The pandemic has changed the way we live in every way imaginable. One of the pronounced effects COVID-19 is that it has forced businesses and workplaces to drastically transform themselves in a short period. Implementing new processes and enforcing health precautions have never been more urgent, coupled with valiant efforts to resume economic activities and let people return to work despite the ongoing health crisis.
Andrew Mawson, a workplace management expert and the owner of Advanced Workplace Associates, says companies are now undergoing a unique scenario in which employees have to adequately transition back to their old habits and procedures instead of into new ones. Because the quarantine has forced workers to adapt to a work-from-home setting, many of them may be having a hard time getting used to a new kind of standard, especially without ample time to transition.
Undoubtedly, remote work has introduced businesses to a new way of working that was once thought of as impossible and inefficient. As companies try to figure out how to maximize productivity in this pressing time, a strategy that shows empathy toward the employees is imperative.
The COVID-19 crisis has forced governments to close offices and place entire cities where the virus could easily spread in quarantine. While some countries have gradually contained the pandemic, non-essential business operations are still limited to the minimum working capacity. Employers thus had to implement a work-from-home setting and people had to adapt to quickly to it.
When it comes to working remotely, some people are for it and some are against it. Andrew gives two examples where one worker has a fast Internet connection and lives alone while another has three kids he has to look after.
Clearly, there are advantages to working from the comfort of your home. For one, your house is set up, and almost all the things you need are at your disposal. A working computer, Internet connection, a rest area, a kitchen with coffee — pretty much every tool you may need for work can be found at home. You are also free from tedious preparations such as dressing up and commuting daily to and from work.
Productivity-wise, there are also many advantages to remote work. In an effort by organizations to make processes more efficient, they would devote less time to unnecessary meetings. In addition, employees would have a lot of flexibility when it comes to time management, and they would be able to take frequent breaks to release stress. Also, businesses can spend less on office space, supplies, snacks, and other avoidable expenses.
Notwithstanding remote work’s advantages, an obvious drawback is that there's no line separating your dwelling and your workplace. This may possibly result in either long unproductive hours, inefficiency, lots of wasted time, or burning out in your own home. Distractions also abound when working from home.
The best way to overcome these challenges is by setting a strict routine that clearly separates your work hours and break-time. Aside from that, Andrew says being open to the people you share your dwelling with is imperative to a successful workday at home.
“I think one of the things you don’t want to be doing at this time is having an additional amount of load in your cognitive resources,” he says. In other words, you can avoid simple misunderstandings between you and your family if you have proper communication and a mutual understanding that you still have to do office work. It all boils down to expectation-setting and communication.
Aside from having the proper conversations with those who share your dwelling, it is also crucial to be open to your colleagues. People have to remember that everyone is in the same boat in this health crisis, and we are collectively struggling. If we make helping each other as the priority, everyone would have an easier time working despite the challenges posed by physical distancing.
One way or another, we all have to make some compromises in the new work-from-home scheme. However, it doesn't mean we can't be productive. Amid these new processes, one thing remains constant: wherever our workplace is, it needs to support us to be productive and generate value to society. If it only adds more stress to our job instead of helping us finish our tasks, we need to reconsider our environment.
History has shown time and again that humans are resistant to change. This is because change isn’t merely an event but an entire psychological experience that we need to face. With the many changes forced upon us that we have survived as a race, humans still fundamentally don't like change.
Knowing this tendency that humans have, employers, change management experts, and employees themselves need to understand the situation and use human nature to their advantage.
Because the brain is wired to seek social and physical safety. Within a short period, we have flipped from a relatively safe and comfortable environment to the other extreme: dangerous and threatening. As a result, we might be inclined to avoid anything new and even resist reverting back to our old ways once we return to the office. By then, we should have effective strategies in place.
Employees have been thrust to a flexible working model with unfamiliar processes and practices. Regardless of how we feel about working remotely, we all learned that it's possible to work with someone who is thousands of miles away thanks to technology. The world and the workplace have changed, and there is no turning back.
Displacement and forced transition have its consequences. We now ask ourselves: why do we even have to return to the office if we can get the job done at home?
Andrew doesn't have an answer to that. However, he says we need to introspect and understand the value of the workplace. You may feel productive at home, but think about it: could you have done better? As for senior leaders, they might understand their workers’ employees, but can they motivate them to return to work?
Perhaps the most pressing question is this: “How will I maintain my safety if I return?” This question encompasses everything from sanitation to transportation and workplace strategy.
Companies would have to spend time, effort, and resources to integrate the required health standards into their standard processes. Organizations undergo change management whenever new processes are introduced to the business. However, in this case, Andrew says organizations would be under a “reverse change management program.” It means employees need to be supported not in the transition into a new practice but in the process of reverting to the way things were before the pandemic.
It may be tempting to think that after a few months, everything would return to normal: we would all be returning to the office as we did before. However, it would be best if people do not expect to return exactly to the way things were before. This is because the reality isn't so simple. The past and the present scenarios of work are two extremes of a spectrum. Before the virus struck, everyone worked in the office. Now, everyone works at home, doing Zoom calls while in quarantine.
Andrew says he doesn't see the old everyone-in-the-office scenario happening anytime soon. The new normal would be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Some would be at home, and some would be at the office. There would also be a need to facilitate change in processes and adherence to proper health standards.
The future demands a certain degree of collaboration between the skeleton workforce at the office and the other employees at home. Companies thus have to rethink many business objectives such as long-term goals, corporate strategy, time management, and workplace strategy.
People have been debating whether a productive workday is possible at home. As mentioned before, people handle the quarantine either very well or very poorly. It's all circumstantial and dependent on various household factors.
However, Andrew has this to say on the future work model: “I think we can construct a world where people have their best day, but they are not having it at the same place all the time.”
It's important to understand that this work model is more mobile and flexible than the two ends of the spectrum, traditional or work-from-home. This entails a rapid shifting of priorities for companies, constant time management for employees, and maximizing our use of technology.
It doesn’t matter how long the virus would stay active. Uncertainty will linger for a significant time even after we have contained it. Thus, it would be best if businesses prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Resilience and adaptability are critical for companies to survive the aftermath of the pandemic. Hopefully, employees will be thrust into a kind of change they can be prepared for.
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