From the industrial revolution to Coronavirus: a seismic shift in how we work

 In Change management, Culture, Digital Transformation, Leadership

Coronavirus has prompted the most extensive, seismic shift in work practices ever.

Technical solutions and changes in work patterns moved overnight. Almost within hours, the workforce operated digitally, remotely and flexibly. However, we must ask what will the new normal be? We have limited time, and the opportunity to decide if we return to ‘how it was’ before the pandemic, or replace that normal with an entirely new one.

The workplace we’re used to is, after all, an inheritance from the industrial revolution. We take to offices as we once flocked to factories. We set work patterns, ‘office hours’, dress codes and social norms. Then Coronavirus hits the world. When change imposes itself to this extent, it brings opportunities for reinvention.

A seismic shift in work

After our initial emergency response, the working world looks and feels different. According to a survey by Willis Towers Watson the typical organisation has over 75 per cent of its workforce working remotely. Before the crisis, it was less than 2 per cent.

The big surprise for many office-based organisations is that productivity hasn’t reduced as much as expected. Another survey by Willis-Towers-Watson found that 87 per cent of employees feel they have the technology and resources in place to work productively and remotely for an extended time period.

Our current work patterns present an opportunity to consider what type of workplace could emerge when the virus is properly contained.

The pandemic experience gives us a stress test for many of the things which are being trialled in the margins. Things like flexible working, different work patterns and more online collaboration. The situation put upon us by coronavirus shows us that these new patterns of work behaviour can be successful. A new template for work is created.

Different research by o2, ICM and YouGov, finds that it could be ‘calling time on office life, as 45 per cent of the workforce predicts a permanent change to their company’s approach to flexible working”.

Although, the same research also finds negative impacts. Almost a third of respondents say that working from home can be lonely. And over a quarter say they missed the informal exchanges with colleagues in the office. A new landscape for work must entrench the positives and mitigate the negatives that can come from working in isolation at home.

What we know is changing

Similarly, our own observations at Making Change Happen are that remote working changes the psychology of work. It changes work identities and level hierarchies. Remote working has a levelling effect; because we can now judge what’s on the wall behind the boss, or the strange books on the shelf.

Working at home can be less intense. Women report that they find talking in a virtual meeting as empowering and far less intimidating than in the boardroom.

In a recent survey, we asked people if they thought psychological safety (the willingness to speak up and share ideas without feeling fearful) has increased or decreased in lockdown. The overwhelming response is that it has increased.

Other surprising observations are that while we are busy we can also be very adaptive and creative. For instance, the whole country moved to home working rapidly.  And while we appreciate you can’t run a production line from your front room, productivity for office workers in the main did NOT fall.

Teams are problem-solving and finding creative solutions to tricky situations. In this strange environment of separation, a strong sense of community has emerged. The power of people for good is demonstrated.

Understanding the risks

Working from home presents positives and negatives. It offers more autonomy and flexibility than a strict ‘office hours’ routine.  But employees and managers must be aware of mental health pitfalls. Here are five areas of concern:

1. Feeling isolated

For some working virtually creates a feeling of isolation. They struggle not having an immediate feedback loop with colleagues. Many people will miss the social aspect of the workplace, chatting and venting about work and life. This camaraderie doesn’t translate the same in a virtual world. It can start to feel repetitive, missing the possibility of spontaneity.

2. Increased anxiety or stress

Working from home can create stress and anxiety as we lose the patterns, markers and certainty that comes with office life.

a. At a day-to-day level, it may cause your team to worry that others are questioning their productivity. They combat by this by proving how much they ARE working, and overwork.

b. The days get repetitive and boring. Today, working from home during a pandemic with no foreseeable end can make you feel stuck. In a situation vastly more horrific and frightening, Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who wrote about his time in the concentration camps of the Holocaust, wrote that the most difficult thing for inmates wasn’t actually the hardship, but not knowing when it would end.

c. Our self-esteem is often tied to our working life and work status. All the career symbols are shaken up. Your shiny corner office may now be a laptop on an ironing board. There is also the fear of missing out on opportunities for promotion. A recent report by The Princes Trust highlights job opportunities as a particular worry for young people. More than one in four say their future career prospects are already been damaged by the Coronavirus crisis. While 49 per cent say it will be “harder than ever” to get a job.

3. Loss of boundaries

A workplace gives a natural start and end to the day. Virtual working isn’t necessarily that clear cut, especially when you try to fit work around other responsibilities at home. Without boundaries for virtual working, people feel they always need to be on hand, answering messages from their phone 24/7. It is easy to develop a stressful ‘always present’ mindset.

a. Comparing ourselves to others“Everyone else seems to be having the perfect lockdown.” There is pressure to conform to a template but what if your experience doesn’t fit? Isolation and distance give space for assumptions about how others are coping. Comparisons about the productivity and success of others create anxiety.

b. Technology overloadTechnology allows for rapid and varied ways of keeping in touch and we can get distracted by it. We look at the bells and whistles of a new technological resource rather than on what doing our work really needs.

Research on boundaries

Recent research supports this picture. Research by LinkedIn and The Mental Health foundations found a mix of positive and negative responses on questions of remote working.

Over half of adults surveyed for the research say they feel ‘more anxious and stressed’ about work than before the pandemic. One major reason is they are experiencing burnout as they attempt to work unrealistic patterns. People are overworking an average of 28 hours a month as they worry about ‘not being seen’ to be working.

While this research shows some real difficulties and ongoing problems, it also shows that a huge proportion of respondents enjoy having more time at home with family.

They are exercising more and eating better. Over half say they want to keep the option to work from home on a longer-term basis once things are ‘back to normal.’ This means that organisations who try to revert to the old normal will face a challenge as people feel that trust is lost if home working is removed from them.

Forcing people into old routines will fail.

We should use this time to think through a new set of social norms, which we need to make this new workplace suitable for us.

What does that mean for you as a leader?

Organisations have an experimental landscape for new practices – a Petri dish to look at new behaviours.

There is an opportunity to redesign work practices to give space to the best of virtual working but also ensure secure mental health support for employees.

When we talk to organisations going through identity change we simplify the situation into colours for different identities.  A mature startup may see themselves as shiny BLUE in identity. They may see the older players in the market as BEIGE.

As the startup grows they will inevitably need more processes to help them manage. However, they become traumatised at the risk of being BEIGE. We suggest not choosing between BLUE and BEIGE, rather deciding on a new identity and what that looks like.

Instead, choose a fresh new GREEN. Create something that isn’t old or the new, but is fit for your circumstances. This isn’t forcing the old nine to five onto home working, but rather installing new work processes to suit the context.

Leaders now have an opportunity to:

  • Rethink what ‘the office’ is and how people need to be able to move across workplaces
  • Work out what will create the boundaries needed to prevent overworking
  • Create communication routines to reduce isolation
  • Redesign working patterns so that employees are not subjected to screen overload
  • Build more trust, empathy and psychological safety in and between teams.

There are many ways psychologists can help with this task. Perhaps the best way is to create a space for your teams to think about the fundamentally changed future. Teams need to consider what is possible and what they want their new values, behaviours and identity to be.

Assisting teams to confront these challenges is exactly what we do at Making Change Happen.We support teams by helping them collaborate in conversations about change. We help them see where they are now and what change they may want. And we empower them to redesign their working lives in ways that suit them. Such redesigns lead to more efficient, effective and constructive working.

If you’d like us to provide the space that your team needs for conversation, reflection and innovation then get in touch. We can help you create a new map for work.

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