Even before the pandemic, the typical Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm working pattern had become outdated.
Advances in technology have long supported an always-on culture, with the pursuit of “work-life balance” replaced, for many, by a “work-life integration” revolving around 24-7 access to emails and notifications on your phone or tablet.
Fast-forward (if only we could have!) through fourteen months of lockdown, furlough and working from home. Our adoption of productivity apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams has accelerated to the point where some people have gone as far as to hail this as the death for the office.
Sure, the workplace needs to change because, to some extent, we have all changed but, even after the biggest employment experiment of all time demonstrated that remote working works, we need to think carefully about whether it is the permanent solution.
On the face of it, it appears to be the ideal scenario. Losing office costs and overheads will make huge financial savings after what has been a very challenging time.
Staff have also revelled in an extra hour in bed instead of suffering the daily commute and the opportunity to spend more time with family is not something people want to give up easily.
Despite this, I suggest that business leaders considering their next step approach it with caution. Try to remember that most people have a fundamental desire to be part of a community, as it is the lack of being able to create and sustain a positive company culture remotely that worries me most.
While a virtual culture undoubtedly has benefits – flexibility, trust, increased autonomy – the reason many companies were able to transition seamlessly to a remote working model was that their teams already had a sense of comradery.
They had been in close proximity with one another for a reasonable period before having to work from home and the resulting bond – and shared values – helped to make it a success.
Now, after a year of working apart, research from Gallup suggests that employees are 7% less likely to see their connection to the company’s mission than at the start of COVID. This means that the cultural connection is slowly diminishing and, ultimately, that means productivity will soon follow.
As business leaders ponder how they are going to reinvent the way we work, the challenge they have is to come up with a flexible model that works for us all. It can no longer be about offering a one-size-fits-all solution.
We need to discover a way to get back to work, but not in the way it used to be. We need to be better at being accommodating people’s needs because working from home has shone a bright light on the benefits of being in a comfortable environment and this is something the office will need to reflect; to offer employees the best of both worlds.
As well as the culture, many benefits will also come from being back together, not least creativity and innovation, which undoubtedly increase when people exchange ideas and collaborate. Even an overheard conversation can spark a moment of ingenuity; something that simply would not occur virtually.
In summary, whatever happens, I hope businesses don’t make quick decisions and they allow their teams the opportunity to help them shape when and how people go back into the office.
As social creatures, we all crave connections and while helping to build a strong culture, perhaps the office will also be redefined as a place constructed purely for interaction, where people go once or twice a week to meet and brainstorm ideas.
By allowing people the flexibility and trust to have control of the way they work, as much as possible, whatever the outcome, you stand to gain the benefits of both ways of working, as well as demonstrating understanding and empathy for your team – something the value of which should never be underestimated.