The COVID-19 pandemic was the single most disruptive global event in most of our lifetimes. Its profound impacts are still being felt – many catastrophic and traumatic, but some offering the potential for lasting beneficial (and necessary) change into smarter working.
Moving from presenteeism to output
An acceleration of emerging trends in how we work is one of these. Advances in ICT have given us the tools to work in very different ways – to stay connected and productive without being physically in the same space. Prior to the global pandemic, attitudes to productivity and effective working had failed to keep pace with workplace technology.
Some more progressive organisations had already started to realise the futility (and additional cost burden) of a prescriptive “stay at your desk” approach to human resource management. The majority of managers were still wedded to the notion that presenteeism was the best means to ensure that their people were actually doing the jobs they were paying them to do.
Measuring hours over output is a hangover from old “clock in clock out” industrial factory line hierarchies, where hours in and top-down centralised “clipboard” control would often equate to greater production efficiency. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, where high-performing people – not machines – are our biggest asset, different approaches are required.
Change imperatives: Leadership from the public sector
A global lockdown and the necessity to work from home (for people that could) was the chance to test whether organisations where remote working is an option could continue to operate without their employees all being in the office. We know now that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”.
After some initial investment in communications and remote-working solutions, leading global private sector organisations saw record profits during 2021. Civil servants continued to perform their duties, despite the significantly enhanced stress and workload associated with managing a global health crisis.
Businesses and government departments benefitted from significantly reduced real-estate, energy and travel costs. A recent Great Place to Work survey of 800,000 employees found stable or increased productivity after employees started working from home.
The majority of employees prefer working from home and enjoy a better work-life balance and have no desire to go back to a daily commute. A 2021 survey by EY found that four in five people wanted flexibility where they worked, and 47% went as far as to say they would consider changing their jobs if flexible working wasn’t an option.
There are generational differences – however – many young people enjoy the social aspect of going to the office more regularly and don’t have the residential space to make working from home so attractive.
Overcoming challenges & limits of remote working
One of the primary barriers to a move away from presenteeism is an absence of trust and this works both ways. Employers who don’t trust their people to work from home (despite evidence suggesting that performance and retention often improve) are likely to be resented by their employees, who may ultimately choose to leave for a more flexible place of work.
Building trust between colleagues isn’t easy (especially when legacy cultures didn’t engender it) and managers need to invest in building stronger, more empathetic and collaborative relationships with their teams.
With less time together in one place, opportunities for collaboration and connection should be prioritised on in-office days. In-person days should be about building stronger bonds and working relationships between colleagues.
While it’s still early days in what has been a massive overnight shift towards smarter working, it’s clear that there is no going back to the way things were. Embracing innovation and more creative approaches to work is an opportunity to drive greater productivity and for us all to be happier human beings.