All bets are off: The pandemic has reset our ideas of workplace culture

There’s no ‘going back’ to the office – the 18-month break means attitudes have changed and an effective working culture must recognise new realities.

Though we are not out of the woods yet, after 18 months of uncertainty and disruption in our working and private lives, it seems like it is finally time to get back behind the wheel and start to shape the future once again – in person – for ourselves, our teams and our businesses.

Although most of the conversation of late seems to have focused on employer attitudes to returning to the office – some rather insensitively ordering people back, announcing location-related pay cuts or not formulating a point of view at all – others have seen the opportunity to embrace more progressive hybrid working patterns, and consider the deeper implications of how we will work in the future to benefit both employees and business outcomes.

The pandemic has forced brands to shift from insight to intelligence

Regardless of what different industries and businesses decide, I am more struck that after 18 months it’s not as simple as going back to the office and picking up old ways. The time lag has created a significant break with previous working culture. The positives and negatives of remote working have been well documented elsewhere, but I think it’s essential to treat what happens next as a distinct phase requiring careful consideration. We will all need to create a new, effective, integrated working culture together with our teams.

Creating a new working culture

As I return to the office and hybrid working, here are some of the things I think will help foster the right level of engagement, lead to rewarding work, and enable people to effectively adjust to the next phase.

Firstly, show compassion

The impact of the last 18 months has been both collective and deeply individual. As I speak to peers across industries, it is clear that, although many people have taken this in their stride, many more are running on empty, feeling disconnected, and are thinking deeply about their lives and careers. With all the disruption, why not change jobs, relocate, or emigrate? All bets are off. As a leader it’s critical to listen, empathise and seek understanding.

Be vulnerable

There may be nothing more powerful than sharing your own personal experiences. Having the courage to share authentically is the opposite of weakness, and will enable your teams to talk more openly and constructively.

Fostering wellbeing matters – however ‘wellbeing’ is not a new marketing capability to be ticked off in an online training session or a new lens through which to judge talent. Like creating an inclusive workplace, promoting wellbeing requires a deeper change in culture. Empowering employees in this way will enable them to thrive, develop, and in turn fuel productivity.

Rearticulate the mission

After so much ‘pivoting’ – secret code for reacting to chaos – it really makes good sense to restate your mission and longer-term objectives. In so many industries the market and consumer opportunity has shifted due to the acceleration of digital living, but even if the mission is unchanged, this is a ripe moment.

Rearticulating the mission is a prompt for people to think deeply about their purpose – spend time with your teams working out what all of this means for each of you looking forward and how it stokes your energy and motivation.   This is a good way to connect personal purpose with that of the business and its mission.

Openness to accommodate each other

Recognise this process may lead to unexpected change. In essence everyone needs to reconnect to the business going forward in a way which is meaningful to them, or indeed to a different role, or even an entirely different path forward – all of which would have been inevitable to a degree in normal times given typical tenures in role and the length of this disruption.

Hybrid working will require new compromises and openness to accommodate each other in different ways. Behavioural norms were established before Covid closed our offices to the extent that they were unspoken, but where and how we work together will need actively negotiating with a fresh perspective and open mind.

Experiences make memories – it’s time for brands to be bold again

This also means recognising the role power dynamics will play in how new work patterns are formed. I think that smart businesses will avoid some of the authoritarian messaging we have seen of late, and retain the trust they have shown in employees working under their own steam, while injecting some of the humanity that may have been lost.

As we get back into offices and work out how to work together again effectively, it’s important to create new rituals and celebrate coming back together. Somethings will fit back together easily but others may need time and more conversation. Those businesses which listen deeply to employees, engage with them peer to peer, and understand how new ways of working can accelerate growth are also those which will attract and retain the best talent.



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