(Photo by Orbon Alija, iStockphoto by Getty)

As the new world of work moves from crisis mode to the longer haul, where are we in the process? Kausik Rajgopal, managing partner of the West Coast office for McKinsey & Company, breaks down his pandemic work life into two categories: “unsustainable sprint,” followed by a “sustainable marathon.”

In the weeks following the outbreak of COVID-19, his schedule was packed with wall-to-wall meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Realizing it was unsustainable, he started introducing breaks into his day and alternatives to his screen time, like “walk and talk” phone meetings around his neighborhood. “It feels like the mortar between the bricks of a more sustainable marathon than an unsustainable sprint, which was just wall-to-wall brick.

Rajgopal is keeping the values of a marathon in mind while considering new ways we’ll be working in a post-pandemic world, he said in a From Day One webinar last week. In a conversation Bryan Walsh, the future correspondent for Axios, Rajgopal laid out the need and opportunities to rethink the basic elements of how and where people do their work, as well as ways to maintain healthy workplaces in an increasingly digital world.

“The crisis has forced many organizations, ourselves included, to challenge our thinking and orthodoxies to ask what work needs to be performed in person, can we engage customers and clients without traveling, and what technologies do we need in place to create more efficient working models?” Rajgopal said. “In many ways these past few months have been a vast economic experiment.”

Imaging the future of work: moderator Bryan Walsh of Axios, left, and Kausik Rajgopal, a managing partner at McKinsey & Company

Pre-pandemic, Rajgopal believed it was technologically feasible to shift to predominantly remote work spaces, but he was less sure if it would be productive, successful and sustainable for employees. In the past few months, he has found, many companies and institutions established workable remote models while maintaining employee productivity.

To continue on this “sustainable marathon,” Rajgopal sees a new kind of workplace emerging, in which companies identify where remote work can be the default mode and where a “hybrid mode” is necessary with some people coming into the physical workspace. “The workplace will not be the same again,” he said.

He laid out challenges ahead. There’s risk of two workplace cultures emerging if some employees stay remote while others do not. The predominance of digital meetings means that employees lose those important few minutes after a meeting to brainstorm or touch base about what was said. In remote work there’s also a lack of “slack time,” as Rajgopal called it, when employees can clear their minds of detail–or think about bigger ideas. And big questions loom: how do you navigate the best ways to onboard new employees into a remote workplace, or manage a company merger?

There are already best practices emerging for the virtual world. As far as management, “the quality we have seen that makes managers stand out is empathy,” Rajgopal said. “We have found that remote working models affect different segments of people differently.” That’s why it’s important for a manager “to be thoughtful and think about each member of the team as an individual,” he said, “and figure out what may be most helpful that they stay motivated and operate in a sustainable way.”

Pulse surveys, as opposed to the long-form annual questionnaires, can be an effective way to measure how employees are doing at a given moment. McKinsey runs a weekly pulse survey (which employees answer anonymously) that helps leadership identify “hot spots” where employees feel particularly stressed. Such surveys should be a tool for managers to follow up with employees, keeping empathy in mind, Rajgopal suggested.

To discourage disparate workplace cultures within one organization, it’s crucial that employees are aligned with the company and its goals. “It’s important to be vigilant and transparent as possible, to make sure leaders are being inclusive and we don’t backslide from that,” Rajgopal said.

Diversity and inclusion should remain front of mind, especially as the structure of work is being rebuilt. One advantage of remote work for both employers and workers, Rajgopal pointed out, is that location matters less, giving companies the opportunity to recruit more diverse workforces from around the country. “We’re seeing lots of examples of companies who want to do a much better job of recruiting more diverse colleagues, and want to go to different places to find talent,” he said.

Diversity and inclusion efforts that were working pre-pandemic should be adapted for the remote workplace. For example, McKinsey continued a summer internship program that brought a diverse cohort of hundreds of young workers to the company. To adapt the internship, McKinsey leaders paid more attention to onboarding and integrating the new employees. “It included surrounding these colleagues with deliberate support: a buddy system, sponsors who are checking in with them a bit more frequently,” Rajgopal said.

The internship also offered lessons on how to welcome new employees to a remote workforce, whether that be onboarding or a company merger. Leadership should work closely with HR on what the onboarding process looks like–the “moments of truth,” as Rajgopal put it, when indelible first impressions are made. “What does it look and feel like when you meet your supervisor for the first time? What about an interaction with an assigned mentor or sponsor? I think there will be guidelines and best practices that emerge.”

The lessons of these past few months will be crucial in determining what that “sustainable marathon” will look and feel like in the extended era of COVID-19. Rajgopal believes there’s opportunity for innovation, too, like new tools to capture takeaways from employees following a team meeting, like short videos of each person’s point of view.

“We are creatures of habit and comfort,” Rajgopal noted, and people do some of their best work when they’re comfortable. That said, we also adapt quickly, which ensured a fairly successful transition to remote working in a short amount of time. “If we step back, in the context of the terrible time of the pandemic,” he said. “I do think it’s worth pausing and celebrating what a lot of institutions and employees have accomplished.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our knowledge partner for this webinar: McKinsey & Company. Thank you as well to everyone who attended this webinar live. If you missed it, feel free to check out our replay here and visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.