It feels like the world is trying to “get back” to the office. At SEI, we have begun our journey. For us, it is more than just coming back. It’s about taking this opportunity (and it is an opportunity) to rethink work and build brave futuresSM.

Last year, a strategic theme for one of our business units was “rethinking what we think.” We put an inclusive and collaborative exercise against it, which centered around Adam Grant’s book, “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” We read it as a team and then shared ideas about what we believed needed to be challenged and what required rethinking. Based on this exercise, we came up with a number of employee-led projects, including one centered on rethinking the future of work.  

A willing (and exciting) journey into the unknown

We called this the “Employee Experience Project,” and a self-formed team of volunteers came together to get to work. The first thing they did was create a mission and associated goals.

Mission 
Enhance our employees’ experience by expanding our long-standing team culture of responsive connectivity, living our values, and creating meaningful interactions that attract talent, drive retention, and instill a sense of pride and community throughout our team.

Our goals

  1. Short term: Prepare us for coming back. 
  2. Long term: Use this time to redesign work and enhance our enviable culture.  

As we begin our journey, I thought I would share what we are learning:

  • No one knows what the future of work should be, so we are not pretending that we do. We are openly stating we’re at the beginning of a series of experiments and are interested in learning and growing together.  
  • We are designing the future of work based on the understanding that employees are looking for a different relationship with work—one that is more flexible and integrated into their lives. 
  • We have used a number of design-thinking tools to help us think through space planning, initial policy changes, etc. One tool that has been most effective is “empathy research and employee listening tours.” There has never been a more critical time to stop and gather the voice of your employees.
  • The words remote and hybrid need definition. Without it, there is an unnecessary level of angst and confusion that has direct impact on the employees’ day-to-day experience. We built our definition based on how the work we need to do is impacted by location. The greater the need for interaction and cross-company collaboration, the more the role is hybrid, but even within hybrid, we will provide flexibility, placing our trust in our employees to do the right thing.
  • The right thing will center on “outcomes,” not “activities.” Once again, definitions will be key.  We need to define client and employee outcomes, and this will require more rethinking. Clearly communicating these outcomes will help guide our understanding of what impact our changes have and how we are all accountable to deliver. 
  • The purpose of the office and space. For us, it is to connect and build relationships; it’s not about individual activity. So, our space design is more open, fewer desks, more gathering spaces. We are experimenting with hoteling and encouraging our teammates to be much more interactive on the days they come into the office. There are no assigned desks or team areas—let your purpose for being there drive your setup, and that could change day to day and week to week.   
  • We have more questions than answers.  
    • What does “visibility” really mean in a digital world? How do you build remote-first thinking, which allows for career progression regardless of location?
    • What training do we need? Are there best practices for leading and managing remotely?  Do we need a Center of Excellence as we go through this together?
    • What did employees really miss while working remotely the last two years? Was it inclusion, belonging, relationships? How do you structure space and the future of work to facilitate what they missed and what they value?

Be open to constant learning and evolution

Understanding what your employees value and what your customers need are two key factors. A concept called the “service-profit value chain” establishes relationships between profitability, customer loyalty, and employee satisfaction. In basic terms, it means happy employees lead to loyal and happy customers, who build long-standing relationships with you, which ultimately leads to more profit. Our project is focused on the first part of that equation—employees. (Side note: We also have a project focused entirely on the customer experience, and I will share more on that in a future blog post). But the game has changed for all of us as individuals in a post-pandemic world. What we need and want from employers is more about personal values than ever before—work and life will never again be mutually exclusive, and they shouldn’t have to be. There was a great article from McKinsey this past September called “This time it’s personal: Shaping the new possible through employee experience.” In that article, there is a quote that has become a mini-mantra for us:

“In an era of workplace upheaval, companies that create tailored, authentic experiences strengthen employee purpose, ignite energy, and elevate organization-wide performance.”

To me, one thing is crystal clear, this is the beginning, and it will take years to redesign the nature of work. We are at an inflection point around the definition of work, and the last major change to the definition of work was at the advent of the industrial revolution. So, as leaders, what will we do at this inflection point? I wholeheartedly believe the most progressive leaders will make this redesign a strategic priority, and others will just make it a “to do.” I’m not minimizing how challenging this is, but none of us can escape it. If you are wondering if you are up for the task, here is a quick self-assessment you can do. When you think about figuring out the future of work for your business, do you think of it as something you get to do or as something you have to do? I believe those that get excited and make rethinking work a priority will undoubtedly create a competitive advantage in the war for talent.

Despite the bumps, we are committed to the ride

It won’t be easy, and we won’t get it all right. We will get many things wrong along the way, but the trust we are building with our team will help us navigate the right path forward for all. This entire employee-experience exercise reminds me of two critical characteristics of leadership: questioning and listening. As Grant reminds us in his book, there is a beauty in appreciating that we do not know. I look forward to figuring this new world of work out with my team over the coming years. As you embark on this journey, I would love to learn from you as well. What have you been learning from your efforts with your team, your company, and your family?

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