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As a result of the pandemic, many people’s priorities have changed. Increasingly, aspirations to a new work-life balance are articulated with greater clarity. To capture long term good morale, wise employers will factor this in to workforce strategies of the future.

Creating a new normal that really works

‘Normal’ can be a challenging concept, it’s also a useful one. The challenge, of course, is that it can quickly become quite subjective. When it comes to where and how people prefer to work, opinions are now much more diverse than they were in 2019.

This article is about how to approach creating a new normal, so that businesses can get on with trade, commerce and invention as efficiently as possible, factoring in the way your workforce may have changed over the last two years.

1. Recognise new aspirations (and avoid ignoring them)

Seeing the wood, despite the trees

Enforced pandemic lockdowns meant many people who used to physically go to work got used to the new ‘routines’ of home working. For some, this has become a preferred model and it also suits a handful of employers well too. Small tech businesses are likely to fit this mold, and some professional services as well.

If your business falls into this group, having total or partial working from home may already have brought significant benefits – lower overheads, an easier adoption of flexible working and staff who may well spend more quality time working than they did before. In this case, embracing your new normal, but remember that staff well-being is still important, even when managed at arm’s length.

For most businesses, however, the pre-pandemic model of employees physically ‘coming in to work’ is still the preferred option. For a great many employees too, this will be better than working from home. Team spirit, friendships, creativeness and just keeping in the loop; all these are significant calls back to the office.

It’s never quite that simple

Unsurprisingly, relatively few business will fall neatly into just one or other camp. Not only will some roles require a greater or lesser presence in the office, individual preferences may vary.  Even though most colleagues will probably want to return to normal working, you may be surprised at how many will prefer flexibility as to hours and location.

If not handled carefully, matching up personal aspirations with what works for your business could present significant challenges. Helping employees recognise that their ideal work-life balance may not be possible can be a sensitive discussion, so make sure it’s done right and with a degree of humility.

Waving around contracts of employment is probably the last thing you should do, but definitely double check what the contracts actually say. If you’re about to insist everyone is in the office every day, you need to be confident that really is a term of employment.

Tread carefully, with confidence

This is where the real skill comes in. As always, information is the key. Find out what people want and see to what extent that fits with commercial and practical imperatives.

If you ask opinions, be sure to make use of what you hear and bend over backwards to address real concerns. At all costs, avoid making it look as if your efforts to listen are merely window dressing.

Armed with the right knowledge, you’ll be able to create an accurate picture of your workforce and their aspirations – and start to build a consensus about what the new normal will look like.

 

2. What does the data suggest?

Do the statistics match your experience?

In January 2022, research (1) by the smart buildings platform, Infogrid, indicated that about a third (32%) of those employed in the UK wanted to go back to office working to improve their mental health.

Does that mean the remaining 68% all wanted to continue working from home? Almost certainly not. Inevitably the picture is more complex. It is highly likely that that apparent majority includes those who do want to return to the office, but on a more flexible basis.

Understanding a new mix of preferences

Data in the US is in line with this. In October 2021, Forbes Magazine quoted research (2) that showed “76% of employees do not want to return to full-time office work” and that “76% of employees want flexibility where they work, and 93% want flexibility when they work.”

These trends match a separate February 2022 finding in a Harris Poll (3) that says “Most [in the US] working from an office pre-pandemic (54%) have already returned full time. Despite this finding, many of those workers (51%) are not interested in going into one daily.” Most would be happy with three days a week in the office, working from home for two.

It would reasonable to assume the UK has a similar split of opinions, but it may vary according to location, profession, age and gender. As suggested above, it makes sense to gather specific information as to what people want before putting new policies in place.

 

3. Be meaningful as well as mindful

Health, happiness and productivity go together

It’s a truism that healthy people are happier and more productive than those who are unhappy and unwell. Even if it sounds like a cliché, it contains important truths.

So in working towards a new normal, give serious thought about how to encourage colleagues to get fit and stay fit. For the former, it can be a challenge to be more active – in terms of confidence, motivation and opportunity. Ultimately, being fit is a personal goal for each individual, but barriers can be made easier to overcome.

If you haven’t done so, consider negotiating preferential corporate rates at a local gym and encouraging inter-departmental sports competitions. In fact, do anything which makes physical activity more attractive and easier to get done. Once endorphins kick-in, it is easier for even the most timid to keep going.

Don’t shy away from the conventional team-building days out. Now more than ever, they could be a highly effective way of getting everyone (including you) back into the swing of things.

If this sounds like leveraging wellbeing, don’t be put off. Everything and anything you can do to support better health and motivation will benefit everyone. And creating more opportunities will be well received and good for morale.

Capitalise on Resilience

The pandemic and multiple lockdowns have been hard, but it has also meant that many people have come through a challenging couple of years with improved resilience.

Getting used to restrictions not of our own choosing has, generally, made it easier to cope with life’s up and downs. This does not mean that everyone will welcome additional hardships, nor automatically will they welcome a return to what may now seem to seem rigid work practices.

However, resilience empowers a realistic approach to life’s travails. Some of your colleagues may not achieve the flexible working arrangements they would like, and that news should not be sugar coated. Difficult conversations should not be ignored but it may well be that what you think may be taken badly will be received more philosophically than you expect.

 

4. Be kind

Being kind is not the same as being soft

In the rush of commercial activity, kindness can be easily forgotten. All the more reason to think about it deliberately. Lead by example and show people – everyone in your organisation –  the respect they deserve as individual human beings.

This does not mean being soft, nor making concessions unnecessarily or arbitrarily. It does mean thinking about the impact of your decisions on other people. Sometimes it means striking a balance between what you want and what can be reasonably achieved. Allowing resentment to build up is never good, so consider long term aims as well as the needs of today. You’ll have a more loyal workforce as a result.

Be Purposeful and be clear

Nothings saps morale and productivity like uncertainty. So give serious thought to  the policies and strategies you employ and how they are presented. It goes without saying that not only do they need to be clear, fair and reasonable, but they must be demonstrably so.

Small changes can have big impacts so, provided it is commercially viable, don’t rule out increasing the number of colleagues who will work more flexibly than they used. Listen to what others say and consider all options before deciding on clear and purposeful new or modified structures. If significant change is on the horizon, keep people in the loop, even if the news is ‘no news just at the moment.’

With the world and national economies facing real stress though 2022 and beyond, building a resilient and well-motivated workforce has never been more important. Listening to what colleagues want and considering the merits of each case could well be a good place to start.

References
  1. Infogrid – The 2022 Hybrid Workplace: Return to Work report.
  2. Forbes Magazine
  3. Harris Polls
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