The Hybrid Workforce Requires this Skill - Do you have it?

August 14, 2021
July 6, 2021

I think I hit a nerve. My recent blog article on the post-pandemic workforce prompted many of you to respond with questions. In those questions, I heard some resistance to hybrid work. After all, we’re talking about big changes to the way we’ve been working for a very long time.

If you’ve been feeling that resistance yourself, I want to encourage you to think about things differently. That’s because the best predictor of whether you succeed in this post-pandemic, hybrid work environment is your desire to do so. Embracing change will open you, mentally, for alternative possibilities, what is often referred to in psychology as cognitive flexibility.

What Is Cognitive Flexibility?

In my presentations, I often comment that modern humans’ survival on the planet for more than 200,000 years — in different environments, topographies, weather events, etc. — is largely attributable to one thing: our adaptability as a species. We are biologically wired to adapt. The question then becomes this: Do we adapt because we have to (kicking, screaming and complaining along the way, because we see the world as a threatening place) or because we want to (because we see the world as a playground or a place for experimentation).

Any intentional change in the history of humans has begun with a thought. Thoughts (whether we are aware of them or not) precede action. Cognitive flexibility allows us to consider different concepts and reach our goals in an ever-changing environment. It allows us to quickly see when what we are doing (such as staying with an old business model) will not lead us to success.

The Cost of Cognitive Rigidity

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen plenty of examples of the importance of cognitive flexibility. In my field, the professional speaking industry, some speakers pivoted quickly to doing virtual presentations (showing cognitive flexibility), while others decided to “wait it out” until they could conduct business as usual (showing cognitive rigidity). I don’t have to tell you which speakers fared better.

But the importance of cognitive flexibility isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 1975, an engineer at Kodak invented the digital camera. But the company buried it because they decided to focus on their high-margin product – film – even as the market for film eventually shrank precipitously because of the digital camera. On the other hand, Fuji Film – a direct competitor of Kodak – moved quickly into digital photography and has since become a multinational conglomerate in photography, optics, office and medical electronics, biotechnology and chemicals.

Which company do you want yours to resemble?

The Future is Flexible

Just as cognitive flexibility strongly predicted how both individuals and companies coped with pandemic restrictions, it will also predict a leader’s or an organization’s ability to adapt to the hybrid workforce.

As I laid out in my last article, it’s clear why the future of work is hybrid: In a hyper-competitive business landscape and a global war for talent, organizations must understand what increases employee performance, engagement, recruitment and retention. And we have the research showing both that hybrid work improves performance and that employees want and expect more autonomy in how they do their work.

So how can we exercise cognitive flexibility to move strategically and intentionally in this new direction? I offer you the following 2X2, adapted from work done by Lynda Gratton, a professor at London Business School.

The X-axis represents Time, from Constrained to Autonomous. The Y-axis represents Location, from Constrained to Autonomous.

Location has gotten most of the attention during the pandemic as so many employees moved from constrained (at work or in an office) to autonomous (working from home or anywhere).

Time is the axis that fewer seem to be aware of or appreciate fully. Along with the location shift also came a shift in the time axis from constrained (working synchronously with others) to autonomous (working asynchronously whenever people choose).

Before Covid-19 most companies offered little autonomy over both dimensions (lower-left quadrant): Employees worked at the office for prescribed hours. Some experimented by giving employees more flexible hours, moving them into the lower-right quadrant. Others experimented by offering employees more flexibility in where they worked – most often from home – moving them into the upper-left quadrant. Very few went directly into the upper-right quadrant – which represents the hybrid work environment. These, however, are the very businesses that will be leading out of the pandemic and securing their future success — thanks to cultures that can increase productivity, employee satisfaction and talent acquisition.

As I continue this series of articles about succeeding in the hybrid workforce, I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note. In my next article, we will discuss collaboration in a hybrid work environment.

Until then, let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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