Returning to work in the wake of Covid-19

Returning to work in the wake of Covid-19 – how can business adapt to the new normal?

Among the many challenges facing organisations in the wake of Covid-19 is the question of how to communicate with staff about the ‘when and if’ of returning to the workplace, says Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of Governance and Leadership at Henley Business School.

There’s no easy, one size-fits-all answer to the question of how organisations should bring their people back into the office. Each organisation needs to initiate a case-by-case assessment of its needs, balanced against the practicalities of continuing to work from home.

Issues for business leaders to consider include the nature of the organisation, client expectations, what it takes to achieve competitive advantage, and whether teams can still innovate while working separately to successfully deliver a product or service.

Maintaining positivity

The underlying and positive message for staff needs to be focused on the theme of ‘pulling together to survive the current circumstances while continuing to prosper.’

Doing this will help balance the degree of anxiety that many staff and managers are exhibiting on their return to work, particularly on the topic of how social distancing can be implemented and maintained.

Addressing matters transparently will further allow employees to get back to a semblance of normality and routine, irrespective of whether some people continue to work from home.

Leadership and social distancing

In one sense, the protocols are clear – two-meters apart social distancing, and workplaces that have been redesigned to accommodate this. The reality, however, is proving quite different.

As furloughing comes to an inevitable end and the prospect of even more redundancies looms, there is a high probability that social distancing will fall by the wayside for those fighting to keep their jobs.

Many of us will have heard, or overheard, comments from others saying that they will knowingly take the risk of contracting Covid-19, rather than risk unemployment.

Unwelcome effects of remote working

Anecdotal evidence suggests that remote working can have a disorientating effect on some people’s sense of
responsibility and accountability.

Remote working is precisely what it sounds like – working from a distance, mostly seated throughout the day and operating in isolation with only a screen for company.

In other words, remote working isolates individuals from the reality and context of their role, denying face-to-face interaction, and a sense of community and place. In some cases it erodes trust to the extent that appropriate re-training is required to help people regain lost skills.

Remote working is transactional and task-oriented by nature, whereas most organisations depend on a constantly developing culture of motivation, relationship-building, agility and quality of service to provide cutting-edge performance.

Left to our own devices

Compliance issues for the continued use of personal IT devices when returning to work are relatively straightforward. Adopting company protocol requirements for the
registration of personal devices and installing corporate cyber-secure software on these devices is a must.

However, once again the more sensitive issue is that of trust. Individuals may access insecure websites for personal reasons and security may be compromised by hackers. Mandatory training and cyber-awareness is all part of the new normal we face.

Harassment for home-workers

All of these ‘soft’ factors are significant for businesses wanting to achieve competitive advantage.

Unless competitiveness relies on purely structured task completion that can be delivered online and remotely, then continuing this way of working for any length of time is likely to undermine success.

Leaders should also be aware of increasing levels of harassment that are taking place for a significant number of those working from home. Our ongoing research in this area shows that for many the business-day is becoming longer and management are demanding more output because they believe home-workers have more time on their hands.

With schools restarting there may be some respite for those who have also been caring for and home-educating their children throughout the pandemic. This relentless pressure has brought trust between employee and employer to an all-time low

It will take hard work and commitment to overcome these barriers, rebuild connections and welcome employees back into an office environment, while supporting those who remain working at a distance. For the organisations that persevere the reward will be a collaborative and positive mindset that will drive a shared sense of purpose and ultimately overcome the unique barriers that 2020 has placed in our path.

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