A Global Shift – What to expect from post-COVID office life

More happened in 2020 than anyone could have predicted. Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our lives for over a year, it has also changed the way many of us work, impacting businesses and organisations globally. This change, however, doesn’t appear to be a temporary adjustment, of all the predictions being made, one is essentially a certainty: flexible working is here to stay, with many businesses set to switch to a new hybrid way of working after restrictions are lifted. Hybrid working is essentially a blended model where some employees return to the office while others continue to work from home.

How the world adapted to at-home working

It’s safe to say that many businesses weren’t prepared for at home working when the pandemic hit. The majority of businesses did not have a work from home policy prior to the first lockdown in 2020, with a recent study by IWFM found that 70% of workers had no experience of working remotely ahead of the pandemic. This in itself put a lot of pressure on companies to adjust and adapt to a whole new digital world. It’s no surprise then that mistakes were made implementing this new approach. 

  • Work/life balance

One of the key issues many people faced was getting the balance right between work and leisure. Many businesses found their teams productivity soared after the stay at home orders were imposed upon the country, with the Office for National Statistics finding that homeworkers are more likely to work overtime and into the evenings when compared to those who never work from home. While this increased output appears positive on the face of things it is in fact masking a much bigger problem: an exhausted workforce. 

Switching off at 5:00pm might sound easy, but we’ve found it harder than we expected. It’s not surprising: when your kitchen table is your office, it’s natural for lines to get blurred. But we need to get better: more than half of workers feel overworked, and over a third feel exhausted. And employers need to start taking more of an interest, because a startling one in five feel their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance.

  • Feeling isolated

It may seem like a no-brainer that working exclusively from home has caused greater feelings of isolation. While moving away from the hustle and bustle of the office environment can be seen as a great way to remove the distractions associated with this setting, the flip side of this has meant a reduction in cross department interactions. 

Reduced communication within your company has an unfortunate side-effect: individuals and teams become more siloed in their work. It makes sense. A worker in your sales team with little day-to-day cause to speak to IT will naturally slip into a habit of not reaching out. Instead, a sales person will end up speaking to those they work most closely with: the rest of the sales team. Consequently, they lose visibility of what the team is working on. IT loses valuable input on their projects, and Sales lose insight into how the tools work.

Not only this, spontaneous conversation between colleagues was much easier in pre-covid times. Five minutes here to discuss the latest episode of your favourite show, or a quick chat about the new recipe you tried out last night have diminished. These ‘water cooler moments’ provide short, but necessary, physical and mental breaks which help people to de-stress and cultivate a sense of community. Recreating these moments virtually will be key to a successful remote or blended working model. 

  • Digital fatigue

Meetings used to be the perfect time to give your eyes a rest and stop staring at a screen. Now, in a post-covid office even meetings can cause optical strain. Time spent in Microsoft Teams meetings have more than doubled globally, and Zoom saw unprecedented growth in 2020, with figures continuing to rise across both of these platforms even as the pandemic restrictions are lifting. This increase in screen time has caused a new phenomenon known as “digital fatigue”.  

A piece in the Technology, Mind and Behavior journal, by Jeremy N. Bailenson, studied the effects of video calls and identified four main reasons video calls can cause digital fatigue (also known as Zoom fatigue). These are: excessive amounts of eye contact, seeing yourself during video calls, reduction in mobility and increased cognitive load. All of these things combined can lead to an unmotivated, exhausted team. 

Moving forward it’s important that both business owners and team members consider how video calls are affecting their working day. Most software gives you the opportunity to mitigate the effects of digital fatigue with solutions such as reducing the size of the call window, hiding your own video with the “hide self-view”, and turning your camera off entirely. 

“Videoconferencing is a good thing for remote communication, but just think about the medium – just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to,” Bailenson said.

Pros & Cons of Working from Home

Pros  Cons
No commute It can get lonely
Greater flexibility Harder to switch off
Reduced distractions Loss of living space
Better stress management Harder to form relationships

It’s not all doom and gloom. While there have definitely been hurdles for many businesses, there have also been some great takeaways from this period. But, what comes next? 

What does the future look like? The hybrid working model

However you feel about remote work, we can all agree that the sudden transition forced upon us by the pandemic wasn’t without its flaws. But, while there were undeniable issues with its sudden implementation, bosses and employees alike have discovered a number of benefits to home working. Not only has remote working enabled greater agility and flexibility, less time commuting and more time with family, it has also created new job opportunities for some businesses, with fully remote working allowing access to a wider talent pool – with 46% of employees looking to switch to a role where they can work remotely.

With the lifting of the COVID restrictions imminent, and workers beginning to return to workplaces, the future of the office environment looks to have changed forever. While research from Applaud found 14 percent of employers are not expecting staff to return to the office at all post-pandemic, the majority are going to be opening their doors again very soon. However, a study by the World Economic Forum found that almost 80% of UK workers want some degree of flexible remote work in the future. But, what that balance looks like is uncertain. The majority want to split their week between home and the office, with the majority opting for two or three days in the office. 

Research has found that over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. In order to strike the perfect balance, companies are turning their normal workplace rules on their head to accommodate this shift. This new way of working is being labelled the “Hybrid Working Model”, and there has been an increased interest in this new flexible approach, with the average monthly searches in Google increasing from 90 searches in May 2020 to a staggering 5,400 per month in April 2021.

But what does this mean for businesses? Effectively, hybrid working appears simple enough. Staff can choose which days they want to work in the office and which days they work from home. Simple, right? Unfortunately, there are more things to consider to ensure the transition is smooth and all members of the team feel both valued and connected. 

One of the biggest considerations is ensuring that those working from home feel properly aligned with the in-office team. If those working remotely are not effortlessly connected with those in the office, there will inevitably be disparities, silos, and knowledge loss. Being the only person not in the office during collaborative meetings and events is likely to cause a disconnect for remote workers – with internal back and forth interactions and interjections becoming more difficult. 

How you deal with these challenges should be considered as part of the overall hybrid working strategy. You may choose to introduce more of a turn based approach, or set out rules for which meetings can be conducted from home and which are required to be in-person. There’s no right or wrong way of doing things, and a test and learn approach to find what works best for your business is the best way to look at this. 

Another thing to remember is that flexible working means more than simply working from home. Allowing your workforce to work from home allows them more flexibility when it comes to working hours. Unless they have a meeting to attend, there’s no reason why each member of staff shouldn’t be able to choose their own working hours. This is something which became necessary during the pandemic, with many parents needing to change their working hours in order to provide childcare due to the closure of schools. While in a post-pandemic world this specific challenge is less likely to be an issue, there are still advantages to allowing employees to choose the working hours that work best for them. 

Are you planning to switch to a hybrid working arrangement? If you’re looking for advice on the best way to implement this new approach that works for your company, please see our tips for making the hybrid working model work for your business article.