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Blog 26 April, 2021 Back

Workforce wellbeing and business productivity, what does the post pandemic office look like?

Becky Malcolm

Back to the office post COVID-19 pandemic

During the pandemic, millions of people suddenly started working from home, rapidly changing the office landscape. Virtual meetings facilitated the new status quo, with teams using communication apps like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams to stay productive and connected.

In the UK, the legal obligation to stay at home was removed on 29 March and the Step 2 milestone on 12 April has seen further easing of restrictions, with many companies providing COVID-19 safe workspaces and inviting employees to come back to the office.

The permanent effects of COVID-19 on professional culture remain to be seen. Many companies such as Twitter and Apple have issued public statements that home working will continue in some form in the post-pandemic era. But for the millions of people whose world has been reduced to the dimensions of a laptop screen for the last 12 months, we will take a look at the wellbeing of the ‘work from home’ professional.

In many cases for individuals, the barrier between work and home has been lost.

The work from home burnout risk to employees is substantial. The lines between work and non-work have blurred in new and unusual ways, and many employees who have been working remotely for the first time are struggling to create healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives.

It is the employees who feel “on call” all the time who are at a higher risk of burnout when working from home than if they were going to the office as usual.

In the long-term, people trying to squeeze in work around personal commitments, for example responding to emails whenever they have a few minutes, returning to their work when the kids are in bed, after a meal, over the weekend, or in the evening is not only counterproductive, but also detrimental to wellbeing. We all need to carve out non-work time and mental space.

If WFH is going to continue in some form, employees need to compartmentalise their work and non-work lives, and what can employers, managers and co-workers do to help one another cope?

Working all the time, even on the most important tasks, isn’t the answer. According to some estimates, the average office worker is only productive on average three hours every day, and these hours should be free of interruptions or multitasking. Even before Covid-19, employees found it difficult to carve out three continuous hours to focus on their core work tasks. Now with work and family boundaries being blurred, employees’ time has never been more fragmented.

It is important to maintain physical and social boundaries

A report from Arizona State University describes the ways in which people demarcate the transition from work to non-work roles as “boundary-crossing activities.” For example, putting on work clothes and commuting from home to work— are physical and social indicators that you have transitioned from “home you” to “work you.”

Employees should try to maintain these boundaries when working remotely. Put on work clothes every morning, even on dress down Fridays. Replace the morning commute with a walk to a nearby park, around the block or even just around the living space, before sitting down to work each day.

The last 12 months of remote working has led to a loss of connection., This can adversely impact team spirit by weakening relationships, creating disconnection, lowering trust and creating silos between teams.

According to Gallup, remote employees are 7% less likely to see their connection to the company vision. Strong work collaboration requires strong human connections. Virtual meetings are less spontaneous, and the lack of human connection means there are incremental benefits only achieved by working in an actual room with actual people.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld sums up the main challenge to remote working is the lack of energy: “Energy, attitude and personality cannot be ‘remoted’ through even the best fibre optic lines.”

The main reason that working from home has worked so well for the last 12 months has been down to human connection.

The businesses that have invested in building teams and sharing experience among employees over the years created strong cultures and were able to transition to 100% virtual overnight. These organisations have also been successful in carrying their brand and their productivity through the pandemic.

Going into the post pandemic workplace, the critical need for human connection means organisations will have to balance real-world interactivity, productivity and employee wellbeing with convenience and cost.

So, how do businesses make the most of this once in a lifetime disruption to the workplace?

Most business leaders are putting forward a mixture of hybrid work arrangements, combining the best parts of WFH with the benefits of face-to-face collaboration.

The return to the office should be an opportunity to reinvigorate business culture and strengthen ties between employees.

Susan Lund, PhD, a leader of the McKinsey Global Institute, believes the return to offices will be all about interaction. She said, “you’ll go into [the office] to meet with other people doing brainstorming and innovation, with more collaborative spaces, team rooms and maybe individual phone booths for [private] conversations.”

The organisations that are reviewing their physical space - reconfiguring desks, communal areas, meeting rooms and amenities to create a safe workplace should take the opportunity to engage employees in the redesign process. Using this feedback based on the past 12 months of working collaboratively within the business will help to create the new interactive and dynamic office environment.

The other benefit of engaging employees in this process is that it will help form an inclusive corporate culture, building trust and assisting businesses to identify and address any concerns employees raise about their return to the office.

There is no doubt that co-location enables employees to productively interact with each other. Being together facilitates serendipitous encounters – the lift conversation, kettle forum or corridor conference. These small group discussions give rich feedback, generate spontaneous ideas, accelerate innovation, build teams, solve problems and add value to an organisation.

When re-establishing business culture, consider a celebration of the human qualities that got the company through the pandemic. This is not only performance, but the attributes that have connected people with each other and the organisation – these could be acts of kindness, dedication, integrity, resilience, collaboration or courage, or moments that people were creative, adaptable, resilient and selfless, and how they have embraced the cultural values of the company.

The employees who were onboarded over the last 12 months whilst working from home may need more support. The best way to get an understanding of the culture of the firm is when immersed in it, and this link has been missing for new starters.

If a business is adopting a hybrid model of WFH and office locations, it is important to have a robust methodology. Define the goals, including clarity and leadership on the purpose of remote working.

The eligibility of WFH can be determined by each role and the interdependencies on other functions, setting clear and measurable targets based on the employee outputs.

To gain the best results from virtual environments requires managers to empower their employees with more autonomy. Leaders will need to develop a new set of skills at all levels of the organisation.

The remote leader of the future will need to be inspiring, caring, and empathetic.

Organisations with the happiest and most engaged workforces have higher productivity and profits.

Anxiety at work is increasing, and pandemic stress has put more pressure on mental health and individual wellbeing. Employers who put the wellbeing of their workforce at the top of their agenda will come of out the lockdown stronger.

At Anvil, our Occupational Health Services provide a comprehensive range of services to support the physical and psychological health of both your static and travelling employees. Learn more here or contact us for more information.