Adapting Workplace Life Post-COVID
The transition to a post-COVID economy is invoking change on many levels. A comparative model for considering this change is the iconic British television series, Downton Abbey, centred around the years surrounding WWI. As the British economy returned to growth after WWI, new industries were launched, new technologies were introduced, and existing industries expanded. People had choice. They could seek out a traditional domestic service job in a suburban location with its requirements of living on-site and being available day and night. Or they could pursue an industrial job or a post in a retail shop in an urban setting with a structured work week and
leisure time off each week. Industrial employers were likely to offer higher wages and benefits to recruit and retain employees, leaving estates as portrayed in Downton Abbey with a difficulty in retaining employees.
The descent into the depths of COVID invoked a management message of crisis:
- We have no choice—we need to guarantee the safety of our employees and others!
- We have no choice—there is a legal requirement!
- We have no choice—this is a government mandate!
- We have no choice—we will be fined if we don’t follow the rules!
Like in the case of a fire alarm, employees heard these messages from the top and stopped what they were doing, listened to their leaders, and followed instructions with minimal grumbling. There was no time to reflect, to analyze, to plan—that all had to wait.
As the realization dawned that COVID was not to be a short-term event, people began to see the choices before them. Working from home became a viable option. Thanks to video platforms and webcam technology, communicating with co-workers and managers from outside the office setting became easier than ever before. The parallels to the Downton Abbey era were striking.
Some employees have learned that they can continue to produce at a high level, regardless of if they drove 20 minutes to work or walked 20 steps. Many of them value being able to choose when and where they work. Likewise, many employers are measuring the cost savings of reduced physical office space and heated parking stalls. The future will be one where employers will be in a position of persuasion—whether it is persuading employees to return to their cubicle world or convincing employees of the value of working from their kitchen.
Leaders cannot wait for the COVID crisis to be fully over before they too think about the change management issues that have been aroused. Now is the time to reflect, analyze and plan.
When employees were sent home, there was an expectation of “Untethered Productivity,” that they would continue to produce at the same level as when they were on-site. This isolation of work was welcomed by introverts and was tough on extroverts as their workplace social systems were thrown out the window. For all employees, the loss of emotional, technical and creative support had a negative effect.
Employees became fully dependent on technology, either given to them by the organization or already in their possession. Many employees had to buy or upgrade software and hardware, increase their internet service or in rural areas, use their cell phone for internet connection. All these demands came with frustration as new processes and platforms needed to be learnt, and for many, a corresponding lack of productivity and engagement.
For some employees, working at home meant crowded space with their spouse and children, everyone working off the dining room table. Peace and quiet for concentrated work was minimal and work life balance ceased to exist. Clear boundaries disappeared and employees found themselves working more hours of the day, as they rose to meet the challenge that new environment and limited resources created. Employees began to tunnel for reassurance from their leaders and to a degree some leaders performed better than others. Do masks work? How far should I sit away from my colleague? When will this be over? Will I have a job? In this new uncertain world, leaders increased surveillance, exchanging the personal supervision onsite for software surveillance where not moving the mouse frequently or using ZOOM outside of Windows Teams was tracked.
What aspects of working from outside the office have worked? Which were a disaster? What practices should be reset back to pre-COVID crisis? What should not be reset? Which don’t matter anymore? How do we persuade our team members/employees/colleagues to embrace whatever our new plan may be? What push-back can we anticipate?
As leaders reflect and analyze, employees will be commenting and asking …
“I guess my job is indispensable—how are you going to guarantee me more security? My income is not necessarily dependable even though you tell me my job is—if this happens again, what is your plan for my income loss?”
“If you want me to work offsite, how are you going to compensate me for use of my space, technology, electricity, as well as my loss of privacy and boundaries? What support will you provide me for tech support, and software and hardware?”
“I no longer have the ambitions I once did to climb the ladder and work long hours for more money—what are my options? How will you create for me an individualized plan for employment?”
As employers create their plan for moving from crisis COVID management to post-COVID change management, they must be able to demonstrate the value of the change to each employee and to their organization as a whole.
Jeanne Martinson is a leadership and diversity strategist and co-author of Change Management: Lessons from Downton Abbey. www.martrain.org