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Work in progress

Date: Jul 24 2020
Work in progress

There’s a lot of debate about the shape of work in the future within the internal communication, employee engagement and HR communities. Whilst the UK government is encouraging a return to normal and aspiring for that by Christmas at the same time loosening some guidance to get the economy going, the response from businesses is varied. Some have already made the decision to predominantly stay working from home with the likes of Nationwide and Barclays (updated 30 July following a change of tack from Barclays: We want our people back in the office) making the shift a more planned approach to reduce office space. Others are getting creative like Siemens building an app to help employees with flexible working. And some are already in or on their way back into the office in various formats that meet the social distancing requirements. Some employees may not want to go back to the old ways of working, whilst others are desperate to get back to the office. We need to really listen to employees and what they want from their work.

We’re all different

As individuals and employers, we all have different views and experiences of what work is, what it means to us and what it could be. We will have all had a different experience of working during lockdown, whether that’s at home, or in our normal locations. What we miss about the office, love about the office, hate about the office and similarly what we love about working from our homes and loathe about it, is a broad spectrum. Some of us are lucky to have the space and kit at home to make the move to working at home relatively easy, many are not so lucky. For many of those living alone through lockdown, working from home was incredibly lonely, and others without the space or peace to be productive and comfortable in a home working set up were frustrated and unproductive.

We’re adaptable

If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s not only the weaknesses and unsustainability in society today, but also that we are incredibly adaptable. We can change when we really need to and we’re given a compelling reason to do so. We are sociable beings and that’s what many of us have missed most about this time. Even those like me who are quite happy to work quietly alone may have found the complete lack of opportunity for social interaction in workplaces hard to bear. The pandemic has put all of the failings and successes of modern work, and perhaps wider society too, into sharp focus.

Work space

Now, I want to talk about work in offices specifically. For me work is what I do, not where I go.

I’ve worked from home for ten years now. I’ve learned a lot in my time. I’m restless, and like to talk on the phone and walk, I like to see people but I also love my space and need the peace to work deeply (I’m a reflective thinker and I need quiet). I love the buzz of an event and getting together with people I connect with, it’s like a shot of adrenalin to energise me for my quiet times. But I don’t miss open office spaces, they exhaust me. I understand now, that in my last in-house role I kept myself so busy with meetings, press and events I was out of that space as much as I could be. I have a low tolerance for the noises other people make; if you start eating crisps or apples, I will politely leave the room. I know it’s completely irrational, and no one else’s fault so I just move away.

But at the same time, I quite like to work in a shared office space or coffee shop occasionally to provide some buzz and humanity. Working for myself I’ve created a work space and pattern to work for me, my family and other life needs. I like to get outside a lot, and walking the dogs is the perfect reason to make me leave my desk when deeply lost in my work, and walk miles every day. I doubt I could have managed to find that balance in a full-time job ten years ago when I took the plunge to launch my business.

Can we make work better?

What if we took this huge opportunity of this moment in time to imagine something better? To test out ideas and experiment with what works for each of us as employees, leaders and organisations?

Amongst all the debates I’ve seen about working from home versus working in offices there are a range of different factors. Any one of us and our experiences could be seen on a spectrum from great to awful, and perhaps that experience is different pre pandemic compared to during lockdown. It would be interesting to understand what people feel is different, and how they feel about that difference, what they’d like to keep about the current state, and what they’d like to get back from the previous state.

The common areas I’ve seen discussed are:

  • Workplace culture, the social interaction, sense of community
  • Professional, learning and development
  • Collaboration and getting the work done
  • People, talent, recruitment, retention and organisational design and management
  • Work, life boundaries and security
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Space, at home or in the office
  • Serendipity, relationships and opportunities
  • Environment, our commute or not, our large office buildings or additional costs at home offices
  • Economics, a balance to the economy we create by leaving home, the operational costs we create by running office buildings, the individual costs of home-working versus office working

Is there anything you’d add that I’ve missed?

A call to action for comms and HR

I believe there is a huge opportunity now we’ve all been forced to pause. A chance to experiment for office-based businesses, to find ways that work for you. We all need work that works for us. We should take that opportunity before we slip back into the old routines, which could happen before we’ve even realised. We all need to be a bit more bold, and take a principle of ‘proceed until apprehended’, if we’re going to seize the chance to make work, work better.

Find out what employees think and feel

Our first step is to find out what employees think and feel about their work and workplaces. There are plenty of tools and techniques in the internal comms armoury to put to use. We should ask questions, have conversations and critically listen to what our colleagues tell us about their work, what they miss and don’t want to return to, and how they would like to return to workspaces. Capture their thoughts and ideas through pulse surveys, comments and conversations. Be purposeful about what you need to understand. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned through this time, our own experience may be completely different to others’ experiences. We can’t rely on assumptions.

Perhaps use those themes to shape your questions and discussions, and consider this time has given a different perspective for people. I’d want to know how they feel differently than before the pandemic too; although anecdotal, it will be insightful to understand what people value in their work.

Research and support

If you need to help nudge your leaders to be bold and make changes to the ways of working, rather than comfortably go back to ‘what we used to do’, look for examples from other organisations to show them what can be done. There are also many different tools and approaches to finding a way to make work a more hybrid experience. From personal productivity techniques and tools, to redesigning roles and work to help everyone stay productive and focussed, find out about the options for your organisation and share what you find out. Test and try tools out for yourself and your team. Build your support network internally, and get backing from those open to new ideas to help you test, trial and share initiatives.

Share and inform others

Use that information to inform your leaders and show them how you are alert to how the organisation is feeling. Show them how you can help shape the organisational strategy with this knowledge and what the possible opportunities and challenges may be to different approaches for returning to office spaces. Give them examples and show them how it could work. Help remove the risk from being more experimental.

Keep communicating

No matter what your approach and experiments with work, you need to keep people across the organisation informed. Being transparent and open in your communication is critical. Even if people don’t agree, which some won’t because we are all different, being clear, consistent and honest builds trust. And right now, leaders need to show leadership. Employees look to them for reliable information and to find ways to address the issues being faced. Communication is essential to show the actions being taken, and building trust.

We know we can be creative and adaptable, and the pandemic has shown us just how resilient we can be.

I strongly believe we can and should make help work be better for people, and be mindful of our place as employers in society and our environmental impact.

So how about finding out what your employees have found from the experience about their work, what they like, loathe, need and crave from a possible future of work? If we understand that against our core purpose, surely we can find a balance that works for business, people, society and also lessen our impact on the environment too.

I’m going to research the different themes I’ve highlighted above to look at different ideas and solutions we could use in our work and communication. Do let me know about what your workplaces have been doing to include in these posts. I’m fascinated to see the different approaches to creating flexible workplaces, or not as the case may be for some, and how that makes us all feel.

Drop me a line.


Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog.

I work with businesses of all shapes and sizes to help them communicate clearly, reveal the human connections that matter and get meaningful results. If you would like to find out what people think and feel about your business, and communicate with them better, get in touch.