“We just want to get back to what we were doing in 2019.”
“The last year has been unprecedented, but we’re confident we’ll recover and get back to normal.”
“We were doing so well before the pandemic. Once we get everyone back, it’ll be business as usual.”
I hear these sentiments often from the leadership and senior management teams I work with. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get back to normal of course, especially when things change as dramatically as they have recently, it’s only natural that we yearn for better times past. But I think it’s safe to say that the changes work places have undergone are so fundamental that there’s little prospect of returning to business as usual.
It’s been 18 months since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Even before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, our working practices were undergoing transformative change, with digital technology speeding everything up and altering forever the expectations of our clients, customers or those we serve.
But the pandemic has acted as an accelerant meaning businesses and organisations across all sectors now facing great upheaval and uncertainty.
The prolonged enforcement of working from home has caused a seismic shift in the culture of the workplace. Of course, there are professions and roles for whom working from home is not an option, but for those of us working in the knowledge-based economy, it’s a reality that’s not going away anytime soon.
This comes with its advantages and disadvantages.
Staff have come to enjoy the flexibility home working brings and certainly don’t miss the dreaded daily commute. They have quickly adapted to using video meetings and chat platforms to connect with their colleagues while working on shared documents in the cloud.
Research has shown that most employees would prefer to continue working this way. Although, very few would welcome a return to 100% office-based working, with the vast majority favouring a mixture of the two.
A ‘hybrid’ way of working with 2-3 days in the office and the rest at home seems to be the best way forward, but this is not without its challenges for most organisations.
Although leaders may see this as an opportunity to cut overhead by reducing the physical footprint of their static workplaces, there are real concerns about the effect this way of working will have on the efficiency and the quality of the work being carried out.
Many ask themselves; What’s the best way to ensure everyone is working together when we are not all under the same roof?
The pandemic has presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reflect on the relationship between where we work and how we work. An opportunity to ask ourselves what does it actually mean to work in the office?
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that in order to thrive in the information economy, we must allow time for focused, undistracted work on tasks that push our cognitive abilities to their limit.
Complex problem solving, computer programming and data analysis all require deep work to learn and do. So it’s essential to schedule uninterrupted blocks of time where we can focus.
However, open-plan offices are designed to encourage collaboration but are often very distracting for someone looking to get their head into deep work.
That said, as social animals, we need co-operation and regular physical interaction to survive and thrive.
Collective creative thinking works far better when in person. Live video links may connect us to others, wherever they are, but we communicate somewhat less than when meeting face-to-face. Spending time in each other’s company helps us see how people behave and better understand how they think.
“Chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.”
Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi and Greg Lindsay
So perhaps this gives us a clue to how we can reconfigure our working spaces to allow for both deep work and the creative collaboration we need.
Releasing people from the shackles of the 9-5 model can empower them to manage their own time at home, completing the tasks that require undistracted focus or deep work.
Whilst reimagining your office environment into a more flexible, social space, albeit on a smaller scale if necessary, with movable furniture and walls, for example, will make it more conducive to creativity and collaboration. Thus, helping build a company culture and a sense of community while still allowing for that vital “water cooler moment.”
Learning from the ‘results-only work environment’ (ROWE) movement, leadership must focus on the outcomes they want to see rather than the paths required to achieve them while putting trust in their teams to deliver.
Developing and implementing this requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach, ensuring everyone is involved and giving teams and individuals autonomy and the ability to make decisions for themselves within an agreed framework. One where everyone understands what their role is, what they are responsible for, and what the measurement for success is.
That framework is OKRs.