The Greatest Social Experiment Nobody Planned

Written by Karen Plum, Director of Research & Development, AWA

At the end of July, I was a guest on BBC 5 Live’s Emma Barnett show. The morning’s news featured stories about organisations facing a lot of resistance from staff who weren’t keen to return to their newly reopening offices.

Covid-19 achieved what decades of demand for more work flexibility couldn’t. It showed who could work unsupervised, who could be trusted and where the cracks were in management approach, team relationships and empowerment. It feels like a giant social experiment which wasn’t planned, giving little opportunity for effective change management. Nevertheless, it has been a rich learning opportunity.

What have we learned so far?

Many organisations have continued to function under extreme duress – a testament to their employees’ engagement, resourcefulness, adaptability and ability to go the extra mile. Working while home schooling, caring for relatives, coping with anxiety and worry, they adapted.

Those that have thrived enjoyed their new-found freedom, felt trusted and empowered, focused on sustaining strong work relationships, and made use of the time and energy they don’t have to spend on commuting. They found a productive way to work.

People aching to get back to the office miss the structure, discipline, companionship and social aspects. Those that draw their energy from interactions with others say they lack energy and motivation, finding home working isolating, lacking inspiration and unproductive.

We are all different

Everyone’s circumstances, challenges, motivations and drivers are different. What each person needs to do their best work is different – and different tasks / activities require different conditions. In delivering the office workplace, we try to provide a range of settings – buzzy, quiet, confidential, collaborative, social – to cater for all these needs. It is almost impossible to strike the right balance for everyone – particularly when the balance of requirements changes hourly.

Choice

Faced with this unique moment, many organisations are considering real business transformation – drawing on what the last 4 months has shown them about their workforce. They want to move away from old models based on attendance and management observation – making better use of their workplace resources and their people’s energy and commitment. Considering options and re-purposing the workplace for different activities could enable better value from that big lump of expensive real estate that was under utilised even before Covid-19.

The challenge for others is not to squander this opportunity by a knee jerk reaction to bring everyone back to the office just because that’s the way things have always been done.

If you would like to listen to the interview, please click here and start playing 11 mins into the programme (it’s 9 mins long).

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