Matthew Gwyther considers how the pandemic shifted office norms, and the dilemmas associated with our new routines

The Coronavirus has transformed the world of work. The need for humans to socially distance has brought about the biggest changes to our working practices outside wartime.

Cities, which have been around for 10,000 years, were created to enable people to come together in numbers for work and are now having their very raison d’etre questioned when meetings can be arranged on Zoom or Teams. We have been forced to learn new expressions and acronyms – WFH (Working From Home) – and, now the return to the office has begun, the TWATs (working only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the office) are contrasted with those who yearn for the daily commute, five days in the office plus a return to those serendipitous water-cooler conversations. 

And, of course, we became familiar with “furlough”, an expression usually only used by farmers allowing a field to rest. The job retention scheme which supported about nine million workers at the peak of the crisis – an unprecedented Government measure that prevented mass job losses, supported household spending and cost almost £70 billion – came to an end as September drew to a close. But 1.6 million people were still partly or fully furloughed at the end of July, with research suggesting that about one million people – concentrated in industries such as aviation, tourism and the cultural sector, which are still deeply damaged by the pandemic – remained on the scheme when it finished.  

The ‘Blue Labour’ peer Maurice Glasman has even come up with a new definition of what it means to be working class: having to leave your home during a pandemic to do your job face-to-face with colleagues and the public, with all the infection perils that entails; while white collar workers could remain more safely at home.

For office workers, ‘work-life balance’ has taken on a whole new meaning during the pandemic. Many businesses are struggling to adapt fast enough to keep the talent in their ranks happy, engaged and motivated. Some, like the US investment banks Goldman Sachs, have made it crystal clear that all employees should return to the office if they seek promotion plus bonuses. Others, notably the big US tech businesses, have taken a softer approach allowing – actively encouraging – their employees to remain at home. 

Everyone’s lived experience of the Coronavirus crisis has been different. Some remain nervous about face-to-face contact, while others yearn for it. One thing is certain, however, the world for ‘knowledge’ workers, who used to operate full-time from offices, has probably changed forever. And to emerge successfully from the pandemic, organisations will need to nurture their employees’ digital, cognitive, social and emotional skills, as well as their adaptability and resilience. 

When it comes to nurturing talent, many businesses are finding that it is their younger employees who are facing particular challenges. We know that the elderly are most at risk from the disease itself, but the young are those who suffer some of the worst collateral damage, particularly when it comes to employment. If you occupy a shared flat with no outside space and have even used the living room as a bedroom to keep rent costs down then WFH is rather less attractive. You can feel like a rat in a box. 

Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the UK’s NatWest (RBS) bank, told me during lockdown that “it’s the unstructured human contact stuff that concerns me” when it comes to remote working. “We’re going ahead with our graduate new recruits this Autumn but it’ll be testing for both sides – how will they get to know us and us them if they hardly ever come into the office? What worries me about remote working is the difficulty it has with social capital. Promising young people won’t get noticed. Promotions will be missed.” 

More recently, I spoke to a 28-year-old lawyer – who preferred to remain anonymous lest it damage his career progression – working at one of the top Magic Circle law firms initially in Hong Kong and now in London. He has mixed feelings about WFH. 

“The first wave and being locked down at home wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I certainly didn’t miss the commute to work. But now the second wave really got to me. It went on too long. I think it’s different for Millennials like me who are single, without kids and tend not to have much space at home. I have no garden and working in the kitchen or even my bedroom gets to you after a while. I’d die happy if I didn’t have to check-in to another Zoom call again. By the time you get to the fifth in one day, it is enervating.

“I feel I’m okay in that I’m already on the ladder and making progress. The money is very good. But it must be very strange for new joiners who have never actually been inside the office. A lot of my social contacts were at work and you can no longer go out to a bar to decompress together when the working day is over. There’s no clear demarcation line between work and home. I know that associates a few years ahead of me who do have children supposedly doing remote learning during term time have sometimes been approaching the end of their tethers. I don’t envy them.”

Earlier this year, The Lawyer magazine – a favourite read of the legal profession – surveyed 1,200 of its pan-European readers. What was significant was those who were missing the office very much – junior members of the profession, such as trainees, legal apprentices and paralegals, who benefit from the interaction with their mentors and managers. But it was notable that even they did not want to be in the office five days a week or even four. Around half favoured coming in two or three days a week, and nearly a quarter opted for one day a week or less in the office. Their superiors may disagree. 

Middle managers often have a different story to tell. For those in their 30s and 40s, especially if they have small children, see the advantages of working from home. Reduced child care costs for starters and an ability to adjust their working hours around caring duties. 

But the young learn from watching those higher up the ladder. How the more experienced deal with problems – their strategies and habits, their tone when dealing with others – is important to observe. These subtle factors cannot be replicated by video conferencing. 

Office culture was far from perfect before the Coronavirus hit: long commutes, jacket-on-the-chair at 7.30pm presenteeism, the mindless meetings culture, concentration on outputs not outcomes, working in a silo. But a lot has been lost: the serendipity of two minds meeting in a corridor or the lift and something creative arising. 

Bruce Daisley, EMEA CEO of Twitter until earlier this year and the author of bestselling book The Joy of Work believes that “the critical factor which will set organisations apart in the talent war, especially for Millennials, will be how smart they are in adapting”.

“You must be able to connect with your people in different ways,” he told me. “Working from home is a different medium. Those that think a once-in-while company-wide session where the leaders address 2,000 people with their cameras off won’t hack it. They will be talking to a sea of dead eyes who are becoming progressively more disengaged and disconnected. Smart organisations willing to invest time differently are doing things like getting senior leaders to engage regularly with five to six new starters in small, intimate meets. The other thing which is sensible is to do what Microsoft have done with Teams software and introduce a ‘digital commute.’ But, in truth, I can see that there is no way those in their 30s, 40s and 50s will want to be back five days – they’ve seen a better way to live and get balance.”

This is all a major headache for HR and businesses will have to be careful in how they negotiate the coming months and years. Talent is borrowed by business for a time and can take itself elsewhere. Even before the pandemic, Millennials and Gen Z individuals had a reputation for being fickle employees with itchy feet. Very, very few see a career with one organisation that leads to the gold watch at 65. 

How to maintain culture – that invisible glue that binds organisations together – during these new, hybrid ways of working is a thorny problem. If an organisation’s culture needs to be imbued over time and learned by example, then it’s likely to be new joiners and the relatively young who will fail to pick it up by osmosis. And, of course, the past two years have taken their toll on the mental health of many. Some across the age range have experienced the negative effects of anxiety that illness and uncertainty brings. It’s all a lot to deal with when you add economic uncertainty to the mix. 


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