Well, here we are in March 2021 and for those of us in the UK, this brings us to a significant milestone. We have been in lockdown (at various levels) for a whole 12 months, now. What an alarming and sobering thought that is. And I can assure you that no-one thought that this would be the case, no matter what the ‘I-told-you-so’ merchants say to the contrary.
Last March, in the dim and distant past of 2020, we at The Forum hosted a number of webinars on the subject of planning around COVID-19 – you may remember them. On at least one of those webinars, we asked our audience when they thought we would be free of the cursed lockdowns and get back to some form of normality. The most common answer was that the summer would see the back of pandemics; slightly more pessimistically, some people said September or, to a chorus of boos and cries of ‘Never!’, possibly even October.
No one guessed that we’d still be in lockdown in 2021.
It was a trying time to be a planner, although it did present us with a whole panorama of possibilities – suddenly, homeworking was a viable and attractive option and businesses acted with true pioneer spirit to get entire workforces out of office spaces and into working from ironing boards and dressing tables across the nation. And what did we learn? Well, we found out that homeworking (or at least working from home) worked – many people seemed to enjoy it, productivity was not adversely affected, and some shrinkage factors were positively impacted. All businesses realised that Business Continuity plans needed to be revisited, more focus was needed for colleague wellbeing and everyone understood that everything just needed some additional consideration – an extra coat of looking at – before being put into practice.
All in all, we heard a lot of our member organisations talk about how homeworking and hybrid workforces were here to stay. It only took 20 years and a global pandemic, but finally the time of the homeworker was upon us. Hurray!
Recently, though, I’ve been reading more and more negative comments about non-office work. Barclays Chief Executive Jes Staley was quoted as saying, “It’s remarkable it’s working as well as it is, but I don’t think it’s sustainable”, adding “It will increasingly be a challenge to maintain the culture and collaboration that these large financial institutions seek to have and should have”. JP Morgan Chase’s Head of Asset and Wealth Management, Mary Erdoes, agreed whilst Howard Dawber of the Canary Wharf Group (the developer behind roughly 7.5 million square feet of office space, lest we forget) insists that people are “fatigued” by working from home and just want to get back to being able to “get a good coffee at lunchtime”. David Solomon, from Goldman Sachs, has gone one stage further, labelling working from home as an “aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible” as it doesn’t suit the work culture at the company. Blimey!
These comments shocked me if I’m honest. Obviously, I could write some of these off as being rather self-serving right off the bat. Another takeaway for me is that any comment that starts "People are...." is based on the assumption that everybody is exactly the same and is therefore fundamentally flawed from the outset. When somebody says, “people are” what they actually mean is "some people are", and unless they have quantified how many then what they actually mean is "I am ... and so therefore everybody else must be”. At the very least, they sound a little tone deaf – these people haven’t actually been listening to their people recently.
So, it started out looking as though this is a simple, black and white message – right and wrong. However, on reflection, I don’t think it is as simple as that. Is there a possibility that these views are CORRECT?
Well, possibly. But then again possibly not.
I can see the argument that, from the point of view of the economy, it would be better for people to get back to working in offices. All of the businesses set up to support office working – public transport, cafes and sandwich bars, water-cooler delivery men, canteen caterers etc – would obviously benefit from having thousands of customers suddenly reappear. And I’m certain that some people ARE getting a trifle fed up with working from home. However, this all needs to be viewed through the current lens of people having to work from home and having no freedoms available to them due to the lockdown. When lockdown restrictions are lifted, the economy has a chance to change and flex and find ways of supporting a hybrid workforce. For instance, instead of grabbing a coffee with colleagues in a city centre location, workers could grab a coffee with their friends from outside work in their local area. It is really important that we don’t pay too much attention to statements that start with “people are” at the moment.
This is a really good opportunity for planners everywhere to present their thoughts on how the future should look. Homeworking, it appears, does work for people – not for everyone, but for some it has been a godsend. The hybrid workforce will work, if organised and arranged correctly – this is a solution designed to find the best approach for each individual in the workplace. I’m concerned that there is a real risk that we will be taken back 10 or 20 years by naysayers and the self-interests of some. We at The Forum have always seen the arena presented to us by the pandemic as a real opportunity to do things differently and to move wellbeing into the spotlight – and it is now definitely time for our community to produce the exit plans that show our businesses the way forward, rather than backwards.
So, some practical next steps –
- First, get out in front of the situation. Be proactive – don’t wait for the business leaders to read the comments of Messrs Solomon, Staley and Dawber and come to you. If you do, you will find it harder to convince them to take an opposing view.
- Resist the temptation to jump to solutions and conclusions. Take your time to understand the problems and issues you need to overcome, recognise which ones are just problems now, and start to consider what the new problems will be. There is a danger of rushing out a headline message, which lacks the necessary detail of “what’s in this for me?”
- Try the classic SWOT analysis for different working environments, e.g. homeworking, hybrid and office working. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses along with the opportunities and threats can provide a more rounded view. Again, complete this based on now and then repeat based on different views of the future.
- Imagine what the perfect working conditions are and what a perfect work-life balance would be. What needs to be on offer, what technology needs to be available, etc? Exercises like this help you to think differently and lift your head out of the current day-to-day detail.
- Continue to keep an open dialogue with all employees to listen to their fears, problems, and uncertainties. Use surveys and working parties to capture thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Resist the temptation to use standard questions with ratings/standard responses, e.g. how uncertain are you on a scale of 0 to 5? Seek qualitative answers and spend time on understanding the outliers.
So, the future is definitely in our hands. Let’s ensure that our businesses make the right decisions on what that future looks like
Author: David Preece
Date Published: 03/03/2021