By: Steve Simmance
As lockdown from the dreaded COVID-19 begins to ease across the globe, we are left wondering what the future of work and life will look like.
Let us be clear about one thing; this pandemic will leave its indelible mark on the workplace, and the occupational habits of a century will never be the same, for reasons both good and bad.
In April 2017, I published an article on the much-debated, polarising and downright taboo subject of homeworking. It received much attention, and particularly negative criticism from several employers who perceived the subject as divisive, believing that it would fuel a controversial issue between employer and employee.
At the time, I was simply stating the facts as I had experienced them in my unique role as the ‘middleman’ between employer and employee; the workforce wants to be trusted and made to feel responsible, yet the organisation demands a ‘seeing is believing’ philosophy. This disparity of opinion was arguably muted by HR teams who should have actively considered the notion as an evolution of working practices, but in reality, may have realised the enormity of trading one working environment for hundreds.
Fast forward three years - Britain has suffered +40,000 reported deaths, daily life is unrecognisable and lockdown has stunned the country - seismically shifting our ‘work from home’ beliefs and suspicions. But guess what? On the whole, it’s worked pretty damn well! Wide-ranging, short-term measures and of course massive advances in technology, have enabled the working masses to adapt very quickly. Moreover, for many the benefits have been overwhelming. Everyone I speak to talks with great cheer about the meteoric rise in individual and team productivity, direct and focussed communication, mutual trust, resilience and flexibility in dealing with the change, to name but a few.
The question on top of our minds remains - what will become of the recent changes in working methods when the pandemic is behind us, and we return to ‘normality’?
During the past weeks, I have canvassed the opinions and views from many business leaders and the workforce at large. The consistent theme is that whilst knowing life at work will be permanently transformed, no one is crystal clear how, but everyone is preparing for ‘something’.
Official policies and mandates increasingly reveal that working from home is now, and for the foreseeable future, the acceptable norm. These permanent changes will undoubtedly come with a price and prizes to both sides.
The two most dramatic enhancers to our lives have been the winning back of time and productivity. No more wasting futile hours commuting (dead time), only to get to your place of work stressed and then be terrorised by timewasters hovering for an idle chat, inadvertently interrupting, or worse delegating their work to you. No more time wasted in endless meetings listening to domineering personalities, unknowingly reducing everyone’s productivity levels. Time is now carefully scheduled and respected, with tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype enabling us to stay connected from the comfort of our own homes.
More profoundly, some people feel relieved from the unseen yet real intimidation by their bosses or even colleagues in the same room. Another significant benefit is that ‘the loafers’ in the team have been smoked out, no longer able to let others take the strain. Known as the Ringlemann effect, individual members of a group become increasingly less productive as the size of the group increases. Ringelmann (1913) found that having group members work together on a task (e.g. pulling a rope), actually resulted in significantly less effort than when individual members acted alone. Ringelmann discovered that as more and more people are added to a group, the group often becomes increasingly inefficient, ultimately violating the notion that group effort and team participation leads to increased output.
Inevitably there will be downsides and negative behaviours too. Prejudices amongst functions may rise. Sales and Marketing colleagues with less capital equipment required to do their job will have less need to be in the office. By contrast, Finance, Logistics, and Operations functions do need workplace tools to perform at optimal levels.
Surely the adjustments to working environments will trigger a need to introduce a ‘work allowance’ of sorts, similar to the now almost obsolete London weighting. During the 60s and 70s, many employers paid this allowance, compensating the workforce for the expense and challenge of living and working in London. Reward teams may now need to consider a new financial benefit for those having to journey into work versus those working from home as well as being mindful of retention factors to remain Employers of Choice.
Furthermore, organisations will need to change employee contracts to accommodate new conditions of employment as the office or home-based rules will be affected. Those using home offices will expect allowances. HMRC will have to adapt tax policies for the inclusion of such allowances.
Without exception, every view shared with me by business leaders talked about the growing importance of mental health and wellbeing. Without empirical evidence (yet) to suggest home working is harmful, there is some doubt that it is entirely good for people.
As human beings, we are genetically designed to socialise. We thrive in interactive states and prolonged periods of isolation and working alone are unnatural. The effects are not to be underestimated.
In turn, however, now that we are so acutely aware of hygiene standards and the contagion of a virus, the fear of being set free from lockdown may incite a permanent state of obsessive self-protection in some, making a return to the workplace a rather frightening prospect. These mental states are polar opposites, and employers have no choice but to address them both.
Similarly, the costs of safeguarding employee health will have to be considered – from PPE and social distance guidelines at work to regular mental health check-ins and personal coaching to help people adapt to new routines. Both employer and employee will need to contribute to the on-cost of workplace changes; but is it reasonable for an employee to be expected to invest in their own work tools, and accept the loss of spare bedrooms, as the home office takes a permanent space?
And what about the synchronisation of British working ways with our European colleagues and counterparts? We were late to adopt working practice restrictions. The Spanish and French were already way ahead, conditioning the working environment to be at home with early severe lockdown measures. Both government health ministries then decisively detailed return to work plans in April, to provide employers with clear guidelines for an expedient and safe return of their workforce back to offices and factories. The Swedish were the last to react, leaving businesses to act as they considered appropriate. This wide range of international variations, be they policies or protocols, will make it challenging for our multi-culture trading to return to some degree of normality in the immediate future.
Finally, reflecting as a recruiter, I believe trust has never been more valued by the employer. Criteria for selection will demand a candidate proves their ability to be trusted. Interview and questioning techniques will test and predict the strength of this attribute in future talent selection processes. Trust will need to be rigorously measured as a KPI when ‘not seeing is the new believing’.