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Working in a Post-Covid World.

March 23rd 2020. The day we heard our Prime Minister say “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home”. The day working from home, indefinitely, began.

Fast-forward over 13 months. Many are still working full-time from home. Some are gradually finding their way back to the office. There are organisations that have managed things brilliantly and seen this as an opportunity to shape flexible working. Some have managed things terribly and are already making unnecessary demands to fully return to the office, with no clear business need. Some employees are desperate to get back, some are desperate to retain the flex they have had forced upon them.

As we emerge from these unprecedented times, the waters feel muddy. There is little consistency across employers or industries. What is clear is that many of us are feeling the burn out from living at work with little to no break and a year of no holidays.

So how are we planning for the post-Covid future?

Many organisations have hit the press for their positive moves towards supporting employees well-being and flexibility. For example, Dropbox have made working from home a permanent move. Microsoft is moving to a 50:50 homeworking to office working model. John Lewis head office is taking a hybrid or blended working approach. Having spoken to a wide range of parents, the general consensus seems to be a 50% office based role will become the norm.

These approaches make total sense given a study by The University Of Southampton found nine in ten employees feel they had got at least as much, if not more, work done at home as in the office. Employees also shared that they have benefited from the flexibility to organise their tasks and discretion to make decisions about when they do their work from home.

How this effects parents?

Whilst it is clear from this study and many others – such as the research conducted by the childcare provider, Bright Horizons – working parents are overwhelmingly in favour of a continuation of flexible hours and some form of hybrid working. Christelle who works for a large energy company shared:

Having the flexibility to do the school run and eat together at the start and end of the day as a family, has had a huge positive impact on our family dynamic”.

Likewise John, who works for an IT company said:

The time I have had to become more involved in my son’s life has been amazing. If allowed to continue, I believe this will have a life-long impact to our relationship, having been around so much in his formative years”.

It is also clear the general consensus is that the pandemic has allowed us to prove such a model could work. However, more than half of employees involved in the Bright Horizons research thought their employers were likely to be unresponsive to demands for greater flexibility once the pandemic dissipates. Denise Priest of Bright Horizons shared “There seems to be disagreement between some organisations and their workers about what normality should mean”. This is backed up by the research I conducted. A mum working for a large US Bio-sciences organisation is shared her worries that, “whilst all the right things are being done now, will these have the longevity that society needs?”

So what is the right answer?

The only very clear thing in all of this is one size does not fit all. We knew this anyway, but employees, pre-covid, bent over backwards in many case to mould themselves, their families and other commitments to fit the requirements of work. Whilst we have been missing social contact, there is a clear preference amongst the majority of parents to combine office with working from home in the future. Seven in ten (73%) employees wish to adopt a hybrid work arrangement – blending working from home with the communality of the office – and to retain the flexibility and control over their working pattern from which they have benefited under lockdown.

I am hearing of a huge amount of examples of organisations asking their employees what works for them? One FMCG company has even gone as far as introducing a whole new contractual way of working. Allowing some individuals to work on a retained project basis. They are then able to dictate their working hours – fitting work to their lives, rather than fitting life to their work.

All this said, there are some that working from home is not good for. I say “not good for” because I don’t just mean convenience. I mean their mental health is suffering because of the isolation this can bring. If you are younger, live alone or in a shared house environment. If you wish to reap the social rewards of the young, working generation. Many of these people NEED the office environment in order to protect their mental health. This sentiment was clearly shared by one person I spoke with from the Oil & Gas industry, who said:

I have genuine concerns for a single, female colleague who has clearly struggled mentally with the stay at home message”.

Flexible Working is the way forward.

It truly feels the power is shifting. People have proven a flexible model to suit individuals – IS achievable. There are organisations taking this on board and adapt to their staff. Allowing work to fit with life, rather than forcing employees into an unmanageable, unsustainable, unnecessary, unhealthy work pattern. These organisations will be the winners in the long run.

The 2021 Modern Families Index Spotlight points to potential discord ahead. 55% of respondents indicate their loyalty to their employer long term depends on employer’s reaction to the pandemic and beyond. As they continue to attempt to juggle work, child care and care of elderly relatives. Employers who recognise the priority of family life and provided practical support for staff will retain – and gain – talented employees. While those who have not will lose out. John, who I mentioned earlier, working in IT, very honestly shared this with me:

I will seek alternative employment if pushed too far to revert to old ways of working. It is clear this is a preference, but with no clear justification, in my organisation. Which could result in me seeking alternative employment”.

What about well-being support?

It seems many organisations are focusing on what the working week should look like. However, what hasn’t been shared as broadly is what organisations are doing to support the mental well-being of employees.

The University of Southampton Study shared that maintaining working from home during the pandemic, whilst may have been in some ways more efficient, has taken its toll on mental health and well-being. In fact, responses on this area in their study found ranking very low. 47 out of 100 – measured against the World Health Organisation WHO-5 global standard. AXA back this up further. Finding that two-thirds (64%) of those working across the UK and Europe said their stress levels increased compared to pre-pandemic. Of these, eight out of ten (81%) describe themselves as having a “poor” or “low” state of mind.

Given for many the kitchen table has become the office with home / work boundaries becoming uncontrollably blurred. It stands to reason that burnout is a very real prospect.

What are the effects of this?

On the flip side, organisations are planning for future and maybe even dictate what this future will look like. Although it may be that some do not feel ready to commute or be in the office. A mum working for a small start up shared with me:

I am not prepared to return until I am vaccinated. This has already happened for my boss so we are at slight odds around timing. Which is causing a bit of of stress and anxiety”.

Some have been shielding, may have vulnerable family members. Many have adapt childcare provisions and may not easily be able to reinstate wrap around care. Either because it is not available or because they are not inclined to revert back to the old ways. Such as running from breakfast club, to the train, to work, to after school clubs. And various other activities without having a minute for any family member to breathe.

As a backdrop the pandemic has triggered significant emotional, physical, and economic burdens:

  • Social isolation,
  • Working from home while caring for children and other family members
  • Exposure to the virus – personally, via loved ones, or from working on the front line
  • Experiences of long-covid

Mental health care advocates believe Covid can cause many to suffer from something close to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In August 2020 the CDC published results of a large US web-based survey of more than 5000 adults. In which over 40% demonstrated experiencing at least one adverse mental or behavioural health problem related to the pandemic. Including symptoms of anxiety or depression (30.9%), substance use to cope (13.3%) and considering suicide (10.7%). This suggests a flexible work environment is something employers must consider when working in a post-covid world.

What needs to be done?

Many parents have shared a number of initiatives their organisations are doing to support well-being. These include

  • virtual coffee chat drop-ins
  • no-meeting days
  • access to counselling
  • well-being allowances
  • access to the office for those struggling working from home

but is this enough?

Workers have proved they are highly adaptable in these unusual times. One senior music industry employee shared, the pandemic has propelled flexible working forward by ten years, if done right. However, employers’ focus must now be on well-being. On supporting people through this next phase of transition. Above all else it is our well-being and mental health that has suffered most. I wonder how well organisations will take account of this as a factor of our return? This is a whole new phase. A positive shift hopefully, but one that needs managing with great care and support.

For other insights into this subject, why not have a read on The Real Gender Impact of Covid-19. And the struggles women have faced during and potentially post-covid.

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High Profile Returners Professional Mums

Flexibility is not just a job benefit, it gets better business outcomes

At the beginning of 2018, commuters received their annual shock.

The holidays are over, you’re having a dry month, you promised yourself you’d exercise, and just when life can’t feel any harder going – oh, UK rail fares have jumped 3.4% on average!

Travel costs account for 13% of a person’s salary for the average Chelmsford to London commuter – in fact, much of the pain of these increases is felt by people who need to make their way into London from elsewhere to work.

It begs the question: why, in this world of flexible working, is commerce still so obsessed with working out of offices in London? According to Instant Offices, the average desk space in the West End now costs £732 per month. Multiplied by a workforce, this can be a serious expense. If you’ve got 100 employees you’re close to £1m a year before you even furnish the place.

So why are so many businesses still insisting on doing it?

When I joined TMP in 2013, the behaviours that drive the workplace looked very different than they do today. Physically, it was a huge space, spread over four floors on Tottenham Court Road. Its ‘commercial’ drivers equated to lots of hours, a culture on the serious side, and an expectation of punctuality and presence in the office.

Just five years later, most of my colleagues work flexibly, and that’s allowed us to shrink to just a single floor, with a rotating cast of people from day-to-day on hot desks. It’s buzzy yet relaxed, with a variety of collaboration spaces. People come and go, and we rate each other on our outcomes rather than our facetime.

It works for everyone. The workforce is happy to be trusted and carry out their jobs in a way that fits what they need to deliver as whole people – at work and at home.

The client service leads are happy that their people are out meeting clients and getting into their businesses, instead of taking up desk space and drinking all our coffee.

And the CFO and the rest of the leadership can certainly see the benefit of reducing expensive real estate costs, in a way that is win-win for everybody else concerned: by being flexible.

Not just cost saving or beneficial to clients, this can also attract top talent. A few years back, we had a talented candidate decline an offer from us, because at the time we were less enlightened and required a Monday to Friday, 9-5.30 commitment. As he had a choice where he worked, he chose a firm more willing to trust people to produce results.
Lesson learned, and luckily we’ve changed.

Flexibility also brings inclusion benefits. Forcing everyone to conform to establishment working structures will get you establishment people. A bit of flexibility might open up your business to candidates who think differently and construct their lives in a way that doesn’t follow the average.

Attracting cognitive diversity to your workforce means being open-minded about ways of working.

Being more flexible about where, when and how we work won’t solve our season ticket problems today. But as more businesses learn to focus more on outcomes than processes, we will see benefits to inclusion, less wasted time, and more people who are happy at work.

Heather DeLand is executive creative director of TMP Worldwide

This article was originally published in Recruiter Magazine and on Recruiter.co.uk