The Great Return to Work: It’s Now a Case of Adapt or Die

“Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’. Barely getting by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’”

Back in 1980 when Dolly Parton’s 9-to-5 hit the charts, employers could be hard task masters. Workers’ rights were pretty much non-existent and the concept of a work-life balance was unheard of.

Fast-forward 40 years and things have been turned on their head. In the past six months Covid-19, whilst devastating on so many levels has also been a catalyst for positive change.

Over the last decade we had been tentatively moving towards what felt like a more enlightened work environment but Covid-19 and the mandatory home-working it ushered-in has it feels catapulted us at least a decade further forward in the curve.

Over the last few months the news has been full of organisations publicly embracing the ‘new normal’, using it to re-imagine working practices and re-engineer their cost base in the process. Consider supermarket chain Morrisons moving to a four-day week for staff whilst retaining the same pay and RBS’ announcement that home working will continue until end of 2021 to name but two.

Almost without exception, organisations are not racing back to the office as was predicted in those first few nervous weeks of lockdown. Even the big corporate players with multi-billion property portfolios such as Deloitte are not enforcing back to work edicts. Instead employees are being empowered to choose their own working pathway.

All of this rings true personally and professionally. When we founded The Thread Team as a remote marketing consultancy, we fully embraced this way of working. Our ethos has always been “it doesn’t matter where the work gets done, so long as the work gets done.”.

And this is the key. Treating your employees like the grown-ups they are (or should be). Before the pandemic we were often quizzed on our working practices. Common questions included:

‘Don’t you worry your team will slack off?’

Answer: No. Everyone understands and shares our expectations. Teams know what they have to do and when they have to do it by – as part of the overall plan. Communication is key. And if someone wants to go for a three hour walk after lunch so be it. Just make sure it’s in your diary and let your colleagues know.

‘How do you build a team culture?’

Answer: The same way any other organisation does. But, we put a lot more effort into it because we are remote. So we don’t let the small things slide. Things like our Friday catch-ups, virtual socials and ‘hive mind’ channels are really important.

‘Don’t you find everyone having different working practices disruptive?’

Answer: No more so than people taking holiday or working part time in a more traditional structure. You get to know people’s rhythms. When it boils down to it we’re creatures of habit and most of us like a routine. So you find that people naturally fall into their own pattern of working. And rather than impact productivity, we find that leaning back and giving our team time to live AND time to work means we do more in the day, not less. The only thing we ask is that people attend the meetings that they are required to be a part of.

‘The work place is a social environment, do you worry about your employee’s mental health when they are effectively working in isolation?’

Remote working isn’t for everyone. It’s a choice and for those that need the interaction that a physical office affords then we wouldn’t recommend it. But because we’re remote we are very aware of the issues of mental health and have practices in place to ensure the wellbeing of the team.

Like everything there are of course niggles. Rarely is anything perfect. However, the benefits of remote working far outweigh the negatives for us and for the people we work with.

For us it’s all about minimising wastage. When someone leaves an organisation they take with them a significant amount of emotional and knowledge-based equity. Rebuilding this takes significant time and effort and a proportion of it will always be lost forever, eroding the business no matter how hard you try to plug the gap. By offering flexible working that fits round the individual we have minimal churn. This means that we can concentrate on performing well as a team.

Significant knowledge drain also occurs because traditional structures often force people out of the business. For instance every year around 54,000 mums in the UK don’t return to work after having a baby because they feel that they can’t leave the office at 3pm for pick-up or that they feel unable to take time-out to go to sports day, music recitals etc.

The same goes for home movers. Relocating often means a job move because of the inability to commute. Latest statistics suggest that the pandemic will result in a significant shift in global population with people moving from high density areas to more rural locations. Remote working facilitates this shift.

The World Happiness Report reveals that work-life balance is one of the strongest predictors of happiness. It found that flexible work options are the major way to improve job satisfaction and the overall happiness and health of employees and in the current environment this will only increase in importance.

Now that the ‘Great Workforce Return’ is looking even more uncertain – particularly now with the third wave being experienced in Hong Kong, and the proclamation by WHO that the virus will be around for years, irrespective of a vaccine; flexibility will be the name of the game.

The old adage is true: adapt or die.

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Author: Richard Calvert

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