Structure. As a relatively organized human that thrives on predictability, structure is something to which I am deeply attached—and it’s not something that’s been abundant the last 16 months.
As I taught an Influencer course in January 2021, my class and I discussed the structural lens of Influence: what it looks like and sounds like, and how our tools, systems, and physical worlds impact our success. As we talked, we began to explore the adaptations organizations have had to recently make—especially those involving physical structure and space.
The more we talked, the more curious I got. I later reached out to some of our trainers and influencers to talk with them about adaptation and the sixth source of Influence, Structural Ability. One of our inspiring influencers, Richard Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc., shared his experience at Menlo Innovations, where he serves as CEO. Menlo is a software company focused on bringing joy to technology with a people-centric process and culture.
Here are a few things I learned from Rich on how the post-pandemic world challenges our traditional thinking of structural ability and what we can do about it.
Shift Your Thinking
According to research from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at University of Chicago, “20 percent of all full workdays will be supplied from home after the pandemic ends, compared with just 5 percent before.” While none of us can know exactly what’s next, statistics like this suggest that our work structure isn’t likely to return to what it was.
Many months ago, we adapted in order to continue functioning in our jobs. And many of us did so with the idea that we’d return to working like we did before the pandemic. But the statistic above suggests this is not a temporary change. Many of us need to shift our thinking long-term. We need to challenge some of our deeply embedded beliefs about virtual work.
If you had visited Menlo Innovations pre-pandemic, you would have seen, experienced, and felt the attention to detail that had gone into creating a physical environment to “work best for the humans,” as Rich Sheridan puts it. How could an organization so reliant on the physical environment not only adapt to working from home but also function at a high level? They moved from sharing physical spaces to sharing virtual ones.
Menlo values project visibility and collaboration. So, they’ve continued their 13-minute stand-up meetings as virtual meetings with the same format—moving from one pair of work partners to the next—so that everyone can share updates in an organized, efficient way. They use the Zoom login order to determine who shares next, and it’s almost like the team is in the same room together. To give another example, their High-Tech Anthropologists® have switched from doing office visits with clients to doing video tours with cameras and screen-sharing. This shift has allowed them to create a virtual workspace that keeps them connected with their clients.
Distance Physically, not Socially
One thing that threatens organizational culture today is what has been called virtual burnout or virtual fatigue. Menlo leadership explains that virtual burnout is not a byproduct of virtual work, but of isolation. In order to ensure people stay connected and don’t experience isolation and burnout, Menlo employees work in pairs and use the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” This encourages accountability and personal connection. People get work done together, and they can use the virtual environment in their favor—to get some fresh air, take a coffee break, or snuggle with a furry friend before hopping onto the next task.
Distance also impacts the way that Menlo works with clients. Menlo has always done “show-and-tells,” where clients test a product or solution and the Menlo team follows along, evaluating the user experience. Before the pandemic, this was done both in person and via screensharing, but now it’s done entirely remotely. Even so, Menlo has continued to make this an interactive experience for clients that strengthens connection with their team.
Change the Environment
Our environment has changed and yet, in many cases, our thoughts about it haven’t. In our Influencer course, we use the phrase “Change Their Space” to highlight the fact that you can influence better behavior by removing structural barriers. In this new virtual workspace, instead of wondering “How can we make do?” ask yourself, “What bad behaviors have we acquired over the last year?” and “How can we make these bad behaviors harder and good behaviors easier?” Answers may involve finding new tools or reorganizing workflow.
At Menlo they switched from using a physical work board at the office to using an accessible online project management system that shows project status and what people are working on. This visibility helps people focus on the most important tasks instead of falling prey to multitasking.
You can target structural ability by evaluating collaboration tools, improving access to important tools or resources, or implementing cues to prompt behaviors. Menlo has done this many times over. For example, they’ve switched from using physical index cards to map out projects to using software that offers a similar user experience.
In the face of the pandemic, it would have been easy for Menlo to have done away with work partners, show-and-tells, and 13-minute stand-up meetings. But then they wouldn’t be Menlo—a company whose processes, culture, and work ethic all aim toward a single goal: joy. By focusing on how to use technology to work better for the humans, Menlo has adapted in a way that continues to showcase their incredible attention to structural detail.
As you begin to look at your environment, consider what you can do to take your teams, organizations, and communities from a place of functioning to a place of flourishing. Our changing world has challenged our traditional approaches. As we shift our thinking and respond to changing environments, we may achieve more than our traditional ways ever allowed.