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Office work after COVID-19

Last week the Government's Chief Medical Officer said that the UK will need to maintain social distancing until at least the end of the year, as there’s little chance of a vaccine or treatment being available before then.

In the meantime, the cost of the lockdown keeps rising:

  • Businesses are bleeding out at different speeds, especially in the mining/oil, transportation and leisure/hospitality sectors

  • Government support is costing taxpayers billions of pounds each week

  • People are having to contend with financial uncertainties, a diet of depressing news, health concerns, working and schooling their children from home, missing loved ones, and cancelling events like weddings and holidays

Worst still, it’s clear that the lockdown will have a devastating long-term impact on unemployment, poverty, and mental health – which in turn will help raise non-coronavirus-related mortality rates.

The search for answers

Country leaders have to apply carefully balanced judgement when deciding how to relax the lockdown. The reality, however, is that restrictions could well be lifted not when a treatment is available, but when the cost of the lockdown outweighs the cost of the virus spreading further.

All of which means that we know little on the when, what, or how, and as a result, there’s been little conversation to date around what ‘normal life’ will look like for companies based in traditional office environments:

  • Will an employers' duty of care for providing a safe work environment need to change?

  • How can practical and fair policies be created around attending the workplace?

  • Will the same rule apply to everyone, or will those with underlying health issues keep working from home?

  • How about those who are living with elderly relatives? Or those who regularly visit a care home?

Clearly there are going to be no easy answers. Equally, any answer is going to have to account for a wide variety of scenarios. For example: we may have offices with desks at least 2 meters apart from each other, but what to do with the door handlers and common areas? Shall everyone sign a waiver that says they enter the premises at their own risk?

Changing expectations

Then there’s the BIG elephant in the room: will home working become the new norm?

People in companies where home working is feasible have already discovered its many advantages. As have businesses:

  • Geographical flexibility enables them to tap into a greater talent pool

  • Time flexibility allows people to balance work and non-work responsibilities, which improves motivation, job satisfaction and loyalty

Case studies also show that people with flexible working arrangements actually outperform their office-based counterparts both in the quantity and quality of their work. However there is a bit of cheat on those statistics: until now those were working from home had actively chosen to do so.

Then there’s the fact that home working is not for everyone. It requires people to effectively manage the blurred boundaries between home and working life. They need to be disciplined to resist all the distractions of the home environment, to avoid overworking and the negative effects of isolation. It also requires good communication skills, being self-motivated and interested in resolving problems with little support or supervision.

It’s also fair to say that managing remote teams is not for everyone either. Building relationships with any team is challenging when there are limited opportunities for interaction. It’s also hard to build up trusted, open, working relationships on weekly calls – or to convey influence and motivation. Remote teams also face communication restrictions that can lead to a delayed understanding of issues, slower decision making, miscommunication, confused priorities and a sense of being ‘out of the loop’.

Big challenges that demand an effective response.

Summing it all up…

The majority of employees to date haven’t been hired due to their capabilities for remote working. At the same time, most people didn't sign up for working in a virtual team. As a result, leaders are under growing pressure to implement policies for on-site and home-based working that’s right for their people and the business.

The good news is that we’re already living through a form of compulsory trial, where speculation is giving way to clear visibility of the issues involved. Building on this data, and asking open and frank question of those involved, should allow businesses up and down the country to identify fair and practical solutions.

The world as we've known it has changed and we can't pretend that everything will go back as it was. The earlier that companies can visualise and communicate to their staff a new business reality, and put in place support for helping people adapt, the more likely that they’ll be able to stay in the game.

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