The future of work: how Covid-19 will change working culture for good
Covid-19 has fundamentally shifted the way businesses operate. In future, we won’t need to choose between remote working and office based working. Now we have a chance to take the best of traditional ways of working and incorporate it with a new approach.
There has been a lot of talk about how Covid-19 marks a watershed moment for the future of work. Within this there’s been a lot of discussion about the new working practices, and whether the shift from office-based working to remote working will flip back to how it was before, or if the current situation is the ‘new normal’.
In the face of this pandemic, employers have had to accelerate plans and leave behind any pre-conceived perceptions that may have acted as barriers to change in the past.
My concern is that many people are seeing this question as a binary choice – either we return to how it was previously, or we stick with the current situation. To believe that one way or the other is the right way forward demonstrates that business leaders are looking for answers and paths forward based on historical precedent and practices.
Instead, how about we use this opportunity to find new ways of working which combine the two? We now have the chance to find a balance and adopt working practices that can be individually tailored to suit the needs of each employee. Culturally it may be considered normal to work from home going forward, but some employees enjoy the creative and cultural benefits of being with their colleagues in an office environment.
The trust dynamic has changed
Fundamentally, the relationship between the employee and the employer has changed since the onset of the pandemic. We have been forced as a society into a situation where home working became a necessity. We now have a truly multi-generational workforce. The drivers and motivations of millennials and generation Z employees are often in stark contrast to each other – and to their predecessors who remain in the workforce.
In the face of this pandemic, employers have had to accelerate plans and leave behind any pre-conceived perceptions that may have acted as barriers to change in the past. We’re witnessing a seismic shift in how the traditional lines of communication and reporting are delivered.
The purpose of an employee who has been thrust into this new way of working is intrinsically linked to the purpose of the company, which, for many is about survival in a post Covid-19 world.
Trust is the big component for everyone. In the run up to this pandemic, there wasn’t time for employers to rigorously test how working days, reporting structures, workflow and targets would be affected by remote working. The myth that people taken out of a work environment will rebel or slack in their job and performance is being challenged and even ruthlessly dismissed. It’s clear that individuals recognise that the future survival (let alone success) of their companies is reliant on their ability to self-motivate. Simply put, employers have to trust their employees to get the job done.
This works both ways, of course. While employees have been trusted to deliver, there is a reciprocal feeling that employees will trust their leaders to support them during this period so that everyone can navigate safely to the other side. Anecdotally, we’ve been told that the focus for senior management is around the mental health of their staff, both those still working and those furloughed. There is an understanding that business output is critical, but that can only be delivered with employees who are settled into their new normal and it is their responsibility, both for the success of the company as well as the individual, to focus on this.
Never forget or underplay the purpose
For the last few years, companies have strived to demonstrate their purpose and authenticity. Both for clients and for employees, the alignment of a company’s values and brand to an individual’s brand deepens the bond and strength of relationship.
The current situation is thrusting the issue of purpose into full focus, however. One can’t help but do that when faced with our own mortality. We’re also witnessing communities working together, an appreciation for the work our public service workers do for us, and the little things we take for granted no longer being accessible.
The purpose of an employee who has been thrust into this new way of working is intrinsically linked to the purpose of the company, which, for many is about survival in a post Covid-19 world. This bond is something that employers needs to recognise as an asset moving forward to ensure that the business and its employers maintain synergy in their purpose. In turn, this will ensure that the trust relationship that has developed is maintained and strengthened.
Appreciation of the overlooked
Over the last few years we’ve already experienced a push towards remote working, the growth of freelancing, multidimensional careers, and the right for employees to control their own career paths. Perhaps though, the current situation will also cause us to pause and appreciate the things we took for granted in the past.
It seems, with misty eyes now, that we stopped appreciating the fun of the office, the joy of human interaction, the air of possibility through the collective creative minds. Where we used to moan about the meetings, the distractions, the personalities within the office, we now see them in a different light and appreciate what they gave us.
This balance is an opportunity for companies to start working out the true benefits of their office environment. It is also a chance for employees to re-evaluate their prejudices and assumptions about the positives and negatives of office and home working.
The new way of working can remain undefined
The big challenge for senior leaders and department heads within business is to look forward and define what the economic future looks like without any degree of certainty.
This is where the HR function can step up and play a pivotal role in shaping a workplace culture that brings together a multi-generational workforce, each with different drivers and purpose in life, and who want to work in different ways.
I would argue that HR needs to lead senior colleagues in discussions and collectively agree what workplace culture needs to look like to drive the business forward in what will be a challenging economic recovery. Once that has been defined, senior leaders need to recognise that flexible working is now an expectation from employees and so their greatest challenge is to create an environment where individuals want to come into the office to share ideas, spark conversations, creativity and inspiration.
Finally, and most importantly senior leaders need to understand that communication in this period is critical to the success of the vision outlined above. Whether that’s the monthly meetings, town hall summits, annual conferences or simply the day-to-day conversations led by managers, having everyone on the same page is vital to deliver the new way of working.
The organisations that navigate this period successfully will be the ones that grasp that the post Covid-19 world won’t be ‘back to normal’, but instead can use this opportunity to reappraise their working practices for the benefit of both their employees and society as a whole.
Interested in this topic? Read Future of work: will HR become obsolete?