As we slowly emerge blinking into the light post-lockdown, there are a lot of mixed feelings about the prospect of returning to the workplace.
For some, the prospect of getting out of the house after months of trying to juggle work with childcare feels like an absolute godsend. For others, there are plenty of understandable fears about the ongoing threat from COVID-19 and just how safe places of work can be made.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on, one thing is for certain – the pandemic has changed attitudes to home and remote working permanently. Even if you are preparing to head back into the office, it may well not be for the five day 9-to-5 of old.
According to new research by the CIPD, the proportion of people regularly working from home is expected to double from 18% pre-pandemic to 37% going forward. Employers also expect one in five members of staff to work from home full time – up from 9% previously.
Such a sudden switch towards home working – remember, we’re only talking a matter of months here – raises a lot of interesting questions. One of them is what the impact of having a more dispersed workforce will be on team spirit, morale and a shared sense of identity and purpose.
This is certainly not a consideration employers can afford to be dismissive about. Enforced ‘social distancing’ to stop the spread of COVID-19 has reminded us all that we are fundamentally social creatures. Alongside factors like anxiety over jobs, money and the virus itself, feelings of isolation contributed to an 8.1% deterioration in mental health during lockdown. Although it might not be the primary reason why we go to work, most of us establish friendships in the workplace and get benefits from the social interactions we experience there that are easy to overlook.
The risks of disengagement
From an employers’ perspective, it is a question of how engaged and motivated you can get your team to be when they are not all based in one place. With Zoom, Slack, Hangouts and all the other collaboration and productivity platforms available nowadays, it might not seem like a big issue. Nearly every organisation has proven over the past few months that team meetings can be conducted via video link, for example.
But the question employers should ask themselves is, what are your people missing when they lose those chats by the coffee machine, the office gossip and banter, or heading out to have lunch with colleagues? When you can’t see all the members of your team, how do you know when they might be having a bad day, so you can discreetly pull them to one side and ask if there is anything you can do to help?
Every company knows that camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose help to boost motivation and productivity. That’s why so much time and effort is invested in things like team building and developing a company culture. These are very much the social aspects of working in teams. The fear is, if people increasingly work at home without direct contact with one another, these could be damaged. Instead of mutual purpose and team bonding, you could end up with a group of individuals who feel isolated, disconnected and unmotivated.
Adapting to a new normal
There are two important things to say to assuage these concerns, real as they are. One is that the evidence on home working so far doesn’t indicate any negative impact on motivation or productivity – perhaps just the opposite, in fact. According to the same CIPD survey, two-thirds of employers believe home working either has no impact on productivity, or actually helps to boost it.
It is important to understand why this might be. To balance the concerns about isolation and disconnection, many people are very positive about working from home precisely because it provides an escape from the distractions of idle chit-chat and impromptu get-togethers during office hours. Left to their own devices at home, many people feel empowered and motivated to get more done.
The second thing to say is that, as we all know from the last few months, working from home does not necessarily translate into disconnection from our colleagues. While Zoom and Slack and the rest might not be able to directly replicate that in-the-office atmosphere, technology does provide a bridge between us. The key for employers, perhaps, is working out how these platforms can be harnessed to build and maintain team spirit as well as the remote collaboration they were designed for.
It might mean having to think about team building and company culture within a new paradigm, but actually the tools available provide plenty of opportunities. When we think about how much social interaction we do on the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp these days, it would be easy for employers to encourage ‘team chat’ via IM, perhaps setting up dedicated groups for the purpose (with due attention paid to moderation, of course).
Another idea is to schedule remote team meetings specifically for non-work related purposes, whether it is to have a team quiz or a virtual coffee break or similar. One of the positives many people report about virtual meetings is that they feel time is better segmented, they know when the Zoom or Teams conference is coming and can plan around it – with less risk of an impromptu discussion taking up half an hour when they are itching to be finishing something urgent. This opens up the opportunity to plan in ‘down time’ as a group, which again everyone can plan around.