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In January 2021, Liz Kislick wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled, “What to Do If Your Team Doesn’t Want to Go Back to the Office”. Context helps us put this article in perspective.  Last January in the U.S., people 65 years of age and older with underlying conditions were the only ones getting vaccinated. Everyone was required to wear a mask in public. Most children were being home schooled. Hospitalizations and death rates were uncomfortably high. We had not achieved the milestone death rate of 500,000. That came on February 22.  At the point in January 2021 when this article was written, we were still deep in the throes of the pandemic. To be thinking about returning to the office seemed surreal.

Later this Spring, still in the throes of the pandemic, there have been a plethora of articles championing the need for “Soft Skills”, Work/Life Balance and things like Empathy. In my past life as an HR leader, mentioning “soft skills” to line leaders were met with ridicule or ignored. My experience with “soft skills” was that they were the most difficult to teach leaders. It is ironic that they were now being valued and seen as critical. In our Zoom world “what” people were wearing was less important than people having the opportunity to interact face to face. Meetings being interrupted by pets and young children were greeted with a smile and acceptance. Pre-pandemic employees were mortified if their professional persona was compromised by a bark or anything but total background silence. This humanizing of the workforce was refreshing and modernized the workplace.

As vaccination rates increased and mask usage declined it was inevitable that more reactionary leaders would sound the cry of “back to work”. Let’s get back to normal. Let’s forget all those “non-traditional” things that got us through the last 15 months.

What I find most interesting, and most refreshing are all those employees that are saying quietly or not so quietly, I don’t want to go back to the office. I don’t want to go back to the way we did things in the past. Many people are citing the fact that they are more productive working at home. Others are talking about the additional work time they gained by not having to spend hours commuting.  Others appreciated the option to complete assignments outside the “traditional” hours or to squeeze a domestic task in between Zoom calls – the equivalent of a coffee break back in the office.

Assuming the clock may not revert totally back to the way it was, how do we integrate or accommodate the old “office” ways with the new “remote” way of work? It is going to require leaders to employ a new set of skills or refine an existing set. How do you conduct a meeting where half the people are in the room and half are connected remotely? How do you supervise remotely? How do you monitor? How do you collaborate? As I think about these new ways of operating a business, I think about learning agility and specifically the Burke Learning Agility Inventory®. Knowing what your capabilities are in unknown and ambiguous situations (the Burke definition of learning agility) would be an important asset in a pandemic. Being able to determine that this is a situation requiring Flexibility, Interpersonal Risk-Taking or Experimenting would be reassuring. Then to be able to look at the behaviors underneath each of the Burke’s 9 dimensions could possibly be a recipe for a way forward. While being familiar with the 38 behaviors associated with the 9 dimensions doesn’t give leaders and employees “the” solution of what to do, it does provide you with a domain and a hint of where to focus.

Let’s use an example. Early in the pandemic, hospitals had a critical need for ventilators and there was an insufficient supply. The  federal government was soliciting bids and got no responses. They ended up facilitating an introduction between General Motors that had an idle manufacturing facility and Ventec who was a small but capable ventilator company. The two companies established a joint venture and were successfully producing quality products that they could scale in less than 30 days. In Burke Learning Agility language, the two companies Collaborated. They quickly (Speed) established this joint venture and were producing product in 30 days. Both companies had demonstrated Flexibility by being open to the possibilities of this joint venture. They had to gather information to operationalize the joint venture. This required Performance Risk-Taking by both companies agreeing to this ambiguous task. Ventec was a little company who knew how to make ventilators. GM was a car company. They were not accustomed to making big decisions quickly especially in an area where they lacked expertise.

There are all kinds of exciting stories of companies that moved out of their comfort zone and successfully did things in new and different ways. The hope is that we institutionalize those learnings and not discount them.

The names of the nine Burke Learning Agility Inventory dimensions are: 1) Flexibility; 2) Speed; 3) Performance Risk-Taking; 4) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 5) Experimenting; 6) Feedback Seeking; 7) Information Gathering; 8) Collaborating; 9) Reflecting.

About the Author

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.