- Return to workplace scenarios following COVID are loaded with challenges.
- Staff have new expectations, experiences and capabilities after being forced to work from home over the past 12 months
- A leader would benefit from taking a considered approach to getting staff back to the office, and use the opportunity to redefine the way work is performed.
- Opportunities also exist to build culture, enhance relationships and deepen staff commitment by doing it right.
In Australia, we have done an outstanding job of suppressing the Coronavirus, allowing us to contemplate shifting to a post-pandemic footing. One of the big questions that is challenging businesses and business leaders is that of getting the staff back to the office after mandatory work-from-home scenarios. What should a leader consider as they make this assessment for their business? Should back to the office be simply a return to the past, or should something more valuable evolve?
When COVID struck, businesses were forced to shift to a working from home model – at times, people were only allowed out of their houses for an hour a day, and could travel no more than 5 kms from their homes. This was a massive pivot – people overwhelmed office supply stores attempting to get their technology set up, companies had to explore their digital management capability (including security) and organisations were forced into a new way of working with little or no preparation.
Now the thoughts turn to post-COVID arrangements, and there are many considerations that will have to be explored before the right structure and process for an individual organisation will be found. And here is the first critical point – the post-COVID arrangements will be individual and varied across industries. There will be no ‘one size fits all’ best arrangement.
Consider the impact of sending everyone home to work – people have new experiences, new expectations and new capabilities. On the other hand, some fundamentals about humans at work have not changed at all.
There are two sets of ‘expectations’ in play – the expectations of the business (workers will return as and when we tell them), and the expectations of the staff (we have worked from home successfully, we can continue to do so!). The key to finding the path between these two sets of expectations is to test the assumptions – why do these expectations exist? Will they continue to hold true? Is fear and habit driving decision making rather than logic?
Experiences (and learning)
Whilst working from home, people experienced and learned a lot about themselves and their work. For some people, they learned how inefficient it is to drive to the office in 2 hours of traffic. For others, it was the lesson that they could pick their kids up from school or drop them off without impacting their productivity.
New habits and agreements were formed in the aim of being flexible during the lockdown that have a big cross-over into personal lifestyles and family function. One executive I worked with was told by a key staff member they could not attend a client meeting because they had school pickup to do. Just because this was possible during lockdown, should it be an expectation of the staff member that it would continue now? What should the staff member prioritise? It seems that what was ‘overlooked’ or tolerated during lockdown had now become ‘standard’ behaviour that – without thought – should simply continue.
One thing that became apparent during the transition out of COVID footing was the degree of emerging anxiety and fear. Not only were people finding anxiety and fear about going back to work and what may happen, but people were finding deeper anxieties that they had managed for so many years in the workplace. When they were able to work from home, they noticed a different way of ‘feeling’ about their work. Often people who describe themselves as ‘introverts’ discovered that working from home was far less stressful and anxiety-inducing. Asking these people to come back to the office puts a real burden on them to cope with the higher stress and higher anxiety environment. They therefore would be more than happy to not come into the office again.
Staff have developed new ways of working, organising and structuring. Simply forcing them back into the old paradigm misses the opportunity to see how these new competencies can be leveraged to increase the contribution of team members. What was an enforced change can lead to significant skill development and cultural change as people worked hard just to keep up.
Why bring people back together at all?
If the COVID period demonstrated that people could comfortably work from home, why should people be ‘forced’ to come back to the office?
The key reason is not because the ‘boss’ says so, but rather:
- The importance of being together
- Collaboration and problem solving (informal)
- Care and mental health
There is a human need for socialisation that does not happen over online meetings. The ability to simply be social with others is a deep need and virtue of being human, and working from home can deprive people of this.
A key issue is the ability to collaborate and problem solve. Humans are associative learners – they draw information from many sources (sometimes completely random ones) to derive potential solutions. Informal networking is key to allow people to share issues and solutions that allow problems to be solved and innovation to occur. Regardless of the efforts made over internet meeting connections, the water cooler / coffee machine is one of the most valuable points of collaboration and creativity in your business.
However, people that have a set task and know what to do can be far more productive in solo / home environments. If there is no need for any collaboration, then social networking can just be distracting and decrease productivity. Working out when and where these two modes – focus and collaboration – should be engaged is critical to getting the new working arrangements right.
Culture is a critical element to getting people together. Organisations cannot create or enhance culture when people are mainly left to their own devices. How they choose to operate will be against personal standard and ‘compliance pressure’, which differs greatly from behaviours within a group established by virtue of a culture. Some executives I have worked with have noted that they have made many key hires during the pandemic and are yet to meet the person face to face in the real world. Having time together allows culture to be consciously created and shaped within the teams – this only happens when people can be brought together.
Connectedness is such a human need. To belong, to be made to feel included, competent, in control and trusted are human needs that are not well served by working remotely. The challenge of keeping people connected to the organisation, its purpose and other people in the business are all critical aspects of getting people together face to face.
Care and mental health are factors that need to be considered in any plan moving forward. The responsibility for ensuring workers have a safe environment to work in including physical hazards, ergonomic practice and mental health are all serious concerns for having people work remotely (with a fixed location being at their home). Whilst it was OK under pandemic conditions, how an organisation ensures safety and compliance to practices if the home office is the listed place of work requires some considered thinking. Allowing ‘flexible’ work with an office base might alleviate some of this risk, and require that staff are trained in these elements to self manage across locations.
So when all of these considerations are worked through, it is reasonable to expect that things will have changed from before COVID. Expectations, experiences and competencies have all shifted, and on this basis organisations are going to have to negotiate new ways of working with their employees.
A suggestion might be:
- Recognise where collaboration is beneficial and create office events to make them relevant.
- Allow fixed project work to happen separately from the office.
- Be empathetic to the fears and anxieties of staff, and work with them on a return to work plan.
- Use time in the office to re-establish culture and to ensure cultural behaviours are emphasised.
- Have a clear reason for being on the office, not just because the ‘boss’ says so.
- Seek out the ways staff have changed behaviour using new skills and technology over the lockdown, and build this into your forward planning to set new behaviours/interactions where they will add value
- Recognise that people may have developed new habits over lock-down (like school drop off). Be clear on your standards and requirements and allow a conversation about what is reasonable and possible relating to out of office behaviours.
- Ensure work from home environments – and office environments – are safe and productive workspaces.
Things will continue to change in the post-COVID world. Getting the step of how and where people work seems fundamental to success, but it requires conscious effort and consideration to get right.