What Has the Pandemic Taught Us About Working?
The pandemic, infamously referred to as Covid-19 - even though its impact wasn’t really felt until the following year or so - has profoundly changed what we now know to be true of working.
It’s hard to remember what working was like beforehand. Shops opened and closed at regular hours just as they always had done. Public transport was used by those who normally commuted. Others drove to work, or bicycled, or walked.
Remote working was limited. Even in places where it was possible, most employers weren’t in favour of it, and there was no incentive for them to be. Expecting people to show up to work in a central location was a model that few considered to be broken. And when everyone came to work, it made managers feel more in control, whether they actually were or not.
As you know, the restrictions that governments placed on organisations as a result of the pandemic changed everything. Only “essential” trips were allowed, and that didn’t include commuting. Businesses were forced to close at least temporarily, and some ended up doing so permanently.
At first, there was talk of returning to normal, then of a new normal, and now - though it hasn’t been described in quite this way - the new non-normal. When you think about what working looks like now compared to pre-pandemic times, then there’s nothing that’s normal about it.
It’s entirely different.
And that being the case, it’s worth thinking about what we’ve learned as a result.
What employees have experienced recently is as novel to them as the Industrial Revolution was to those day labourers. The pandemic and post-pandemic period has been almost the reverse of what happened in the 18th century. Back then, unskilled workers went from hiring themselves out on a day-to-day basis to working in factory for 12 to 16 hours six days per week. The pandemic has had the opposite effect. It has put skilled workers at home and in control of their time as well as their tasks. And because there are generally fewer interruptions at home, employees have been able to accomplish their work in less time than their “normal” work days.
That said, it hasn’t been a bed of roses.
One study showed that the restrictions imposed on those who went to a place of work forced two-thirds of them to do so from home for the first time, up from just 20%. Of course, that created a huge strain for most people.
Two income families who had been used to dropping their kids off at school or day care suddenly found that they all were in the house all day. Those who could work online did, while many others - those in hospitality and retail, for instance - suddenly were without work. This made boredom more stressful than usual.
It’s known that even people with the best personal relationships experience some disagreements, but the restrictions meant that they were unable to get away from them, causing unusual strain. In such circumstances, those who could work from home found the experience to be very stressful. In fact, most employees agree that it was during this time that they were the most stressed that they had been in their careers to date, and it’s why wellbeing has taken on such urgency.
People have felt stressed in the past, but things such as holidays, whether in country or abroad, helped to mitigate their effects. On this occasion, those things were cancelled. There was no getting away from it. On your workdays, you were at home. On your days off, you were at home. And going “on holiday” meant watching a TV show about travelling which you weren’t allowed to do. All of this meant that the effects of stress were that much greater.
Helplessness and hopelessness
Helplessness - learned or otherwise - can lead to hopelessness. Those who feel hopeless do so because they see no way out.
When the restrictions were in place, either in the UK or elsewhere, all of the avenues that were normally available for people to let off steam, to rest and recover, were cut off. And even now, travel isn’t as easy as it once was. It may never be. That, too, makes life nowadays more stressful.
And there’s still something of an in-born fear that people feel. You can see it in normal conversations. Some still wear masks. Some stand away from you, making more intimate conversations impossible and forcing those whose ears aren’t what they once were to rely on lip-reading.
In general, people are more afraid of the world and worry that they’ll “catch” something from their colleagues, as if that risk didn’t exist in the past. This has caused them to isolate themselves even more than they did before the pandemic began. All of this has made communication more difficult.
The regular contact that people once had with one another now occurs under a kind of “caution,” and that unease puts people on the defensive. Everything they do is filtered through it. This has weakened relationships which threatens unity at work.
What matters most?
The lockdowns turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
The curse needn’t be articulated. If you went through them, then you already know about the isolation, restriction, and diminished motivation that resulted.
In all of that, what could possibly be considered a blessing?
The blessing of having the old normal stripped away is that it gave people an opportunity to reflect on what mattered most to them.
Was the “rat-race” as important as they once thought? For many, the answer was “no”. They had been chasing success at a frenetic pace to the detriment of their personal relationships and didn’t even realise it. Now that they couldn’t go anywhere, they understood what they had been missing. Despite domestic pressures that occurred from being cheek-by-jowl with those at home, many were able to reconnect with their immediate families. As a result, they learned that that mattered more than the work they had been doing. In other words, they re-discovered why they did the work that they did.
This laid the groundwork for what became known as the Great Resignation. Because people understood the importance of families and friends, they made a conscious decision to work in a place that allowed them the freedom to experience that more often. It took the Great Disruption for them to recognise it.
The Great Resignation
It’s possible that you’ve experienced something of the exodus of qualified people. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of reasons for that. Some may be due to how your employees feel about their supervisors. Quite often, this is the number one reason people cite for leaving a job.
It’s likely, however, that there’s more to it than that.
Although you may not be off-the-hook entirely, one very good reason why people have left is because they can. When the penny finally drops and you know what matters most to you, the natural tendency is to do whatever it takes to preserve it; to get more of it. And remote working provides it.
One thing people learned by working from home was how much better they felt when they could decide their own hours, avoid commuting, and have more time to themselves. Of course, technology made the work-from-home movement possible. Had the pandemic occurred prior to 2011, when Zoom Video Communications was founded, telecommunication via the Internet would not have been possible to the extent that it was less than a decade later.
This has not prevented some organisations from repeating their failures. One mistake that some seem determined to make is to assume that because government restrictions have been lifted, that the rules of the old normal apply.
Employees have gotten a taste for the freedom that comes with remote work, and those managers that don’t understand this or refuse to acknowledge it will prolong their Great Resignation experience.
Enforced remote working let the flexibility genie out of the bottle. There’s no putting it back. The non-normal is the new normal, even if it doesn’t quite feel like it.
Stability can’t be taken for granted
Leaders and managers must plan for major disruption in the future because stability can no longer be taken for granted. As much as we’d like to think that life and the world changes gradually over time, history demonstrates that events can quickly move things in an entirely different direction.
That this is the case has a profound impact on things such as organisational strategy, which depends on stability. Plans are built on assumptions about the future. Costs, for instance, have to be factored in. When they suddenly change, as they have done, much of what those plans were based on becomes obsolete.
How can organisations prepare for an unstable future?
By training people how to be flexible or agile, which is the popular term today. It all boils down to creating policies and procedures that support this outcome, and which don’t work against it. Rigidity has to be removed from the system so that people can change more quickly. To use a military example, you can’t continue to expect people to operate within the confines of traditional warfare when the enemy is using guerrilla tactics. The war isn’t going to adapt to you; you have to adapt to it.
In order for this to work, leaders and managers need to trust their people even more. Reciprocity cuts both ways. When you trust others, they trust you. When you don’t trust them, then they don’t trust you. And the less you trust them, the more suspicious of you they’ll become.
What might you do to decrease trust?
One way is to track the time that people spend on their various tasks. Apart from the time required to do this - whatever your motives - it makes people feel that you’re checking up on them; that you don’t trust them to get their work done on time; that you don’t think they have enough to keep them occupied.
That creates resentment, not cooperation. And that’s because it makes them feel that you think that they’re not working hard enough, while they feel that they’re doing as much as they can already.
Or, what about those employees who ask you for more work? If you don’t give it to them, or worse - complain that there’s so much to do and not enough people to do it, and then don’t delegate it - then you’ll create a retention problem where it didn’t exist. If your staff are unqualified to do the extra work, then see to it that they’re trained. But don’t undermine the productivity of people by damaging the trust that you have in them, and that they have in you.
The new non-normal
The new non-normal presupposes an unstable working environment where technology permits greater flexibility, and the ability to manage stress better.
Leaders and managers much tailor their organisations to make this easier for their employees rather than trying to resurrect an old normal that no longer exists.
To do this means that you’ll have to learn how to think differently. You’ll have to imagine what you’d do if you were starting from scratch in the current circumstances, devoid of any understanding of what occurred in the past, because although you can learn much from history, you can’t go back and live in it.