Little did we know: a strange lockdown in Wuhan in early 2020 was going to have a profound impact on our lives. Twenty months later, the implications and trajectory of the pandemic are still the subject of debate. Novel coronavirus has been the external shock that will create changes that would have taken decades in ordinary times.
The term ‘novel’ to describe the virus, as new to humans, is appropriate as individuals, industries and economies struggle to create a new normal. It is apparent that we have to learn to live with the virus rather than relying on an elimination strategy.
The purpose of this blog is to ask some of the questions that will require answering as we emerge from lockdowns. The questions are posed, simply to promote a dialogue around the possibilities created. The impact on work, relationships, organizational culture, negotiating and innovation and creativity are some of the areas to be discussed.
For knowledge workers working from home (WFH) has become the new normal. As a result, work-life balance (WLB) has become increasingly relevant as the boundaries between home and work become more blurred. For many, the convenience of WFH is a liberation from commuting and the timewasting rituals implicit in office life. Many organisations have experienced an immediate bounce in productivity as workers are able to focus on their more important functions without interruption.
Many express the fear that in the longer term there will be a decline in productivity as innovation, creativity and cooperation languish in the absence of the face-to-face interactions and “watercooler moments” that are part of traditional office life. The relationships established with colleagues, often as a result of social interactions allow the development of informal networks of influence and cooperation that provide the flexibility that formal hierarchies and processes discourage.
The rapid development of software to enable WFH, notably Zoom and Teams, has provided essential support for remote workers. The next phase of software and hardware development will focus on monitoring the performance of remote workers across a wide range of measures.
What started as liberation and freedom from routine may well revert to a sophisticated form of piece-work where every interaction of the remote worker is measured and monitored against both external standards and the performance of colleagues. The warning; ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ may well apply.
The following questions emerge from these issues:
• How do you measure productivity of the WFH worker?
• What is a fair days work?
• When does work start and finish?
• What is the impact on culture of WFH?
• How do you measure engagement when workers can mute both video and audio at will?
• If culture is what people do when no one is looking, what happens when workers are permanently invisible?
• How do you encourage collaboration in a WFH environment?
• How are new workers inducted into an organisation?
• What is the new ‘management by walking around’?
• How do you build and nurture key relationships virtually?
• What are the implications for building trust and negotiating virtually?
These are but a few of the issues WFH raises. One thing is certain: this change will place new pressures on managers to spend considerably more time with their people and build empathy with them in order to assist in meeting the challenges identified above and those yet to emerge.