conspire to ensure we never, ever, have a moment to actually think.
But by sending everyone home to work, a new opportunity arises. You only have to embrace it. You no longer have to deal with the open-office environment. Your loud-talking neighbor may be replaced with family, pets, and a washing machine with a blown ball bearing, but this change of scenery offers the psychological room to relax. The ability to change how your team approaches their jobs is there, but it will take leadership to specifically identify it, give it shape and permission, and then measure the results.
Here are three ways this can take shape.
1. Don't try to replicate the always-on nature of working from home.
Embrace and expand upon the new reality that they finally, finally, have an opportunity to think. Institutionalize this new fact of life and build new habits and practices around not being together in the same office. Don't see it as a constraint--recast it as a huge opportunity to spend time alone, thinking deeply about the business.
What do you do about this? The first sacred cow to be sacrificed is your calendar of back-to-back Zoom calls. As a matter of fact, schedule all conference calls in the morning and leave the afternoon open--as a company policy, if possible--so people can actually work on bigger things than the daily fire drill.
2. Whenever possible, prioritize innovation.
This means content development, strategic thinking, and its necessary outputs, instead of constantly having your people run from online meeting to online meeting. Use this time and new workstyle to shift from maintenance-level processes to blue-sky opportunities and skunk-works-level projects, the ones that normally fly under the radar. See if you and your team can use this unique opportunity to take a few quantum leaps forward.
How can a leadership team foster this kind of unique thinking? First, shift your KPIs (key performance indicators) to prioritize original work. Push first line managers to work with their individual team members to identify areas where individual passion and expertise can uniquely address important and difficult challenges. Then unleash the creativity and drive and see what happens.
3. Understand thinking time requires more than just sitting at a desk.
It requires walking, pacing, and most importantly sketching time, drawing out ideas on white boards or pads to unpack what's in their heads. This has to happen before they're in any shape to share what they're thinking with others. This simple step is what's missing from most modern office environments--and it's uniquely available when these same knowledge workers work from home.
This means you have to be careful about the presence indicators we often rely on when utilizing communications platforms to touch base with colleagues. Their physical presence on the keyboard may not be a good indicator of whether they're available or not. We have to encourage workers to flesh out their ideas, possibly with a defined process, before surfacing them to colleagues in a collaborative environment.
Working remotely may seem like an imposition to workers and management alike, but within this apparent constraint is a huge opportunity, Smart companies should embrace it and watch innovation grow.