In the media

3 things you need to know about the return to work

Management Today

17 March 2021

This article was first published in Management Today

If you are struck trying to predict the future for your business and getting caught up in the unknowns, then stop. The last 12 months have taught us that predicting the future is futile. That said, there are definitely some trends that leaders can expect to see in the future of work, irrespective of industry or type of business.

1. Work-life balance will never be the same again

Throughout his career, my next-door neighbour left all his paperwork – and working mindset - in the office before he came home each day. By the time he retired in 2009 there was still a substantial division between peoples’ work and home lives. 

Yes, that was partly because the technologies to facilitate 24/7 connectedness weren’t quite there, but it was also a cultural thing that personal lives were typically kept separate from the professional sphere. 

If you asked how people were doing, you expected them to answer “fine”. You would not expect an honest account of the personal challenges they were working through, and you definitely would not have asked them what vaccinations they have had. 

The great news is that the pandemic has really brought the discussion on wellbeing and mental health to the mainstream. It is no longer a taboo, but something senior leaders across all industries – even the military – are bringing to the daily agenda. As a business leader, you need to harness this new reality to build trust and perpetuate this conversation in your organisation. 

Action: Be prepared to talk about your own mental wellbeing, and be ready for conversations about other people’s personal lives so you can support your team as we lockdowns end. 

2. Social cohesion degrades

Whilst technology to facilitate home working has markedly improved in the last 12 months, it has existed for several years now. For instance, a number of years ago, a large telecoms provider moved all its teams to home working, to show their clients the art of the possible, as well as in an effort to work more efficiently. 

This change worked effectively for the telecoms business for a while, until social relationships started to degrade over time. The quick coffee catch-ups to clarify the tone of an email stopped, and issues not addressed began to fester. What the teams noticed was that regular face-to-face time was necessary for social cohesion. 

It is clear that the rhythm of work is changing. In the short term, you need to put effort into re-establishing the social relationships within your team. Whilst virtual social events and activities are great, they are not a substitute for physical connections. 

As the workforce moves out of lockdown, if you are retaining the level of flexibility of home working (and you may have to if you want to retain talent) then prioritise building social relationships across the team and working face-to-face on the future of your business. 

Action: Invest in social cohesion within your organisation, focussing on what people need to feel that sense of community and belonging. For example, consider setting up WhatsApp ‘exercise groups’ and attend virtual or in-person sessions together. 

3. Brand purpose is even more important than before 

For some time now, younger generations have sought to work for employers that make a positive difference in the world, and whose brand values align to their own. This trend is being supercharged now, with companies starting to be informally assessed by current and future employees on how much of a moral backbone they showed when times grew tough. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, leaders must ask themselves some hard questions: how is your employer brand faring in the market in our post-Covid-19 era? What is its social, as well as its financial, purpose? How does your team feel you handled the turbulence of the past year? 

Then invest some time in carving out what your purpose is. Make it an investment priority and talk about it as part of your employer brand – it is arguably as important as revenue growth.

Action: Understand the perceptions among internal and external audiences to your company’s ethos. Really consider what role you want your organisation to play in society, and whether your current employer brand reflects this – then act on it.

The future will always be uncertain, but if leaders can spend time getting their heads around these key shifts, they will be better prepared for whatever the next few years bring.

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