A Crisis to Change Work for the Better?

20th April 2020Change Management

A crisis is always a catalyst for change. Some things never go back to how they were before. The Covid-19 crisis is fundamentally reshaping the working environment and the accepted work-life balance. The way we work is changing for the better.

Work before Covid-19 (BC)

I’ve been working for 35 years. Of course, a lot has changed in that time.

Firstly, technology has made work more efficient as well as more flexible. Secondly, organisation structures have flattened. Thirdly, the working environment has become less formal. Finally, working hours have evolved to cater to the needs of today’s “always-on” world.

However, the fundamental structure of work had not altered greatly.

Indeed, it was still rooted in 20th Century working practices, which revolved around the need to “go to work” and to “put in a shift”. This meant, of course, commuting to a physical place of work with set hours and routines.

“The number of people commuting for more than an hour to get to work has risen by 31% since 2011.”

Source: Office for National Statistics November 2018 Office for National Statistics November 2018

And when you got to work, you spent an average of 42.5 hours per week there.

What’s more, if you weren’t physically commuting to your place of work, you would likely to be travelling on business. Often outside of normal working hours.

Being physically present was clearly important: to build relationships, to collaborate but also to control.

Work during Covid-19 (DC)

The lockdown imposed to fight coronavirus has suddenly made it impossible for people to meet face-to-face. And the world of work with its emphasis on direct contact between individuals and teams has turned on its head overnight.

At this point in time, we’re still coming to terms with the loss of physical contact. We’re having to adjust to a virtual world of online meetings.

Of course, the technology we’re using is not new. We’ve been videoconferencing for years as well as using Skype or FaceTime to hook up with distant friends and relatives. The difference now is that this is our only means of collaborating.

Moreover, rather than going to work, work has come into our homes. It’s taken over not only our headspace but also our physical space.

Post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic growth?

For some people, working from home is intruding on family life. It’s also adding stress at a time of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Many of those that live alone are struggling with a sense of isolation. They’ve lost the daily interaction of being with colleagues who can also act as a support network.

In his recent interview with the World Economic Forum US Psychologist Adam Grant goes as far as to describe this experience as being akin to post-traumatic stress.

More optimistically, he also mentions “post-traumatic growth”: This is the sense that although you wish the lockdown had not happened, you’re nonetheless able to benefit from the changes it has wrought.

For example, I know of many people who are finding that their new working from home routine literally saves hours every day. There is no more commuting to work, travelling to visit clients, or participating in lengthy face to face meetings.

This also frees up time to spend with the family. At least temporarily, the lockdown is finally helping millions to achieve a healthier work-life balance.

So far, despite the challenges, remote working is now a reality, even for employees for whom this would have seemed inconceivable just a few short weeks ago.

Indeed, the majority of businesses and employees that can operate remotely are adapting well at least in the short term. And yet, planning is already underway for the way we will work once the immediate crisis phase passes.

Work after Covid-19 (AC)

With no vaccine available for some considerable time yet, it will not be possible to simply resume working as we did before coronavirus struck.

Easing of the lockdown, when it comes will be gradual. Moreover, social distancing restrictions will keep us from travelling and congregating as freely as we once did.

In fact, the much-loathed daily commute could take even longer if we are forced to wear masks and keep our distance from one another. And the idea of back to back meetings in an airless glass box would fill most with a sense of dread.

Employees who have experienced the freedom of working from home may not even wish to return to the old 9 to 5 routine.

In addition, managers who previously felt it necessary to have staff physically present in order to exert control may now conclude that:

“The best work is coached rather than controlled.”

Instead of valuing contributions as measured by the number of hours spent at work, we will assess the quality of work done.

One of the lasting benefits of the coronavirus crisis may be that trust replaces control. This could even break the toxic culture of long hours once and for all.

As HBR points out better work-life balance starts with managers. Having managed through the crisis with compassion and flexibility, it would be inconceivable for old rigid ways of working to be re-imposed.

The Future of Work is Flexible

The choice facing businesses and employees when the coronavirus pandemic is finally over is not whether to continue working remotely or to go back to working from the office.

It’s how to learn what works best for individuals, teams, and companies in terms of productivity, connectivity and work-life balance.  

In this regard, flexibility is the key. For some tasks, for some of the time, working from home will continue to be the best solution.

This might be especially so for younger workers who have grown up with technology and are perfectly happy to work in the virtual world. Or for industries such as contact centres which traditionally worked from physical premises but can equally well work remotely.

For others, going to work will continue to be a clear preference. Especially where physical presence makes the work easier. Or where there is a need for community and face to face collaboration.

“In the post coronavirus world, the working environment will be flexible, fairer from a work-life balance point of view and fit for the 21st century”