Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

Throughout 2020, many people asked, “When will we all go back to work as usual?” Many of us realize by now, however, that the answer is, “Never.”

As we enter 2021, we are also entering a critical fourth stage of workplace adaptation to the new remote reality in which, for a great many, the workplace is no longer a place.

2020: Adjusting to Remote Work

Stage 1 involved our adjustment to the new reality. What most people assumed would be a colossal problem — connecting people technologically so we could still do our work — turned out not to be easier than we thought. More jobs have turned out to lend themselves well to remote work than even the most optimistic projections before the pandemic.

Stage 2 was normalizing this remote environment and realizing it might be much better than we ever would have dreamed. Is it possible that it barely matters where we work and where we learn? Maybe remote is just fine.

In fact, while some have struggled to adapt, many have embraced the convenience, flexibility and comfort of working from home (not to mention commuting time saved). Most organizations have radically upgraded their systems and practices around remote work and communication. Many managers have actually improved when it comes to setting expectations and tracking performance, because they’ve been deprived of the lazy manager’s crutch of place and time (“Is there a body in a chair during certain hours?”). Even as many organizations have taken huge financial hits, most are finding that employee productivity, quality and even morale increased in the second and third quarters of 2019.

In stage 3, many people decided we were overcommunicating, and we discovered something called “Zoom fatigue.” Of course, Zoom fatigue is largely a remote-work version of what was, pre-pandemic, already widespread: meeting fatigue. But at least all those meetings brought us together, in person, and working in physical proximity has a lot of benefits (even if many are not the ones we might have thought of before this remote revolution). The benefit of working in the same place, at the same time, is not, as it turns out, so we can see whose car is in the parking lot and who is at his or her desk, working. That part turns out to be nearly irrelevant. What is missing, without proximity, is human kinetics.

When we lose our daily rhythms of working in the same place, at the same time, with others, we miss the things that our technology can’t offer but that we humans value — like rapport, familiarity, enjoyment, trust, creativity and innovation.

Human beings are wired to be together, ever since we were hunting wildebeests together in small collaborative teams. Even on Zoom, there is a lot of visual and auditory data missing. We lose so much sensory data in what I call the “proximity gap,” including two important benefits: spontaneous interaction and serendipitous creativity (“bouncing around” observations and ideas).

Even harder to measure and mitigate is the cost of losing some of that intangible but powerful symbiotic human energy. It can be easy for some to feel alone and isolated, especially when pulling through difficult challenges, without colleagues there to cheer them on. How much infectious enthusiasm (of whoever is most motivated that day) is missing? How much competitive extra effort is lost when people are not looking over their shoulder at someone working harder than they are?

If we ignore these costs of the proximity gap, they could cascade in devastating ways that could undermine and even outweigh all the benefits of remote work.

2021: The Fourth Stage

This year, we are entering stage 4. For the most part, we have identified all the work that cannot happen remotely; the rest of us will never “go back to work” as we were before this transformation. Why would we? The benefits of remote work are too great. Plus, business leaders are realizing that the huge costs of commercial real estate (and everything that goes with it) — not to mention business travel (money and time) — are opportunities for monumental savings going forward.

Virtual work also conceivably gives companies more control over workers, not less. And, because remote work has so many benefits for employees — freeing them from commuting time and providing extra convenience, flexibility and comfort — many employers are squeezing more and more from every individual, seeking to leverage as much extra time and energy as they can. That equation is why productivity and quality have, mostly, increased.

Going forward, a huge portion of the workforce will go to work in a particular place and time only for specific reasons. Otherwise, we will work and manage (and train) remotely.

The question is, just how good at remote work will you be? Too many organizations, teams and individuals have been defaulting to their old habits of unstructured communication: touching base, interrupting each other all day, monitoring email traffic, and still-regularly-scheduled team huddles … punctuated by realizing that real problems were hiding below the radar and getting out of control. In response, they jump into firefighting mode, have an intense level of interaction and then quickly default again to relatively unstructured communication … until the next fire.

The people, teams and organizations that continue in default mode have almost no chance of maintaining higher productivity, quality and morale over time. Instead, they must:

    • Break the fixation with measuring work in terms of place and time and, instead, focus on results — which means guiding, directing, supporting and coaching on planning and execution, with concrete actions and outcomes.
    • Commit to a new regime of (mostly remote) high-structure, high-substance communication.
    • Figure out how to do those things and, at the same time, develop and implement strategies to bridge the proximity gap.

As someone who has collected and analyzed data from the front lines of the workplace over the last 27 years, I’ve tried to use 2020 as a lens through which to see the future. No one can say with any certainty how much the employer-employee relationship will be transformed in the long term. It is certain that the issues of place and proximity rushed years of change in months, and so have other, long-evolving trends — notably the transition from pay-your-dues, climb-the-ladder, long-term hierarchical employment to short-term transactional employment (the so called gig workforce staffed by freelancers and consultants).

Yet even as this pandemic — this great accident of history — is changing so much, so quickly, some things will never change. Work will always need to be completed, and organizations of any size will need people to do that work. Managers will need to staff the work, manage staff performance and support staff development. And every organization has a culture, either by design or by default.

New Rules for the New Normal

With those unchanging elements of the workplace in mind, here are four new rules for organizations navigating the “new normal” this year:

1. Staff the Work, Not the Job

Keep shrinking your core group, and keep building your fluid talent pool of contractors.

2. Train for Every Mission, but Require Employees to Own More of Their Own Development

Never assign a task without first providing the necessary information, techniques and job aids (the technical training). But the best way to support broad, transferable skill development (soft skills) is by giving people more discretion and responsibility for their own self-directed learning.

3. Pay for Performance — and Nothing Else

As fewer and fewer employment relationships are long-term and exclusive, tie rewards as much as possible directly to clear performance metrics (concrete actions and outcomes) for productivity and quality, effort, and creativity.

4. Design and Craft Your Culture Around Mission

The strongest cultures are not just ones where colleagues socialize together. Rather, they are the organizations with the strongest protocols for communicating with and supporting each other — for cooperating, coordinating and collaborating.

Don’t miss Bruce’s keynote at the virtual Training Industry Conference & Expo!