For all the talk about the ‘new normal’, ‘next normal’ or ‘near normal’, if we look at human nature, the biological thing to do will be to return to our existing ways of working as soon as we can.
Human behaviour is influenced by biology and the environment in which it is immersed. At a cellular level, predictability is a conservation of human energy, a basic need for survival and it is this that explains why humans love patterns and predictability.
The unpredictability of the current situation, brought about by COVID, has heightened anxiety and mental health issues. There are blurred lines between work and home resulting in longer working hours (more than 70% of people in a recent survey by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work) and burnout. There is uncertainty about jobs and what the future holds. There is a lack of human connections and real conversations. Our ‘goodwill banks’ are being depleted – connections with colleagues are being exhausted and we need to rebuild connections and build a sense of cohesion in our teams. Returning to the office (even if only part-time) will help address some of these things.
We are now at a tipping point of the way we work. Businesses have been in survival mode, coping with the current situation but if we really want to change the way we work, we need to reflect, learn and make the change stick.
Creating the change requires congruence between our attitudes and behaviour. Both are hard to shift but you need both and you need something compelling to drive the shift. In the 1970s, despite a widespread understanding of the importance of wearing seatbelts for safety, the use of seatbelts only increased when it became a legal requirement to use them. The law change drove the behaviour change to be consistent with the attitude change.
In a similar way, we need to align attitudes and behaviours towards flexible working to enable a successful, long term change.
If your organisation wants to continue to reap the benefits of remote and flexible working, then it needs to:
1. Enable – not only do we need to ensure people have the systems to work remotely/flexibly but everyone needs to have access to the same systems wherever they are. Leaders need to learn and develop the skills to manage and coach remote teams, recognising that this is often new to leaders. This includes performance feedback conversations.
2. Encourage – actively encourage flexible working through alignment with the business, building it into both strategy, reporting and performance management. Avoid unintentionally rewarding those who are in the office. Empower teams to redesign their work for flexibility. Evidence
3. Lead – leaders need to show that flexible working is acceptable. If leaders are in the office 5 days a week, teams will quickly follow. Ensure clarity in communications and direction to maintain trust. Put feedback loops in place.
However, practices are needed to ensure the negatives are detected early and managed well. For example, longer hours of work, further blurring of work-life balance, and impacts on diversity. Research commissions by design firm Hassell (AFR, 18 November 2020) found that men, managers and older workers wanted to return to the office more than women, staff and under-30s.
If you want your ‘new normal’ to look different to your old normal, now is the time to put the wedges in place to make flexible working stick.