During this pandemic, it’s inevitable to implement restrictions around where we work and how we interact. Many professionals are concerned about maintaining productivity, engagement and a great workplace culture under these conditions. I believe there’s huge potential for positive change. Even when we can’t choose freely where we work, we have plenty of opportunities to make work more enjoyable and rewarding.
As some organisations are getting ready to repopulate their offices after a COVID-19 lockdown, it’s necessary to implement new health measures. There are a lot of discussions about what the new workplace should look like and how it should operate in order to minimise the risk of transmitting disease. Among the variety of views, I see a common thread: employees’ movements within the office will need to be minimised, and the sharing of work settings will need to be restricted.
What might this mean for individual and team performance, and the employee experience?
We know from surveys that in workplaces that offer a broad range of attractive and functional work settings, productivity and employee satisfaction are often exceptionally high. Thoughtfully planned and implemented flexible (i.e. activity-based) work practices also provide numerous other benefits, including more effective communication and innovation, increased engagement and stronger work relationships.
If people are not allowed to move around the workplace freely, choosing where they work and who they work with based on the task at hand, all these benefits could be lost. It appears that the pandemic is forcing us to move back to old ways of working, at the cost of individual and organisational performance. But I believe, it’s not inevitable to pay such a price.
I ‘only’ have 50 choices
I once met a man who had lost both of his legs at the age of nine in a train accident. Yet, he lived a more exciting and accomplished life than the majority of us. He embraced the philosophy that it was in his power to create an amazing life. He climbed vast mountains and excelled at several different types of sport, for example.
As he explained, had he not suffered the accident, he would have had, say, 500 choices. Instead, he ‘only’ had 50. But this was plenty for him to live life to the full.
Yet, a lot of fully abled people fail to realise their potential, and feel that their lives are filled with compromises. This is because they focus too much on what they cannot do and undervalue the choices they have.
Forward-thinking leaders and workplace consultants put a lot of thought into where people sit in the office. They make great efforts to create welcoming and well-functioning spaces for a large variety of individual and team-based tasks, as well as social activities and relaxation. We all agree that these are worthwhile investments. Sadly, in a workplace where people’s movements are restricted, it’s not possible to reap the benefits of these office designs.
During my career as a workplace strategist, I noticed that some other aspects of work usually receive little attention.
So I believe this is a good time to revisit the choices employees still have in the workplace. We have well over 50 of them, but they may not be at the front of our minds, or perhaps we undervalue their power. In fact, many of the simple decisions people make during a work day could lead to similar positive results that we’re now concerned about losing, such as high productivity, effective collaboration, and a great employee experience.
Reminding and educating employees about these opportunities can not only accelerate performance but make work genuinely enjoyable, motivating and rewarding. The vast majority of people want to do their best work and make a difference. Helping them tap into their true potential, by making educated choices about how they work, could also transform their relationship with their teams and the organisation.
Choices that deserve attention
Here is a far from complete list of valuable opportunities we all have, regardless where we work.
1. How we plan and protect our productive time
When we work on various tasks
Our minds are attuned to excel at different kinds of tasks in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. Applying this knowledge and scheduling focused work, meetings, creative tasks and administrative chores for the right times of the day could lead to as high as 20% increase in performance, as suggested by research.
Tackling tasks in the right order
Completing tasks in the right order can make it much easier to get on a roll and create great momentum at work. However, the optimal order of tasks is different for each of us. Once we understand how one activity can spring-board us into the next, we find it easier to stay focused, and can achieve significantly more in a day.
Allowing time for ‘non-essential’ activities
When working to a tight deadline, it’s our natural inclination to spend all of our time on urgent tasks while neglecting ‘non-essential’ activities. But even in high-pressure situations, it’s important to allow some time for social activities, learning, reflection and self care. We may slow down as a result but will be better prepared to work through obstacles and identify the most efficient path to success.
Blocking out distractions
Many of our work tools and resources are, on one hand, helping us to get work done, and on the other, imposing frequent distractions. These include our phones, our mailboxes, the internet and other people. Interruptions, self-distractions and procrastination are some of the most costly issues in the modern workplace. It takes careful planning to block out distractions and protect our focus without hindering communication and collaboration.
2. How we preserve and manage our inner resources
Preserving mental energy
When it comes to mental energy, we’re running on a budget. Our brain is simply not wired to process information, make sophisticated decisions and stay focused all day long. Certain counterproductive habits like procrastination or multitasking can deplete our mental energy quickly and send us on a downward spiral. Once we learn how to make the best use of our inner resources, we can more easily reach a state of flow and thus work more efficiently and effectively.
Putting our bodies to work
When we maintain good posture, frequently stand up and go for short walks during the day, we not only support our physical and mental health but also enhance our cognitive functioning. By putting our bodies to work, our creativity and mental sharpness increase, and therefore we find it easier to overcome mental blocks and solve problems. Conversations also tend to flow more freely during meetings when we are physically active.
Taking breaks at the right time and in the right way
Restorative breaks are essential to making the most of our days; they help us stay switched on, responsive, motivated and energised. However, the most effective methods for recharging our batteries are somewhat counterintuitive. Most people take breaks at the wrong times, and often engage in activities that leave them stressed and exhausted, rather than focused and refreshed. Therefore, it’s important to think about breaks in a strategic way.
3. How we turn challenges into opportunities
It’s a well-known fact that positive emotions enhance many aspects of performance, including productivity, creativity and learning. In contrast, negative feelings such as stress, anger or frustration, when left unchecked, can cause a lot of damage at work. With self-awareness and conscious effort though, it’s possible to channel such emotions in a productive way, using them as fuel for problem solving and innovation.
Using the power of discomfort
Productive work, in general, requires a good level of physical comfort. However, experiencing mild discomfort in the workplace is sometimes inevitable. When utilised skilfully, some unpleasant sensations – such as feeling too hot or too cold, or maintaining a slightly uncomfortable posture – can actually assist us with certain tasks and motivate us to work more effectively.
Doing great work while feeling tired
Working long hours is sometimes inevitable. And even when we carefully manage our energy, we’ll eventually get tired. We find it difficult to focus and learn, and make more mistakes on analytical tasks. Interestingly, feeling tired can sometimes be helpful in other types of activities, such as creative idea generation, reflection, and developing relationships through deep, authentic conversations.
4. How we approach creative teamwork
Finding the rhythm of powerful collaboration
As show by studies, creative collaboration tends to suffer when members speak sporadically with each other. Yet, too frequent interaction can also have negative consequences. To generate a large number of quality ideas, a team needs to find its natural rhythm. Members need to work individually for a good amount of time without receiving input or feedback from each other, and come together at the right moments to discuss progress.
Embracing playing, humour and fun
Enjoying work is a valuable part of the employee experience. Some leaders are of the view that these benefits come at the cost of reduced productivity. In fact, with smart strategies, playing, humour and fun can be employed to enhance many aspects of performance, including innovation and problem solving, and building trusting collaborative relationships.
Successful collaboration and creative problem solving require a great deal of empathy. In certain situations though, such as working long hours under high-pressure, it can be it difficult to switch from an analytical state of mind to an empathic state. It takes skill and emotional intelligence to nimbly navigate between the two modes of thinking – identifying with the needs and experiences of our teams and clients while making rational and well-informed decisions.
5. How we get into the right headspace
Choosing the best tools for communication and collaboration
The tools and technologies we use guide the way we think and communicate. With an ever-growing number of applications and platforms, it’s an essential ability to identify the most suitable options for different tasks and purposes. With the help of the right physical and digital media, we’re able to communicate more smoothly, innovate more successfully, and address conflicts more easily. They also help us – and our teams – stay present and engaged.
Inviting new insights and epiphanies
There are countless little tricks we can all employ to boost our creative juices. We may listen to certain types of music or embrace silence. We may diligently tidy our desk or leave it a bit messy. It can be a good idea to visit an inspiring place nearby, or just stay put and daydream. Enriching our workspace with beautiful or though-provoking artworks can also spark original ideas. The strategies that help us expand our thinking are unique to us, and we might need to experiment to figure out what makes us tick.
Motivation is a powerful but fragile and elusive state. Even when we love our jobs and work towards a meaningful purpose, sometimes we need to actively look for motivation. Talking to inspiring people, tracking the progress of our work, and reminding ourselves of the difference we create can of course give us the drive we need. However, some rather unusual approaches may also help, like refraining from interesting tasks early in the day, or embracing boredom, discomfort and difficult experiences.
Employees are already making a vast number of decisions about the way they work, every day – but perhaps they do most of these routinely, without fully understanding their impact. Once they learn to make more conscious and informed choices, their work experience and results will reach new levels.
People need to know that it’s in their power to do excellent work while maintaining a healthy body and mind. Educating and empowering employees about smarter ways of working will help them better respond to the unprecedented challenges imposed by the pandemic as well as the workplace changes we’re all facing.
All this skill and knowledge will also be extremely valuable after the pandemic. In today’s economy, organisations need intelligent, self-aware members who know how to bring out the best in themselves and others wherever they work.
Organisational psychologists tell me that the majority of employees just want to be told what to do, rather than thinking proactively and solving their own problems. I don’t think we can accept this as the norm. Along with our workspaces, it’s time to revamp our workplace cultures – otherwise we’ll have a slim chance of rising above our current and future challenges.
When it all becomes a bit overwhelming, we need to remember – working to our potential can bring so much joy, excitement and reward! Giving our people this experience is a worthwhile goal in itself.