Nicola Riley, Health & Wellbeing Consultant Unum, shares her thoughts on the future workplace

In his book ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’ published in 2010, Tony Schwartz describes the absurdity of the way we ‘currently’ work. Our culture, he argued, is failing to address our four basic needs: emotional, physical, mental and spiritual. In his view, the modern workplace didn’t suit the way that our brains and bodies function best.

Skip 10 years and our current ‘normal’ is looking radically different. It may have seemed unfathomable back in 2010 (or even six months ago) to imagine the seismic shift in the way a lot of us currently work. But COVID-19, with all its threat and challenges, represents a real opportunity to reimagine how we work.

Logic says that working remotely enables us to flex our day, match the task to our focus and energy. To no longer be constrained by a rigid schedule. However, pre-COVID, requests for flexible or remote working were met with scepticism, maybe even a sprinkling of mistrust.

But 2020’s experiment with homeworking has proved largely successful. Research from the CIPD found that three quarters of employers reported improved work-life balance amongst staff, better employee collaboration (43%), and improved focus (38%).

Clearly there have also been challenges too – particularly supporting the mental wellbeing of staff at a distance. The CIPD say that 47% of employers reported a decline in the mental wellbeing of their employees during lockdown. But, as the Government announces new restrictions to our working and personal lives, businesses should now be able to draw on their lockdown experience to gauge how well remote working has performed and where it needs adapting to best serve their team in the uncertain months to come.

Here’s how lockdown has shown businesses how to navigate typical blocks to remote working.


1. Connection / visibility:

Needing to physically see each other. Technology is the solution here. With the widespread uptake of platforms like Teams, we’ve enabled ourselves to stay connected with our work and colleagues. It’s also brought greater insight at times into who we are as individuals outside of work – something which is helping to strengthen our connection, engagement and performance.


2. Productivity:

The concern is that without someone watching, you won’t be as productive. However, flip this on its head and you’ve got less distraction, a greater focus and even greater need to demonstrate what you have been doing with your time. It’s vital to think about productivity in terms of performance and this doesn’t always equate to hours spent at a desk. The 2019 IWG Global Workplace Survey found that 85% of over 15,000 global businesses (across 100 nations) confirmed that greater location flexibility led to an increase in productivity.


3. Fairness:

How to fairly treat an influx of requests for flexible/ remote working. Will the floodgates open? I think not. Homeworking suits many, but not all. A happier balance is about matching the task to where you feel you will be able to best achieve it. For managers, it’s about having a robust flexible working policy in place that’s clearly laid out and transparent. COVID-19 has enabled us to see who performs well remotely. All of this is helpful when considering flexible working requests. A US survey of 7,000 employees by Flex jobs found 80% said they would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options.


4. Wellbeing:

Loneliness, a reduced work-life balance and low mood are higher in remote workers – 21% report loneliness (Buffer 2018, survey of 1,900 global remote workers). However, 77% of employees say that remote working has improved their overall health and wellbeing. There’s a watch out here for those of us with responsibility for health and wellbeing. We need to ensure support is in place, but most importantly, that the culture and ways of working acknowledge the need to take breaks, the structuring of the day (however that best suits both employer and employee) and a clearly defined work and home life.

Workers who have control over their schedule report finding time to exercise more, eat better and have higher morale and a better outlook in general (American Psychological Association).

There is also concern that sickness absences will increase, and yet go hidden and under the radar. This is where the role of the line manager is vital. Knowing your team and being connected, offering a listening ear and being watchful for any change in behaviour.


“The new normal”

So now is the time to think about what our new normal will look like. We are gaining real insight into how we all work best and for each employee that will be very different.

As we brace ourselves for another potential six months of restrictions, we should use this as a time of great experiment and reflect on the changes that we wish to implement going forward. Remote working isn’t a one size fits all, but for some it really does enable them to perform at their best. 61% of companies globally currently allow staff to have some form of a remote working policy. Germany being the highest at 80%, the Netherlands 75%, USA 69%, UK 68% and Japan at 32% (IWG Global Workplace Survey 2019).

I can’t help but reflect on how very timely this all is for Generation Z for whom digital connectivity is a superpower. Now that we are meeting online and digitally connecting with friends and family, it looks like the traditional workplace is about to catch up and better serve all our needs.


Lisa Baker

Author Lisa Baker

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