On the Job: Seeking COVID-19 silver-linings

On the Job insights take a deep dive into current workplace trends. We’ve been talking to senior leaders about their views on how coronavirus could change working life. 

In early 2020, the world was blindsided by COVID-19. Overnight, a microscopic invader closed our workplaces, creating giant experiments in remote working. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s difficult to look forward with hope. But, crises create change and humans are brilliant innovators.

So, having put the DeLorean into gear and taken a collective Marty McFly leap to the future – where have we landed? Some say we made a decade’s worth of progress, in weeks. For workers, commutes vanished, tech was embraced, some people had more time and teams connected in unexpected ways.

The question is, what has really improved working life; which pandemic silver-linings are for keeps? In conversation with leaders from different sectors, we’ve explored some of their personal hopes for the future of work.

This is what they told us …

  1. Our idea of a ‘perfect employee’ needs a 21st century re-boot

For managers, COVID-19 opened an unexpected window into the home life of their staff. The busy reality of life beyond work was gloriously revealed – often part-way through a Zoom call! As one employer reflects:

“All my staff have different demands at home, including children off school. I have been clear that they can work the hours that they want. This can be at 8pm at night, as long as tasks get done. I really feel my team have worked over and above my expectations, not less.” Roma Sharma, Managing Director of a leading Property Management firm.

In many ways this pushes the point that the idea that a ‘perfect employee’ is devoted to their job 24/7 is unrealistic. It belongs to an era when households only required one breadwinner. Before COVID-19 hit, many employees were already struggling with conflicting demands on their time.

Post-pandemic, will managers be more understanding? Many organisations are already prioritising employee wellbeing and offering flexibility to ease the time pressures of modern life. COVID-19 could turbo-charge this transformation, creating the 21st century perfect employee: trusted, self-motivated and productive, focused on completing tasks not ‘putting in hours’.

Our research hints at the shift in managerial style required:

“Our line management processes were not set out to cover a remote working environment. 

It’s challenging moving to managing by outcomes, rather than being able to ‘see and monitor activities.’ It is a shift that requires more trust.” Lesley Thornley, CEO of highly regarded Charity

  1. Flexible working is here to stay

Our remote working experiment paused the commute, binned unnecessary meetings and took us away from office distractions overnight. Looking forward, will we ever return to the office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week?

Almost every leader agreed remote working will continue to be part of the picture, certainly in the coming months. For most, some level of remote working would be a permanent change.

Where home working was already embedded in workplace culture, leaders report a rapid transition and improved productivity:

“The COVID-19 situation has shown just how successful home working can be and my team have been so productive.” Roma Sharma, Managing Director of a leading Property Management firm.

In other sectors remote working is more challenging. A manufacturer reported that in a team of 30, only two employees can feasibly be more productive away from the workplace. However, he concedes home working will continue to play a role:

“I will move to home working, not because it is more productive, but because people will be very nervous and not want to come back to the office, for fear of the virus.” Duncan Johns, Managing Director of a long-standing global technology provider

  1. We’ll miss the office if it goes

For decades, many of us have worked in offices. Inside these little square boxes of industry, we’ve laughed, gossiped, cried, found friends … and maybe even fallen in love. It seems we aren’t quite ready to bid the office farewell, just yet.

Most leaders felt reluctant to embrace 100% remote working. For some, practical issues, such as holding all-staff meetings were key barriers. All agreed on the intrinsic social value of bringing everyone together – for at least some of the working week. 

Managers reported using WhatsApp for informal, fun discussions with great effect, but this is not seen as a sustainable replacement for human interaction.

“Our staff on the whole seem quite resilient, although most are keen to get back into the office. The sense of team spirit and camaraderie is hard to retain and the longer it goes on, I think the sense of isolation grows.” Lesley Thornley, CEO of highly regarded Charity

  1. It’s been a time of innovation

We encountered some great examples of innovation, including a company which quickly launched a new virtual training product:

“We will definitely continue virtual training. It cannot take over what we do normally, but it could be an extra revenue stream.” Scott Wilson, Head of Marketing, the UK’s largest independent fleet training experts.

Crises force leaders to explore alternative ideas. Having opened up this way of thinking, perhaps post-pandemic workplaces will be more innovative, creative places to be?

After all, those who adapt well are likely to survive and will be better equipped to face the next challenge, once the current storm passes.

  1. We need each other

Despite teams working in isolation, a sense of workplace support, kindness and community has emerged in response to COVID-19.

“We’re highlighting all the free things we can offer. Hopefully, when we all finally get through this, people will remember that we were kind and played our part.” Scott Wilson, Head of Marketing, the UK’s largest independent fleet training experts.

Tech has played a big role here. Managers report using new systems including Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp with great success. For some, the pandemic forced progress that would normally take months or years to implement:

“We shifted to using IT to much better effect, in ways that would have been resisted strongly in normal circumstances. We are now looking at how we build on the learning and retain the progress into the medium and longer term.” Lesley Thornley, CEO of highly regarded Charity

Remote working has required a change in managerial style. Many leaders report checking-in with team members every day and investing in additional support networks.

Could this more connected, caring managerial style create a positive change that becomes a natural part of our future working lives?

Looking to the future

How the future workplace emerges from the shock of COVID-19 is not written in stone. Thankfully, our research has shown there are silver-linings for the taking.

A recent survey of 350 HR leaders in the USA, echoes our findings and highlights a number of predictions for post-pandemic working life. These include increased training and investment in remote working, the rising importance of employee wellbeing and organisations taking an innovative look at services and how they operate.

We sit at a crossroads in history, with the potential to rebuild happier, more productive, cost-effective future workplaces.

Which route will you choose?

We’d like to thank all the leaders who were kind enough to share their thoughts with us.
Further reading on issues surrounding the return to work:

If your organisation is responding to the COVID-19 crisis in a way that’s innovative or unusual, we’d love to hear about your experience, please contact us at: 01462 510 148 or email me at: emma@ellismason.com

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