Post-COVID business is going to challenge organisations like never before. The pandemic itself was clearly a challenge, a crisis. Many companies didn’t make it; some got by; a few thrived. It affected companies across the globe. Vaccines are helping to bring the virus under control, and we can see a resurgence in the economy. And some inflation too, but that’s a different story. Strategy and organisational culture are challenged. Work from home or work from work is a bigger issue than one might imagine.
I’m spending time looking at the organisational culture issues and considering the strategic shifts some enterprises choose to make or are forced to make. I don’t have a neat view of the situation and solution. I’m a practitioner trying to make my way through this, so this is thinking aloud to some extent. This first blog discusses the issue of office, home and hybrid working.
Return To The Office, Or?
During the pandemic, this was a major topic. In post-COVID business, it’s not going away; in fact, it’s more complex. The last 15 months have seen people adapt to home working, some gratefully and some grudgingly. As the months have ground past us, attitudes have changed for some. For some, their feelings are the same as at the start.
I’m aware that work from home or work from work has been a major issue for many companies. It was a submerged topic, I’m sure staff have had their views and preferences for a while. The disruption of the pandemic has surfaced it and people across the spectrum are vocal. And why not? If you have steered your family and business through the crisis, whether in good health or otherwise, then why not stand up for what you believe in?
During the lockdowns, I heard from people who were starting to struggle with working from home. Isolation, missing the office, missing proximity to people, days becoming longer due to no natural commute break, fatigue from incessant Zoom calls. I know of people in my broad network who suffered depression and anxiety. But equally, when the subject of returning to work came up, there were concerns from others. Is it safe to commute? What’s the risk of sharing an office with people from other households?
And it has been and is an emotive issue. Real fears. People who have adapted to a new life and don’t want to return to the five-day routine. People who have found a better blend of family and work balance. Managers who don’t have to play the presentee game of long office hours to show they are committed. Young staff in flatshares who have worked and slept in a single room for a year.
What Are The Leaders Doing?
Not much help from Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg, I’m afraid. Very different views from this duo of thought leaders on work from home or work from work.
One has caused some tension in Cupertino by insisting his staff return three days per week to the world-class Apple campus. Cue widely shared, highly-orchestrated protest campaign by 2,800 staff. Although Apple has resisted home working before the pandemic, and the protesting staff were office-based until 2020, this illustrates how social attitudes have changed in a short time.
Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter have been clear that remote working is acceptable even after the pandemic has abated. No steer from the big players, it seems.
It’s an intractable issue. Leaders will not get it right. You’re not going to please many of your people. Consider a person who always found the commute a drag, isn’t in love with their job, and the lockdown gave them a chance to flex more towards life than work. The person who worked from home and found their technology-based job was hugely more effective without the interruption of an office environment, plus an extra couple of hours a day to work. The manager who thrives on the creative buzz of working close to other innovative people and who found the quiet of the home office stifling. The person who enjoys the routine of the commute and the office and wants separation of work and family.
Work From Home Or Work From Work – Not All Can Choose
Don’t forget the factory and warehouse workers who have shown up every day. They don’t get the opportunity for discussion at all. There are dozens of scenarios. Leaders will not get this right. For every group who are pleased, another will be displeased. Even if the home workers work from home, and the office workers work from work. Eventually, there will be tension. One group will perceive the other to have an advantage. That’s just how we roll as humans.
I read this editorial piece from the Financial Times. This quote stood out for me, and it’s been something I have observed and also had feedback about.
Office camaraderie is also important. Loneliness has become an acute problem, not to mention the burnout many have suffered as remote working has fostered an “always on” mentality.Financial Times, 18 June 2021
A very accomplished professor at a leading business school said to me, “there’s a reason work and home are kept separate.” Which, at the time, I thought was a throwaway remark. On reflection, maybe not.
A lot of companies are proposing hybrid working. A stream of London-based banks such as Citibank, Goldman Sachs and UBS are taking this approach. They need to get ready for people saying, “that’s not fair, I have to come in for three days, and they only have to come in two days!” As mentioned earlier, we humans can get fixated on any perceived loss or gain. That’s an unpalatable truth about us.
It Won’t Be The Same
The organisations we rejoin will not be the same. Culture emerges from symbols, from rituals, from routines. Culture is born of conversations and speeches and meetings. It’s complex, it’s delicate and the ecosystem is easily disturbed and sometimes with major implications.
The organisation you left is gone. Some colleagues will have revaluated their lives. The well off in their comfortable home offices may have had the luxury of deciding to take a different direction in their life. Or will return to work, but with it occupying a different position in their priorities. Younger people may have decided it’s time to travel the world (I’m aware of several examples of this.) Some families will have been wrought by insecurity and uncertainty about their prospects, their relationship with their employer possibly subtly shifting. Others will have new perspectives and will want to contribute and receive differently than previously. You’re not returning to the same culture.
The return to work will cause some anxiety. Overlay that with a different, hybrid pattern of working, and it will be even more uncertain. New culture, new ways of working, new rules. At a structural level, it may be a honed down organisation. It may have a different strategic emphasis and new priorities. Work from home or work from work or work from both, the organisation is not the same. That’s an opportunity for some and a threat for others.
There is no right answer to the work from home or work from work issue. The leader will need to make her best judgement and accept some won’t be happy. Leaders make unpopular choices every day.
Were you more or less effective as an organisation during home working or hybrid working? In either case, who didn’t have a great time? Was that because of the working conditions, or was it because of higher level anxiety related to the pandemic’s effect on friends, family and the world? Best judgement is needed while calculating the experiences of the people at each end of the comfort spectrum. You have to prioritise what you believe is the best for the performance of the business; that is what a leader is paid for.
Of course, it can’t be business-first at all costs. Employ empathy and support individuals where you can. Our business has launched wellness and mental health support programmes during the pandemic. As is often the case, a crisis can leave a positive legacy, and in our case, wellness is increasingly ingrained into the culture.
Make A Decision
I snapped this poor iPhone photo. A row of now-closed food outlets near our office. No workers, no need for food. A sector decimated by macro-change.
My own work from home or work from work decision isn’t clear. There’s a working thesis, but it presents a mass of contradictions in execution. We aren’t a technology or service business. Our factory has run throughout, and those people have carried on daily. We have a support services team based on the manufacturing site, and they can return because we have the space to do that.
In our commercial offices, based in London, we are forced towards a hybrid approach. That’s a function of growth, we have accelerated during the last year and have 50% more staff than desks. The day we left for the first 2020 lockdown, there was a new five-year lease for twice as much office space on my desk—the uncertainty of what next made me leave it unsigned. But the net result is we may need a hybrid working pattern in our London base.
My own belief that humans are primarily social animals. Creativity and innovation, and teamwork come from being together in the same space. Over time, remote working will make us very efficient at routine and technical work; but we will lose the creative edge—my belief.
Yet, I’m one of those contradictory people. My personal style favours hybrid. A high introvert, I do need some space to do my best thinking. But even an introvert needs some proximity to colleagues. My rational mind says work from work is the answer. My personal style says work from both. Now multiply that contradictory example over an organisation of 100, 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000. Whether you’re Tim Cook or me, you’re not going to get it right.
Perhaps It’s Another Discussion?
Maybe this isn’t about work from home or work from work at all. Is the question what culture did you have, what culture are you coming back to, what culture do you desire? Industries, not only companies, have changed for good. Is your organisation equipped to deal with that change? Before you can resolve your organisational structure and locations and working patterns, it may be that the strategy of the business needs testing.
The post-pandemic may give rise to, for example, the opportunity to become an e-commerce based player. The strategy will inform your route to that. Then the question is the capability and resource required to execute that strategy. With that considered, then it’s time to look at structures and skills. It might make sense to do that. It could be a higher level consideration where contemplating how well-suited your organisational culture is to your desired strategy. Your inevitably new culture. Your post-pandemic culture. The old culture has gone.
Also published on Medium.