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COVID’s Hidden Promise: Future Work Design Is Agile Innovation

By | John Boudreau | Senior Research Scientist and Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California – Marshall School of Business

February 9, 2021

John W. BoudreauPeter M. Ramstad

As organizations plan for a future where COVID-19 is no longer a health threat, leaders are setting the stage for what is sometimes called “return to work.” Leaders are tempted to pronounce broad policies, that are often inconsistent from one organization to another. They are tempted to solve the thorny issues presented by a workforce with increasingly diverse roles, needs and preferences by searching for policies that are “fair,” because they can be applied consistently to everyone. These approaches lead to predictable “one-size-fits-all” dilemmas and problems.

But, what choice do leaders have, when the future of work is so diverse and unpredictable?

What if your return-to-work policy was this:  “To all of our valued managers, employees and non-employee workers: We don’t know what the future of work will be. However, we DO know that all of you have learned to innovate continually, as you have crafted your work to meet the unprecedented opportunities and challenges of the pandemic. So, instead of one policy applied to everyone, our ‘policy’ will be to invite and equip you to design your work through agile innovation and experimentation.”

Return-To-Work Policies Are Diverse and Inconsistent

Twitter and Square announced in May, 2020 that their employees could “work from home forever.” At about the same time, Jamie Dimon announced that he expects a gradual return to the office, with lasting damage if workers don’t return, and encourages leaders to cautiously re-open cities as workers return.  Google extended their work-from-home policies by a year, to summer 2021, and plan to accommodate remote work indefinitely. Microsoft offered all of its employees the option of working from home less than 50% of the time without approval. Similarly, Morgan Stanley and Mondelez have said they will be using hybrid work models going forward. Meantime, a June 2020 article in The New York Times reports the decades of setbacks that suggest that remote work may be more perilous than many such policies reflect. Moreover, such policies provide few answers to the thorny issues that workers and managers will confront. Well-intended leadership pronouncements, while newsworthy and perhaps immediately satisfying, are not the same as a considered approach to learn the lessons of today’s crisis, choose which lessons to sustain into the future, and implement the nuanced changes that will produce that sustainable change.

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