OPINION13 May 2021

The pandemic’s silver linings for work

Covid-19 Opinion Trends UK

For many, the past year has brought some benefits to the world of work, including the gift of perspective. Karen Cooper reflects on qualitative research with clients and colleagues.

Office working workplace employee_crop

Covid-19 has brought misery to many of us, but with every period of significant upheaval there’s usually some unexpected, even positive impact. With that in mind I interviewed a sample of 12 clients and colleagues and, though a diverse bunch, from beleaguered travel firms to rushed-off-their-feet (or fingers) platforms, I found four common silver linings for the world of work.

Firstly, Covid-19 has given the gift of perspective. Variously described as ‘re-set’, ‘reflection’, ‘distance’ or ‘visibility’, the pandemic has been a moment to step off the treadmill, to review and rethink – from the fundamentals of business strategy and operations, to the rules and routines that have become solidified over time.

Arguably the most important example is ‘building back better’, a one-off moment for sustainability planning that may not have had as much air time in normal times. 

In marketing departments perspective has been useful. One client’s misfortune of low traffic led to the realisation that their attribution modelling wasn’t fit for purpose, while another saw the resilience and value of their brand when switching off paid media. Several were forced to go back to basics, interrogating customer needs and finding more creative ways to attract and keep them.

Secondly, many businesses found their employees were more adaptable than expected. Aside from a bit of disruption at the start, and of course subject to good wifi, the office worker has largely adapted to working from home.

What’s more, infrequent but significant business activities have forged ahead, such as virtual job hirings and onboarding, conducting new business pitches and even company acquisitions. Slack has replaced the quick over-the-desk question, Miro the whiteboards, Docusign official documents and so on – when the history of tech is written, they’ll note the Darwinian leap at this time. 

Thirdly, despite the physical distance, we’ve become closer to each other. It seems there’s nothing like having a common enemy to talk about and seeing kids, pets, home décor, messy rooms, and bad hair days to make us feel more connected.

Line managers have built in more informal check-ins, some report better client-agency relationships, and hierarchies have broken down, with junior staff feeling less scared to present and contribute in meetings. Furthermore, a lovely antidote to Brexit has been more international collaborations and better cross-border team relationships. 

But let’s not get too rosy about this. Zoom fatigue and desire for physical co-working is very real, particularly by those living alone or in cramped conditions.

Finally, flexible working has come of age. Covid-19 has broken industrial age ‘clock-in, clock-out’ behaviours and expectations, that were lingering despite the ability for many white-collar workers to do their jobs from anywhere, at any time. It’s so refreshing that senior people are now more trusting of their team to work when suits as long as they do the job.

This doesn’t mean that hours have diminished – in fact, I heard the opposite from many, but the sense of control and mutual respect for other people’s time is a work place cultural game-changer.

But will these silver linings endure?

Getting genuine perspective rarely happens in the busyness of office life, so businesses should use it and not lose it. While we don’t wish for any further pandemic-induced breakers, perhaps the principle of review time will be baked into business cycles and be valued more highly going forwards.

Our good scorecard on adaptability should be confidence boosting to each of us personally and is good news for businesses. In the short term, we’ll need to adapt again as we return/relearn how to co-exist in the same space, read body language and office politics, and in the longer term should mean smooth adoption of new tech and other workplace changes.

When it comes to maintaining closeness to colleagues, I suspect just like long-term relationships, this will require hard work to keep up. At the very least leaders and managers will have learnt that empathetic leadership works.

And as for flexible working, most are expecting a future of hybrid/blended work models. The big accountancy and financial service firms have already formalised flexible working for the foreseeable, which will no doubt be followed by other service industries wanting to attract and retain good talent.

However, to ensure these models’ long-term success, there will have to be some serious thought into managing boundaries and avoiding burn out, which may be harder to detect if not at the office. This will of course have huge implications on workplace design, cities, transport links, houses and all associated businesses that serve the hybrid worker.

It’s nice to think that some good may have come out of all this misery. We can live in hope.

Karen Cooper is director of Living Brands