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How COVID-19 has changed the current working environment

It's no secret that things aren't the way they once were. The last 18 months have seen changes even the wildest of dreamers couldn't have predicted. To paraphrase the Fresh Prince Will Smith, “…life got flipped turned upside down…” and it seems like it's going to stay that way. In one fell swoop, the work environment has gone through one of the biggest changes in written history and done it within record time. Traditional office environments have disappeared and been replaced with an unfamiliar, yet ironically familiar, working from home environment. The daily commute has been replaced with a more modern tele-commute, allowing for travel around the world without having to leave the comfort of home.

However, not everyone is experiencing these same changes. Essential and frontline workers continue to work, albeit with heavily increased safety measures and little to no contact with customers. And whilst the majority of these changes are set to disappear when we return to a somewhat normal working environment, some changes will be here to stay. Changes like the reduction in cash payments in favour of contactless payment options and new hybrid working environments will form the ‘new norm' working environment.

But what exactly do these changes look like? Have these changes been positive? What lessons can be learnt from the changes in work?

What is this ‘new norm’?

The ‘new norm’. A term used to describe the current COVID environment and our efforts to adjust to the rapid change in lifestyles that it caused. But the term itself isn’t new. It was first used during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) to describe the impacts that the dramatic economic, social and cultural transformations had on societal lifestyles. And with approximately 33 countries implementing some form of lockdown, or mandatory quarantine period due to COVID, there have been plenty of varying disruptions to normal pre-COVID routines. For example, countries like Australia and New Zealand saw all non-essential work shift into a virtual, working from home environment. In fact, all jobs changed. Some for better and some for worse. Offices went from being large buildings to virtual environments with employees working from home, physical retail stores closed and went digital and many operated with a one-in, one-out customer policy.

Changes to work also changed a number of other aspects associated to it. Communication methods significantly changed with the shift into a virtual working environment. Traditional face-to-face communication was replaced with virtual Zoom meetings, removing the ability to view and interpret body language. A key aspect in effective communication which has created a disconnected feeling between employees in larger companies.

Social distancing measures have also removed another key aspect of work. This being the social aspect. As work is social in its nature, and reflects the interactions of the society around it, restricting the ability for employers, employees and customers to interact with each other regularly is not sustainable. Perhaps one of the best examples of this disruption is what COVID has done with the cliched, yet arguably important, informal meetings that happen in the break room or around the water-cooler. It may seem trivial, but these informal type meetings have been credited with having generated Gmail, Google News and Street View at Google.

What positives have come with remote working?

Despite the relatively forceful nature in which remote working was implemented, there are a number of positive aspects that come with the shift into remote work. Even during pre-COVID times, there were still positives that came with remote working. There are negatives that offset some positive aspects for certain roles and personality types, but the traditional working environment isn’t exempt from these either.

Perhaps one of the biggest positives that has come with remote working is the sense of freedom employees gain by being able to choose their work environment. This freedom has improved various aspects of employees lives, even in these stressful COVID impacted times. Not only is it allowing employees to save time by commuting less, but those with children and young families are able to spend more time engaging with them. In a survey conducted by the New York Times, approximately 40 percent of employees said they were taking more breaks and walks, with 50 percent also spending more time with family or doing household tasks. Overall, approximately 60 percent are reporting increased efforts being spent focusing on their personal health and feel more connected with their families.

Coinciding with the increased sense of freedom are the reported productivity levels occurring. According to McKinsey research, 41 percent of employees surveyed reported increases in productivity, whilst 28 percent reported similar productivity levels when working remotely. Exactly why these productivity levels are occurring is difficult to pinpoint, and results will vary between employees. However, it's likely that the increased freedom and liberation from daily commutes are helping with productivity.

Remote working has also allowed for businesses to benefit too. It's allowed for talent pool expansions that were previously limited by the location of the organisation. Employers are now no longer restricted to the hiring of employees within a commutable area of their organisation, and opens avenues into equally qualified, yet more affordable employees.

Moving out of the office has also reduced spending on overheads like rent, utilities and office maintenance, which allows for these funds to be allocated and invested into more profitable ventures.

What lessons can be learnt from these changes to work

Like everything, success doesn't just happen overnight. Whilst remote working has shown to be successful for many, issues will arise that need addressing and plans will need to be made for the future to ensure sustainable long-term success. This is especially important in scenarios where remote working is not a temporary solution.

So, what lessons can be learnt from the changes to work?

The first is the need for trust from employers. With employees now working outside the view of those overseeing them, there needs to be an element of trust that employees will complete their work. Employees, and employers alike, also need educating on how to conduct remote work in an effective manner. The majority of issues that arise are due to insufficient knowledge on how to conduct effective work from remote environments. Previous attempts to adopt this hybrid work environment back in the 1990's were unsuccessful, and the traditional office environment remained. 30 years later and now that remote working is essential, effective education will ensure that work will continue to remain productive.

Finally, the biggest lesson is around safety and connectivity. Now that face-to-face communication has been replaced by virtual meetings, employers must ensure that they continue to monitor their employees well-being. They must do their best to reduce the disconnects that occur with the reduced social connections and ensure their employees are healthy, both physically and mentally.

Employers must recognize that this ‘new norm' is unique, understand that everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Whilst everyone is adapting to this ‘new norm' and looking to utilize every tool possible, it seems like time, patience, and understanding are the most effective in dealing with this rapidly changing work environment.

Published Date:

November 12, 2021

Read Time:

6 minutes


Team Tidy