Returning to the re-imagined workplace

Business woman in empty modern officeThe French have the term ‘la rentrée’ which is a celebration of people returning to their normal lives after the summer hiatus.

Across the world, organisations are contemplating a different re-entry after more profound separation. However, few leaders that I speak to see the return to the physical workplace as a return to their previous business-as-usual.  Even those fortunate to retain their pre-COVID workforce are saying ‘It won’t be the same.’

When pressed, leaders often can’t articulate what they are hoping for.  There is some amazement in seeing long-held assumptions of the way work is done melting away under the external shock of COVID-19. They are surprised at seeing a workforce adapt quickly to being distributed, moving where the emerging need is greatest, and being agile and capable of solving problems never seen before. As management theorist Rosabeth Moss Kanter would say, they are seeing the giant learn to dance.

Others have observed that COVID-19 has only accelerated these workforce trends of distributed, adaptable and agile.  Here are some observations about what leaders need to consider for each element of the ‘now normal’ workforce to pay dividends.

Distributed workforce.
Most organisations are grappling with at least part of their workforce being remote for the foreseeable future. For some, particularly technology firms, remote working will be their strategic choice permanently.  While many processes need to adapt, the largest shift needs to be the mindset of the leader. As Matt Mullenweg, CEO of WordPress has said, many leaders’ ideas about work, even for knowledge workers, still come from the industrial era where the factory requires the employee’s physical presence. He proposes five levels of autonomy of distributed work: this provides a useful guide for leaders to make a conscious choice that meets the needs of their own business and workforce.

Adaptable and mobile.
The ability to move willing and skilled staff to where the need is greatest is standard in some organisations, but has been nearly impossible in others. The 2019 Australian Public Service Review for example noted that the lack of staff mobility is a significant issue for the public service. However, COVID-19 has pushed over barriers to mobility, at least in the short-term. Several state governments have introduced industrial arrangements allowing a dynamic response by the public sector in order to fill surge workforce needs. In order to ensure this necessary mobility outlasts the pandemic, the challenge is not just industrial but culture and capability. Leaders need to be skilled in managing dynamic team routines, using techniques of team coaching enabled by human resource processes and technology.


There’s nothing like a crisis to ignite innovation. Scientists have shortened their development times for clinical trials by orders of magnitude. Similarly, there have been amazing stories of businesses pivoting their whole operation in days rather than months or years. While we would all want this metabolic rate to continue, this kind of organisational adrenalin is probably only sustainable in a crisis. However, we have seen what’s possible, and so are not likely to accept the sclerosis of business as usual. We can maintain the urgency by rewarding innovation as much as regular operations.

So as we poise for re-entry, we need to start as we mean to continue with practices that support the ‘now normal’ of distributed, adaptable and agile and rewarding those who realise this also. More disruption may be ahead. Are you ready?



Kanter, R. M. (1989). When giants learn to dance. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Mullenweg, M. (2020) Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy. Retrieved from:

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (2019).Our public service: Our future. Independent review of the public sector.  Commonwealth of Australia.


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Dr Kate Joyner is a Corporate Educator in the Graduate School of Business and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership and strategy for QUTeX. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century. She also has particular expertise and academic interest in smart collaboration between organisations and institutions. Kate writes about cooperative ideas, models and practice for an abundant and fair future. As a skilled facilitator, she works with organisations and their partners to deliver productive collaborations.

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