The after effects of the coronavirus
As a passionate advocate of flexible working, it was always my hope that something would come along that forced flexible working up the business agenda and gave 87%* of the population what they have been asking for.
I dreamt of some kind of revolution that forced all businesses to finally take notice of all the research and realise what the rest of us knew already – that flexible working is hugely beneficial on all fronts. That it’s the key to closing the gender pay gap. It’s how we stop throwing women over 30 away; how we keep fathers present in their children’s lives; how we care for our elderly; involve those with disabilities more readily; and stop wasting skills. It’s how we make our employees happy.
I dreamt that there would be a nationwide awakening to these benefits and flexible working would be launched into organisations voluntarily, across the land. Senior management would be excited, managers exclaiming “finally!” then helping to roll it out to their teams supported with the right tools for the job and met with delight and significantly improved happiness.
It’s not quite how it’s happened.
Instead we have had COVID-19. And we don’t know what the after effects of the coronavirus will be.
It’s not the revolution I asked for
I did not anticipate a situation where everyone was forced to work from home under the most difficult of circumstances. Under intense stress, fear and scrutiny. Surrounded by illness. And most significantly, with zero childcare.
I didn’t foresee freelancers being stretched to the absolute limits, even more than before, because the few precious hours they used to work during when the children were at school, are now parenting hours. It means the only time they have to work is between 7pm and midnight. That’s assuming the children actually go to sleep and that they weren’t still brimming with energy because Joe Wicks failed to exhaust them in the living room.
We are now in a situation where “working from home” is being used wildly incorrectly to describe what is happening now. Which, to be clear, is not working from home. It is snatches of time around discombobulated children being hushed because “Mummy/Daddy is on a call.”
Business have had to change quickly
Businesses have been forced to change. Social distancing and bans on travel have meant people having to work from home, or else not work at all.
In some respects this is good. The realisation that a desk-based 9 to 5 isn’t actually an imperative to getting the job done is a huge shift in mindset and one which might never have been trialled on this scale “in real life.”
It’s forced infrastructure changes that might never have made it up the IT workstack.
It’s tested business continuity plans in a way no one (other than the risk managers) ever thought would be needed.
Businesses have had to quickly adopt tools that would have taken ages to roll out. Slack, Trello and Hangouts are being used like never before.
These are all positives!
Businesses are hopefully realising that their goals can be achieved when people aren’t sat looking at each other. Coupling that with some potential financial savings and suddenly flexible working presents a rather more attractive proposition. Maybe they could make this work after all…
I do believe that things will change for the better in the longer term, but I fear that this forced and unplanned approach means we have some difficult times to get through that will give flexible working a bad name in the short term.
Many businesses managed to get their sh*t together from an ops perspective but not as many will have nailed the culture around flexible working.
I have heard cringe-inducing changes to routine such as daily check in meetings at 9am and 5pm “just to keep in touch.” Employees forced to work with their cameras on all day. No scheduled breaks.
A lack of trust between manager and worker has never been more evident.
In some cases there is an “always on” mentality that means even if workers are finishing at 6pm on Friday, it is assumed they have read that email demanding their presence for an 8am dial in on Monday morning. Client meeting at lunchtime? That’s fine, you’ve nothing else to do anyway. It’s not like you can go anywhere.
People in closer-knit businesses are at their laptops 12 hours a day because “there’s so much to do,” no one else to do it (they’re all on furlough) and you have nowhere else to be. There’s literally no getting away.
I am concerned that this helicopter management will continue and the lack of trust at this time will damage relationships longer term. I also worry that employees won’t be brave enough to push back on the 12-hour days they have been forced into when (if) life goes back to normal. Will they be demanding enough to ask for that vacancy to support them to be re-posted? Will they stop the 8am and 7pm meetings that everyone has become so accustomed to?
Sensible and employee-conscious businesses will call in the experts and attempt to make the cultural shift they need for flexible working to really work. It will take time but they will get there if they remain committed.
Others, sadly, will not.
Furlough aside, having worked in projects and strategy in a large corporate for many years, I know only too well that every cost comes with a benefit. These expensive and rushed changes will have to be paid for.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will be made redundant though, in some industries where they have continued to run a business successfully with half of the staff furloughed, it is inevitable that the CFO will ask whether all those additional heads they haven’t been paying for are necessary.
Moving people out of an expensive city location to work from their own homes (where the mortgage is already being paid) will beg the question why all of these ludicrously expensive buildings sit on businesses’ asset registers.
I hope that the fall off in income for many has not been so much that they make mass redundancies and that the savings to be made from all the positives of flexible and remote working offset this.
With every disaster recovery, finance and risk mind reminding them of the impact of this catastrophic event, I have every faith that will happen.
Most interesting to me is the experience of remote and flexible working that people will have had.
I suspect that the busy boardroom types will miss their suits and their coffees and find family life isn’t really suited to that carefully cultivated professional persona they’ve spent so many years building. I hope they are brave enough to return to the office as the humans they became when their toddler wandered in midway through a Zoom. Their employees can find a way to relate to that person. I hope they lock away the boardroom robots that nobody really knows.
The boardroom executives may well be the real haters in this situation. They’re the ones that gain the most from shouting across the office to bring in last months’ figures “Now!” and will be the ones raging when Sandra doesn’t answer the phone because she dared to go to the toilet and the printer isn’t working but there’s no one here to fix it.
This is a concern for the ongoing success of flexible working because it’s these guys (in the main) that have the power to change things in the long term. I hope that they listen to their people.
After six weeks, they will hopefully have found the workarounds, the tools and the communication methods to still do what they need to do. They might even find that the reduction in corridor whispers reduces office politics a bit. But we’ll see.
Throughout the rest of the organisation I hope that many office workers, in particular dads who are normally out from 6am to 8pm, will not think this is what it’s like “to work from home.” That working amongst the chaos of home school with tantrums interrupting conference calls is the norm. Because, when school is on, it’s not!
I hope that office folk who have missed out on important updates because businesses haven’t had time to get their head around new communications tools will realise that this is a product of poor communication, not remote working.
On an individual level, whilst there may be a short term divorce surge (too much time together can do that), exposure to the reality of home life can only be a good thing for stay-at-home mums (or dads).
Dads might finally realise why the 6pm text saying “I’m still at the pub, leave my dinner in the oven” is met with a now-warranted level of rage. At the very least he’ll understand just how easy it is to have consumed half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc before the bedtime process has even started.
I heard last week from the Director of a business we work with declare how “it’s quite nice to see my wife during the week.” Other men and women are seeing their babies in waking hours more than 2 days a week and their children are coming to them for cuddles when they fall over, for the first time.
Anyone with a commute longer than 40 minutes will surely have learnt that the time is better spent exercising, with the children or walking the dog. Anything that has to be better for their mental or physical health than being sat on a packed train inhaling everyone else’ morning breath.
This is the opportunity of a lifetime
I hope that companies and individuals alike turn this crisis into the positive it can be for the sake of people everywhere. Not just businesses, people. It is an opportunity like no other we have been given, and I urge every individual, regardless of sex, age or rank to be open and push not how this can all be reversed but how it can be adapated, improved and enhanced to deliver the cultural change that employees everywhere have been screaming out for.
Managers, listen up and listen good. When all of this comes to an end, hear what people have to say. Hear what they have liked and hear what they haven’t liked. Don’t jump straight to the balance sheet. 87%* of people want flexibility in their role and you’ve had the chance to give it to them. What worked? What didn’t? Be the one that made your employees happy.
If you need help with the cultural aspects of implementing flexible working, Ursula Tavender, flexible working advocate and founder of Taking Care of Business, and Liese Lord, flexible working advocate and founder of The Lightbulb Tree, has produced a number of guides and offer 121 coaching if needed.
* According to TImewise flexible jobs index 2019