First of all if you are really missing the office environment, click here to listen to the sounds of a busy workplace while you read this https://soundofcolleagues.com/#
As we know, since the beginning of this month the UK Government has recommended people return to the office where practical. However, less than 35% of office workers in the UK have done so.(Ackerman, 2020) The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is urging businesses to ensure they can meet three key tests before bringing their people back to the workplace: Is it essential? Is it sufficiently safe? Is it mutually agreed? (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2020
There is the obvious issue of unequal risks to many in our communities. A Public Health England report differences in the consequences of COVID-19 shows that some groups of people may be at higher risk of infection or suffering from adverse effects if infected. The higher-risk groups include those who are older males, have a high body mass index (BMI), have health conditions such as diabetes and are from some Black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds. (PHE, 2020)
Most of us at City have read or tried to keep up with all the advice and guidance on working from home, including the resources and links to information (“Remote working at City,” 2020) But now five months on, are we content with this new ‘normal’? as John Naughton writes in The Guardian (Naughton, 2020) It did seem safe and familiar and strangely refreshing at the beginning. No more depressing commutes for a start. Suddenly, we had more hours in the day with a better work-life balance and technology that made distances irrelevant. Of course, there have been difficulties, such as childcare which became a nightmare when schools and nurseries closed and not everyone has good, reliable broadband, nor do we all have spare laptops to go around. Equally, many of us live in small apartments where the choice of workspace is either the kitchen table or the bedroom.
An article by Lim and Kim (Dobson, 2020) is telling in terms of the consequences of work–family conflict. The authors show that this struggle is a source of frustration for parents and this frustration can affect their children in the form of less supporting parental behaviour which can negatively impact on children’s view of work.
Perhaps the reality of WFH has begun to sour as we now expect this Coronavirus crisis might not be over by Christmas. We all care about the perennial issue of the work-life balance, we may be physically at home but many of us are working harder than we ever did before and its very tiring, more on this later.
The National Bureau for Economic Research in the USA has researched data from more than 3 million employees and found that compared to pre-pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person and the number of attendees per meeting. Although the average length of meetings is down and staff spend less time in meetings per day, the report finds a significant and enduring increase in the length of the average workday.(DeFilippis et al., 2020)
Nicola Hannigan from the University of New South Wales has written about the behavioural impact of WFH; “If I’m in a meeting with colleagues, and they seem distracted, I instantly have a sense that they may be stressed because of their context.” (Hannigan, 2020) But how does this translate when we don’t get these interactions, in a Teams or Zoom meeting with people who are distracted? Or worse, appear frustrated or irritated? We can’t help but take it personally. We don’t have a sense of their situation as we haven’t had the chance to see how they’re doing. We get the curious dimension of this person via their face on our screen at that moment. If we have begun with the habitual “how are you?” it can be seen as tokenistic, many people are not as comfortable sharing that they’re stressed or tired online, maybe because it seems too personal for work? (Hannigan, 2020)
What is interesting is the psychological impact on the nature of work. People do just want their own piece of work from you, but when we interact in person, it’s less likely to feel like that. We feel more connected to others. We feel part of something bigger than the transactional nature of our jobs. It’s the little interactions and sparks of communication that add up over time to give you this complete picture of who a person is. (Hannigan, 2020)
One way of turning this around is by making a point of being personal at the beginning of every virtual meeting. Andy Molinsky’s No 1 tip is “make it personal” followed by “convey warmth”. He praises the power of small talk and keeping the camera on in order to share our expressions. (Molinsky, 2020) this is surely helpful in reducing the feelings of isolation and disconnectedness.
For those of us working from home (for a long time yet, no doubt), we can be mindful of showing up for work as ourselves, not just as our roles. Why not pause at the start of every meeting, take a few minutes to check in, and lead by example, be personal and warm, and share a moment. How many people in the same team sign on to a Teams meeting early so as to have a quick chat first? There is also a lot to be said for one-to-one interactions with people and remembering they can take place in many forms. Some of us have connected in a way that might never have happened back in the office, and I for one feel I know a number of colleagues better than before. A key point too is that introverts among us can really struggle with group conversations but may feel quite differently opening up one-to-one, I know I do.
One journalist from The Guardian newspaper took his first journey into the office last month and met a fellow commuter on the way, “Deacon never wants to commute five days a week again. “I’m a lot less stressed, I don’t have to deal with the train, I’m saving lots of money; I’m getting more sleep, more time to exercise, with my partner, to do other things in the evenings … It’s totally positive.” (Wollaston, 2020) Commuting is better now, with seats available and space to breathe and distance, at the time of writing, National Rail and London Underground is down to about 30% of the normal capacity, with buses in London down by 50%. We are all used to being stuck in traffic, crammed onto a train, and rushing for connecting tubes or buses. The pandemic means that, for many, it is no longer necessary to leave home, let alone your neighbourhood, to go to work.
However, this may have the effect of making people more insular and isolated, according to a book on commuting written before this pandemic. (Webb, 2016) “Even if there are very good reasons why people should commute less, that’s not how people engage with the world and other people. We often do things that don’t make any sense, because we are social beings.” Joe Moran, a social historian and a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. (Wollaston, 2020)
Patricia Kammer, is a researcher at furniture manufacturer Steelcase in the US and spoke for many when she talked about working from home, it works for some people but it doesn’t work for others. It suits individual contributors, those comfortable with collaborating using these platforms, those who shared minds with colleagues through these online tools.
We have all discovered the blurring of work and life, where we have to invite people into our home spaces that didn’t happen like this before. It is an informal existence, a levelling of how we are connecting with people, and we can perhaps be more authentic. I particularly like the idea of greater equity amongst us and in meetings with our senior colleagues. Kammer thinks it actually develops our relationship with people to see them as they truly are, because we are all humans, and at our best doing the best we can.(Steelcase, 2020)
Kammer says, “We are exhausted because of the singular point of the technology, I’m not looking beyond you I’m looking right at you, and I’m also listening intently, so you hold yourself in a more formal posture, maybe you’re looking at your own reflection, people tend to get a bit more uptight when they do that, so doing this is incredibly exhausting.” (Steelcase, 2020) Kammer goes on to say that listening and then working online is so tiring as we’re managing a high cognitive load. People don’t realise that when we’re on a video call we’re not able to glance away and having that visual break. There will be a number of challenges in our return to the office, one is the presence disparity. Now we’re all having a similar experience, all connecting remotely from home, using the same platforms, and we’re all having the same cognitive experiences.
For those who go back to the office, they will have different kinds of technical possibilities to those that are at home, there will be a disparity in that experience. In order to solve these problems, perhaps we will need to develop tools using Extended Reality or AR and VR, where people who come together have a shared and comprehensive experience simultaneously, more equitable. But the biggest challenge is for everyone’s health and safety. A return to the office will see more analysis on how to manage infection control, how to ensure we are safe and also have psychological safety. Kammer continues, “That’s going to put pressure on existing facilities and the way in which our spaces are designed, that don’t stretch, can’t expand or move, physical barriers in an architectural way”. (Steelcase, 2020)
How we go from here may be focussed on our resilience, and just what is expected of us by our employers. The concept of resilience has gained momentum in organisational research, particularly when applied to groups. (Rosé et al., 2001) Three key elements were isolated by the authors almost 20 years ago, but are pertinent to today’s pandemic situation. Their recommendations are to promote team resilience:
- Regulating and influencing emotional expression (e.g., “letting go” or “speaking up”), which can be achieved by ‘proactive sense‐making and resource investment, reflection of teamwork, and the suppression of spontaneous negative emotion’
- Team inclusion practices (e.g., training provision, flexibility, and adjustments to a member’s special needs, and early establishment of the “rules of the game”
- Self‐reflective practices (e.g., taking the decision to “step back” to give more space to passive or shy members or to “step forward”, to build bridges between senior and junior members). (Rosé et al., 2001)
All of us have had to find new ways to collaborate under difficult conditions, this type of understanding can advise and inform managers, as well members of teams to develop their shared resilience as a department, the report’s authors state that this is very likely to have positive effects on our well‐being as well as our outcomes. We should not be alone in this.
In closing, we can’t avoid the impact of recent Government exhortations on returning to the office and the overtly political and economically loaded messages from the CBI and the right-wing press, notably the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. Recent articles on working from home being treated as a ‘collective sickness’ with these papers suggesting staff are more vulnerable to being given the sack if they remained at home. “The service economy in financialised city centres depends on the consumption patterns of office workers: commuting every day involves not just buying a sandwich or a coffee from Pret but helping to prop up an entire system.” (O’Brien, 2020) So it seems that this fear-mongering outcry is more about landlords and their loss of rental income in city centres, as well as the outdated notion of showing up for work to the bosses and to be seen to be counted.
Although some newspapers like The Independent suggest that home working is here to stay (Moore, 2020) this old-fashioned attitude of everyone being in the office will hopefully be argued against on the basis of well-being, improvements in productivity and a better work-life balance, not least in the redirection of spending to local towns and villages and improving local communities. But most of all it represents an opportunity for progressive thinking in a very difficult time, as opposed to just the cynical and cliched truism of ‘Let’s not waste a crisis’ (Lecocq, 2009)
When and if you go back to the office, good luck!
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