Up until now, there was a clear trend over the last decade of increased location flexibility for senior leaders and employees alike, which is said to widen the talent pool – and improve work/life balance for many. But in 2020, the “trend” quickly turned into an unavoidable necessity as countries closed their streets and borders mobilizing employees to repurpose their children’s desks and living room coffee tables as new “office spaces.”

Companies that were able to quickly adapt, continued with business – those that were not able to digitally transform their teams weren’t so lucky. What is clear is that employees and leaders alike have had a taste of remote work. As we move forward into 2021, with time for reflection on what happened this year, people and companies must look closer at how their employees engage with the office.

Although a very large percentage have adapted to home working extremely effectively and there have been those who absolutely sing its praises (including my own colleagues) and those who struggle with it (me) I think that it’s important to find a happy middle ground when we look toward the blended possibilities of the future of work.

A DIVIDED WORKFORCE, A DIVIDED PEOPLE

It was quite clear to me at the start of the pandemic that the only people still working at a workplace were those who had no option. Supermarket staff, builders, gardeners - all of whom, by the nature of their work, had no flexibility and no option. At the height of the pandemic lock down, on the few trips out, it was clear that the main vehicles on the roads were vans and trucks. In a moment of uncertainty, these brave workers had no other choice but to continue their livelihoods in the face of danger.

It has created a strange spectrum of scenarios where on one side the white-collar population have been able to install themselves at home, and while the engine room of the economy cracked on. Unfortunately, in many sectors such as hospitality and retail, many lost their jobs by the thousands, turning lives, dreams and plans upside down from one day to another.

Senior and middle managers have been in the studies of their houses, with flexible working hours and zero commute cost. Junior staff, however, living in flats or house shares, had a far harder proposition, barely being able to move out of one room where they now need to spend 17 hrs out of 24.

I think it is easy to look through rose coloured glasses when you have no choice on the matter – we needed to just get through Spring 2020 as best as we could. Now, however, as we manoeuvre and plan for a future where we can choose how to organize our teams, it is important to have a wider and more realistic perspective when talking about remote work.

WHERE HAS THE MAGIC GONE?

I hear so many people singing the praises of remote work, but they are significantly underestimating the opportunities that are removed, especially for more junior staff. In the workplace people learn from shared experiences. We are missing those magic spontaneous moments where you grab a coffee with a colleague and inadvertently do a problem-solving session or air out frustrations. We miss out on those fortuitous questions in a meeting that leads you to a great new idea on how to tackle a current issue.

When we take out the social factor in work, we also take out the shared experience and wisdom that naturally flows in human connection.

Another question that arises regards career progression. How does a worker progress their careers when their actions and work suddenly aren’t so obviously visible? I’m talking about that worker that spends extra time and goes beyond expectations to get the job done. In a catch-up weekly video call, we can talk about the deliverables, we can talk through some of the challenges, but the end goals are what are seen.

As a line manager or leader, you don’t get to live and share the work process with that employee or watch them as they overcome obstacles. It’s harder to measure grit and determination. When everyone in your team is getting the job done, how do you gauge who on your team are really knocking it out of the park and who among them are just going through the motions?

Are we really making the right choice when talking about promotions and career progression, or are we unconsciously biased against people who might just be struggling with dealing, communicating and showing their work in the virtual environment?

NO LOCATION, THEN ANY LOCATION

The other overwhelming concern and question that I see starting to be raised with companies and employees alike, is that if you can effectively do a role that isn’t in a place of work, do you then take the risk of more roles being outsourced to countries with far cheaper labour costs? For some roles that require very specific skill sets, such as in tech and data focused jobs, companies have already started to outsource their talent.

Lastly, consider the effects on a loss on the social side of the business. Many employees consider their colleagues as friends, some people meet their future partners at work. In an isolated work environment and a more digital world in general, it is already harder to make strong and lasting human connections with people. Do we risk adding on another element to isolate people further resulting in a significant increase in stress and anxiety?

SO WHAT NOW?

A blended approach is key. A company is made up of different cultures and different personalities, you will have introverts and extroverts, and it takes all sorts of personalities to make a company work. What you need to do is understand the needs of each person and try to understand what situation helps them be the most efficient and happy employee that they can be.

As leaders, we need to listen to our employees, look at the job types, personality types and take this forced remote work experience to make our decision on how to move forward. Let’s look toward making work spaces that fulfill the needs of everyone – those that like to be in the office all the time, those that don’t want to be in the office at all and the majority who will want a bit of both to varying degrees.

By nature, humans are social creatures and need long term and meaningful interactions. We need teams to get together, maybe not as often as before, but we should set the scene and even force the agenda to make in person moments to exchange ideas, get to know each other better and ultimately work better together.

Talent will naturally be more biased toward companies that offers them options, so the work begins for leadership to figure out what is necessary to make work, work for all.

If you would like to discuss more about remote work or executive recruitment, feel free to get in touch with me.

Simon Nolan

Simon Nolan
Senior Partner, UK
[email protected]

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