Mike Mister explores what a return to the office could look like as part of our Women & Leadership campaign.

Two women sitting by the window laughing

“2 + 2 + 1” =?????

PSFI partner Mike Mister  looks at how our work lives might look post-Covid and the role of the office as part of our Women & Leadership campaign.

The future business world’s experience of 2020 will, in all probability, offer a more nuanced exploration of how business continued in the midst of the worldwide pandemic.  There has been, and will be, much written and examined about the way we all adapted, learnt and became skillful in the use of technology to continue our commercial activities.  Much has been written too about the human cost, particularly to women.

At the beginning of the pandemic the stores sold out of computer monitors, webcams and microphones were in short supply – we were all going online.  In fairness most organisation’s IT functions were in overdrive and, in the main, did a phenomenal job in supporting their organisations in a rapid move to on line working.  A recent McKinsey Global Institute study identified that the potential for remote work is “highly concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations and geographies. More than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office. But we should remember that more than 50% of the workforce has little or no opportunity for remote work”

So, as part of those who are fortunate enough to be able to work remotely, as we Zoomed, we GoToMeetinged, we Teams’d,  we WebExed , we BlueJeaned our days away.  The commentators were predicting the demise of the office – why did we need offices any more?  We were able to function perfectly well using our new technology and toys. What need did we have for the gleaming edifices of glass and steel in our city centres and business districts. However, the technology prophets had missed something small but very significant. Their Brave New (technology) World had real people in it.  Real people who are hard wired to collaborate and socialise.  And who’s evolutionary development is not that rapid as to enable a switch to a completely online existence in a few short months. Or even a year.

We were left perplexed as to why, sitting in front of a computer, using video technology to connect with our colleagues and friends we experienced two interesting side effects. One was a sense that the experience was somehow not as fulfilling as in person meetings- it just didn’t quite feel “right”.   And yet we seemed to lack a satisfactory vocabulary with which to understand and express why this might be so. The second intriguing side effect related to why the day long use of our technology was so tiring? Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. There are many reports of how fatiguing the day-long use of technology has become and an interestingly plausible explanation, concerning how our cognitive processing faculties work is explored in a wonderful piece in National Geographic.

As well as a collective feeling of tiredness, there has been a darker side too. There is now a gathering body of research showing that the real progress made over the last decade around women attaining and retaining positions of leadership is in danger due to the pressures piled on as a result of Covid.

Under the highly challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have struggled to do their jobs, despite the technology. Women in particular have been negatively impacted, intensifying the challenges they already have. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household work. As a result of these dynamics, McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace research found more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.

McKinsey’s research puts it starkly: “The choices companies make today will have consequences on gender equality for decades to come.”

The crisis also represents an opportunity. If firms make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and create a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term.

Clearly, in many organisations around the world, there are earnest discussions and attempts to plan what returning to the office might mean and indeed what the office itself might be. How many square footage do people need? Do we go open plan or not? What should the layout be? And then  further questions about the sort of infrastructure that is needed too support whatever this new working regime in the office might be. A formula that is being increasingly heard is that of 2 + 2 + 1 equals ????   where the figures represent two days working from home , two days in the office, and one day “working from I’m not sure where, but I’ll let you know when I have figured it out for myself!”

A recent report by Flex Appeal and Sir Robert McAlpine suggests that 72% of employees want to continue working from home, 70% want to carry on working flexible arrangements and  64% want to keep part time hours. The combination of these things has led to a new word for the management lexicon – “vlexible” – virtual and flexible working arrangements.

It is not difficult to see how vlexible working arrangements could be a powerful part of the solution for women in particular.

Clearly it is difficult to plan realistically with such vagaries in the possible desires and preferences in the workforce.  However, we do know that there is a real desire to return to the office environment for many employees. Whether these reasons be because of challenging circumstances in their homes in terms of needing to create boundaries between work and home life, poor internet connectivity, or the need for human connection.

It is possible that we could envisage offices, of much smaller square footage, that are open 24/7 and leaders gathering their teams on specific days and times to make best use of the available space and facilities.  Which begs the question of what becomes of the “working week “ and also what becomes of the weekend? Are we going to see a move towards a much more fluid view of working time or will the cultural norms with which we have all grown up exert their gravitational pull to protect certain days as “non work”- whether that be for spiritual observance, cultural reasons or simply the result of lifelong habits.

The one thing that is certain is that our working lives will never revert to exactly  how they were in 2019 and the day’s “PP”  – pre pandemic. Our new working lives in the age of PV –  post-vaccination will be very different. Our use of technology will continue, the amount of business travel will change dramatically, where and how we work has changed irrevocably. However there will still be a need for humans to connect, face to face in order to deal with a host of issues and challenges that for some reason the technology does not quite facilitate in quite the “right” way. How our working lives will be seen in the future is still to be decided. What we do know is that the ability of humans to adapt, create and learn to respond, to even these most desperate of times, has not been diminished. Our creativity, as witnessed by the uptake of technology platforms and the way the technology platforms have improved themselves over the last 12 months bear witness to this fact.

Let’s harness this creativity to develop solutions that suit all our employees, both men and women, and put gender equality at the heart of the discussions to ensure women don’t bear a disproportional burden as a result of this crisis.

 

Mike Mister is a partner at PSFI and specialises in the areas of development of leadership and change management. With over 30 years’ experience working internationally with senior leaders and their teams, his key interest is the intersection of strategy, commercial success and the organisation’s people agenda. He is also a Senior Fellow in the Human Capital Practice of The Conference Board and is the co-author of “How to Lead Smart People” with Arun Singh, a Senior Fellow with The Conference Board.

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