Lockdown has changed the way we work in ways unimaginable 6 months ago. Will this become the new normal?

Lockdown is changing the way we work, that is beyond doubt. In this blog I investigate to what extent it is likely to have a lasting impact on our work environments, corporate cultures and even the distribution of our workplaces and the diversification of workforces.

Businesses that are open to these changes may see lasting benefits in the form of a more engaged and productive workforce and a culture that brings the best out of people to the benefit of all.

Changes to the way we work will partly be the result of the slow emergence from lockdown that will still impose limitations on our working life, potentially translating these into a ‘new normal’. But it will also be driven by individual’s personal choices. According to a recent survey carried out in the UK, Only 9% of Britons want life to return to "normal" after the coronavirus outbreak is over. This is driven by an appreciation of some of the benefits that have come from lockdown, including a greater appreciation of things that matter to our individual wellbeing, such as time spent with family, the friends we miss, the natural environment and learning new skills such as cooking, crafts and playing an instrument.

Working from home

As Teresa Ko, the China Chairman for Freshfields noted in a recent blog, “If most of our day-to-day work can be done at home, offices may become “hubs” and even more important places for building connections, camaraderie and relationships with colleagues.”

Teresa’s blog references  a survey carried out with our colleagues in Asia, where people identified a wide range of benefits from saving time commuting, more flexibility to manage domestic responsibilities, fewer interruptions and distractions, more focused thinking and higher productivity, no dress code, greater comfort in a more relaxed environment, more fresh air outside an air conditioned office, the feeling of being trusted as an employee, the chance to be closer to family members, and healthier home meals.

The survey also mentioned environmental benefits: not contributing to traffic pollution, no unnecessary printing of documents, and of course doing your bit in the collective effort to contain coronavirus.

While this sample is clearly not statistically significant, it does highlight a growing awareness of the benefits of working from home, personally, professionally and for the environment. That being the case, how likely is it that people will want to return to pre-COVID lifestyles? Our working schedules were defined in days that pre-dated any type of internet-based communications and were therefore a necessity. And over time we got used do this way of doing things because that is just how things were. Lockdown has taught us that for those of us who are able to work from home how things were doesn’t need to be how things are. The crisis has only reinforced a growing trend towards flexible or agile working arrangements which will be accelerated once the crisis ends.

However, working from home is a very different experience from your second home in the country than it is from a small inner-city flat. It is critical that as business leaders and managers we are very mindful of these challenges and work particularly hard to engage all our colleagues, not just the ones who find the new way of working natural. There is a genuine risk that without the structures of the office, marginalised groups will feel excluded.

Furthermore, working from home is only an option for a minority of the population as I wrote in last week’s blog.

Travelling less

Reducing travel was already on the agenda before the crisis as organisations sought to reduce their carbon footprint and that of their supply-chains. At Freshfields we are seeing increasing requests from clients to reduce travel and identify alternative ways of managing relationships. The firm itself has a target to reduce travel by 10% as part of its plan to reduce its environmental footprint.

COVID-19 has made these aims quite irrelevant. Most of us haven’t set foot in a plane or long-distance train for over 6 weeks. This would have been unthinkable a few months ago when we were convinced that it was absolutely critical to jump on a plane for that client meeting or conference. And yet, our work has carried on, our client relationships have remained in place and our mandates are being delivered.

The decision has been taken out of our hands through enforced lockdown to protect lives, resulting in a shared predicament and understanding. But it has also generated the realisation that we can perform in these unique circumstances. This is likely to lead us to questioning our need to travel quite as much for work. At a personal level, many frequent travellers are enjoying the time spent with their families and may be reluctant to return to a ‘living in a suitcase’ existence.

Even if we were to return to the pre-COVID ways of doing things, this would take a very long time as travel would remain significantly constrained until a vaccine is found, largely because travel is likely to be restricted to minimise the risk of the disease spreading, but also because most travel budgets are likely to be cut as companies seek to reduce costs. We can therefore assume that travel limitations will remain in place until well into 2021. This is more than enough time for new, remote behaviours to become normalised, making a return to pre-COVID19 travel patterns very unlikely.

I am not suggesting that there is no value in physical meetings. These remain critical in certain instances, such as building networks and new relationships or working through challenging issues, whether between individuals or at a societal level. Thorny issues where different parties don’t necessarily agree – take climate change for instance – can be more easily resolved when we are able to have more direct contact and can look each other in the eye. Only relying on digital contact risks creating new types of silos. The key is finding the right balance.

Evolving corporate cultures

For many years, the people who drew admiration in the workplace were the workhorses who would be in the office before everyone else, be the last ones to leave and pulled all-nighters. In the last few weeks this work ‘ethos’ has become virtually invisible as we work from home.

Time in the office no longer matters. What matters is quality of output, as that is the only thing we are able to judge someone’s performance on.

It seems self-evident, doesn’t it? Yet how many of us have in the past felt guilty about leaving the office early, working from home or god forbid, taking a day’s sick leave?

What is evolving out of this crisis is a greater emphasis on trust, or what Ricardo Semler calls ‘radical corporate democracy’, which he outlines in his seminal book ‘Maverick’ and summarises in this TED Talk. Semler applied this thinking to the Brazilian industrial conglomerate, SEMCO enabling employees to hire their own managers, set their own hours and even salaries, among other things. What has resulted is a culture of trust and shared purpose that has delivered financial success. The company’s revenues grew 50-fold in 20 years from the early 80’s when Semler took over the family business.

One other positive side-effect from our extensive use of meetings ‘@home’ is that we get to see the person behind the role. Starting a meeting with a chat about a particular picture on the wall, an instrument in the background or a book on the bookshelf enables us to bring our true self to the workplace and share snippets of our personal lives. And during more informal virtual team drinks we even have the pleasure of meeting our colleagues’ children, partners or pets. This generates a sense of empathy and shared humanity which is vital in creating successful, lasting cultures. In their latest book, ‘Regenerative Leadership’, leadership experts Laura Storm and Giles Hutchins talk about creating a ‘Living Systems Culture’ where organisations move from mechanistic structures to ‘dynamic life-affirming living-systems’ in which financial performance is achieved because of an understanding of the organisation as a living system with greater focus on purpose, development, inclusion, mutual respect and trust.

Perhaps our new ways of working are creating the foundations from which this type of culture can arise.

Is ‘de-urbanisation’ next?

There is no doubt that physical interaction is an important part of our working lives, like that happenstance conversation in the corridor where you got useful advice, the lunchtime chat where you develop a better relationship with colleagues or teams or indeed those well planned meetings where you work things through to a deeper level of detail resulting in a better end product. Yet while the benefits of physical interaction are undeniable, as Teresa Ko mentions, the ‘postcorona’ office may become a place for building relationships, a social hub, rather than where we do our most productive work.

If this does happen after the crisis, what are the long-term implications? Let’s assume that in a postcorona world it will no longer be necessary to be in the office on a regular basis and that business travel will be significantly reduced. If access to the office and an airport are no longer critical to delivering outstanding performance, would most of us still need, indeed want, to live in expensive, polluted, logjammed cities with minimal access to nature? Would this provide companies with access to a more diverse and talented workforce, effectively extending the pool of talent beyond that available in cities and their suburbs?

If the answer to these questions is positive, then what does this mean for the future of cities? If most companies with large – and expensive – inner-city offices were to significantly downsize their physical locations because their workforce is far more geographically spread, this would result in an economic redistribution of income and power to regions, achieving what years of national policy in many countries have failed. If Paris, London, New York or Tokyo are no longer the only places to be to have a successful career, and people can work from locations of their choosing, this would provide a boost to many regional economies. As the Guardian put it in a recent article, “If proximity to one’s job is no longer a significant factor in deciding where to live, for example, then the appeal of the suburbs wanes; we could be heading towards a world in which existing city centres and far-flung “new villages” rise in prominence, while traditional commuter belts fade away.”

The answer to these questions will become clearer once the crisis abates and will depend both on whether today’s workforce will demand greater work-life balance, now that the crisis has proven this is possible and whether companies are willing to invest in people they can trust, getting more productive employees and a lower cost base in return.

What should business do?

Today’s response to the crisis will also determine how successful companies will be navigating the ‘postcorona’ workplace. In closing here are some thoughts as to what the winners are already doing, drawn partly from this excellent article by Dan Robertson:

  • Consistently reinforce a message of trust. If people feel trusted they will take greater ownership than if they feel they are being micro-managed in difficult circumstances.
  • Keep checking in at personal level. Mental wellbeing is critical in these times, and acknowledging possible challenges will help employees feel safe, nurtured and if necessary be more open about their challenges.
  • Be mindful of the different challenges people face when working from home (small spaces, poor IT, young children) and adapt working practices – and expectations – accordingly.
  • Engage your entire workforce, not just those that are adjusting easily. 
  • Appreciate that when working remotely, old networking habits may resurface excluding certain workers. Active engagement and feedback is even more critical to assure you maximize the benefits of your diverse talent pool.