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The pandemic's silver linings for the world of work

Karen Cooper, April 2021

It’s 2030 and the focus group moderator (let’s be optimistic, right fellow quallies?) asks: ‘What words come to mind when I say Covid19?’ The virtual whiteboard quickly fills: fear, death, masks, lockdown, missing loved ones, ventilators, loneliness, overrun hospitals, no pubs, no travel….’ Negative thoughts and feelings about health and social lives will be etched deep in our collective consciousness. But when the questioning turns to its impact on work, they’ll probably be a more varied response – those who lost their jobs or businesses, high street retailers, and key workers are likely to pile on the negative memories, whilst office workers who shifted to home working may well find reflect on some positives.

I thought I’d ask a selection of lovely clients and colleagues for their observations on the silver linings arising from, or accelerated by, Covid on their businesses, and if they think they may endure. Though a diverse bunch of organisations and sectors (from beleaguered travel, to rushed-off-feet - or fingers, platforms), I found a lot of consensus with four themes emerging.

Firstly, it seems Covid’s given the gift of perspective.

Variously described as ‘re-set’, ‘reflection’, ‘distance’, ‘visibility’, ‘re-evaluation’, the pandemic has been a moment to step off the treadmill. It’s been a time to review and rethink - from the fundamentals of business strategy, structures, and operations, to the fuzzier cultural codes, rules and routines that have become solidified over time. Arguably the most important example is ‘Building back better’, a one-off moment for sustainability planning, that may not get as much airtime again. 

It's certainly been a time of reflection in marketing departments – one client’s misfortune of low traffic led to more visibility of their attribution measures and shone a light on the need to rebuild, whilst another saw the resilience and value of their brand when switching off all paid media. Several were forced to go back to basics – to understand their audiences and think more creatively about how to attract and keep them, and to refresh their brand’s fundamentals.

Perspective seems to have also been gained personally, with many reflecting on their home and working lives, working out what’s important to them, what they’re good at and not so good at. It seems like there’s nothing like a period of disruption to make us stop and think.

Secondly, many businesses have found their employees are more adaptable than expected.

If you’d planned to transform any aspect of business pre-March 2020, expectations would’ve had to be managed, resistance may have been high and you’d have built-in plenty of time and resources. So the speed at which people adapted to new working practices and tech tools has been a pleasant surprise to many. Aside from a bit of disruption at the start, and of course subject to good wifi, the workforce has largely adapted to working from home, with some even reporting increased productivity. What’s more, infrequent but significant business activities have forged ahead, such as virtual job hirings and onboarding, new business pitches and even company acquisitions. Slack has replaced the quick over-the-desk question, Miro the whiteboards, Docusign official documents and so on - when the history of tech is written, they’ll note the Darwinian leap at this time. 

Thirdly there is evidence of more connectedness and warmth at work.

 

It seems counter-intuitive but distance has in fact made some of us feel closer to our colleagues than when they sat a few desks away. There’s nothing like having a common evil enemy to talk about and seeing kids, pets, home décor, piles of washing, tracky tops and bad hair days to make us feel more connected. Line managers are more generous with their time and have built-in more informal check-ins, some report deeper client and agency relationships and hierarchies seem to have broken down, where presenting and contributing ideas to senior people has become less scary to those lower down the food chain. Furthermore, a lovely anti-dote to Brexit has been more collaborations and deepening of relationships across international borders. Office get-togethers are now boundary-less (although can mess up the body clock).

But let’s not get too rosy about this, zoom fatigue and desire for physical co-working is very real, particularly by those living alone or in cramped conditions. Plus not everyone wants more connection - a legal adviser friend told me how great it was to be able to kick an objectionable defendant off a virtual court hearing, rather than have to endure and remove them physically from court!

 

Finally, flexible working has been accepted as a workable model.

 

Covid has broken industrial age ‘clock-in, clock-out' behaviours and expectations, that were lingering despite the ability for many white-collar workers to do their jobs from anywhere at any time. It’s so refreshing to hear that senior people are now more trusting of their team to work when suits them as long as they do the job and don’t go AWOL (OOO/working time notifications essential). This of course doesn’t mean that hours have diminished, in fact, I heard the opposite from many, but the sense of control and mutual respect for other people’s time is a cultural game-changer.

 

So will these silver linings endure?

 

Getting genuine perspective rarely happens in the busyness of office life, so businesses should use it, and not lose it. Whilst we don’t wish for any further pandemic-induced breakers, perhaps the principle of getting some real space and perspective will be baked into business cycles and valued more highly going forwards.

Our good scorecard on adaptability should be confidence-boosting to each of us personally and is good news for businesses. In the short term, we’ll need to adapt again as we return/ relearn how to co-exist in the same space, read body language and office politics etc, and in the medium/long run should mean less resistance to new tech and other changes that arise.

When it comes to keeping up the connectedness and warmth to fellow man, we’d all like to think this will last. Just like long term relationships, this will require hard work to keep up. Ruling by fear will hopefully be replaced by empathetic leadership, to the benefit of all.

And as for flexible working, there is a widespread discussion on this (McKinsey, Economist 10.4.21 et al) with most believing the future of office working is a hybrid/blended model. Indeed the big accountancy and financial service firms have announced flexible working for the foreseeable, which will no doubt be followed by other service industries wanting to attract good talent. But to ensure its success, there will have to be some serious thinking by HR and leadership into managing boundaries and avoiding burn out, which may be harder to detect if not at the office. And will of course have huge implications on workplace design, cities, transport links, houses, and all associated businesses that serve the new hybrid worker.

So back to that focus group in 2030, perhaps some of the luckier participants will be feeling less pessimistic about Covid and will be enjoying better working lives.

We can live in hope. 

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