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Blurred lines: how the pandemic changed the way we live and work.

Posted by Flux on 

13 January 2022

During the first global lockdown Capita Consulting & Wired magazine gathered a group of business leaders across a broad spectrum of industries together: from law, hospitality and the tech sector through to finance, retail and private equity.  It was an attempt to find out how different sectors were adapting to a COVID economy and what businesses had to do in order to survive. 

Two overarching themes emerged: (1) meeting the velocity of change, and (2) humanising business.  After a second year into the pandemic, these two themes are crystalising into a very clear message to all businesses – especially corporate companies – that the “future of work” has been brought forward and that impact has to be dealt with urgently. We simply are not going back to the way things were pre-pandemic. Too much has changed, and the change has been irrevocable. 

The Life Audit
In the past 22 months, continued lockdowns, anticipatory grief and the tragic loss of loved ones has forced us all into deep introspection. The decoupling of “work” and “place of work” simply threw another layer onto what can only be described as a mass existential crisis.

Trends like, “semigration” and the global Great Resignation, confirmed that people have been re-evaluating their lifestyles and life goals. The ripple effect of these life audits cannot be underestimated for businesses, specifically in terms of their workforce whose priorities have changed.

The Hybrid Future
Many companies have already announced that they will embark on some form of a hybrid model. 9 out of 10 industry executives told McKinsey that their organisations will be combining remote and onsite working. However, 68% of those companies have no detailed plan as to how they’ll actually implement it.

It’s not as simple as just recalling your workforce back into the office. Over the last few months many companies internationally have tried to return to the office only to have an outbreak of COVID in the office or another wave of infections forcing countries or cities back into lockdown.

Offices need to adhere to strict safety protocols and that could mean retrofitting contactless mechanisms or even an entire overhaul of the air-conditioning system.

Meeting rooms now require new tech, specifically multiple video screens – at eye level – to accommodate hybrid meetings, including a rethink of audio placements.

These physical and technical considerations need to be in place before companies can even start to plan how their workforce will be staggered – and the different computations are endless and complex.

The danger of not planning these steps is the emergence of a ‘two speed organisation’: a disjointed workforce who fail to connect and collaborate. 

A New Company Culture
Work/life balance has been the workforce mantra for many years, but now the shift is to work/life flexibility. Gartner, the global research and advisory company, recently said that organisations should consider moving from a “location-centric” culture to a “human-centered” culture. The solution lies in creating purpose, and this is particularly challenging with a hybrid workforce.

Asking employees to work from home exposed the depth of inequality in South Africa. Not all South Africans have the necessary infrastructure or financial resources to work remotely and this has led to a shift in the dynamics of employment contracts. What used to be a one-to-one contract between employer and employee now has to be broader to consider the familial or community situation of that employee. 

Another facet of “humanising business”.

In terms of rewards and benefits the reshuffling of priorities is telling.

A survey by Prudential found that 52% of employees surveyed would leave their job for one with the “right” benefits, while 77% said benefits are now a “key part of their compensation”. What was once a “nice to have” is now a “must have”.

It is interesting, but unsurprising, to see which priorities have shifted. Healthcare is now a top priority, and not just long-term benefits but more immediate benefits, eg: assistance with mental wellbeing. Childcare benefits also rose up the ranks, as did workplace safety protocols. Predictably, flexible work hours also appeared in the top 5 preferences.

The Impact on the Professional Development
One of the main concerns for companies across the board was the impact of WFH policies on young employees, specifically those who had to be onboarded virtually and have yet to experience the office environment and company culture. 

A survey by LinkedIn found that over 50% of young employees in the UK say working from home during the pandemic has taken a toll on their office conversation skills and learning by “osmosis”, potentially harming their career progression and salary scale.

As a result, companies are boosting budgets for social events specifically designed to nurture office-based skills, which could help fast tracking “career maturity”.

But perhaps these companies are looking at the future of work through a lens that increasingly looks outdated. The Gen Z mantra, with regards work, has always been “I don’t want a job, I want a lifestyle”. They have also never understood a location-centric approach to work: “work is what I do, not a place I have to go to”.

Ironically these two mantras is where the world is shifting, or rather, the mindset companies are struggling to adapt to. But adapt they must.

Psychologists say that it takes just 21 days for people to adopt a new habit or behavioural pattern. We’ve all been adapting to a new lifestyle whilst working from home for almost two years: the adaptation is entrenched.

In terms of work/life flexibility, the genie is out the bottle, and it’s impossible to try and force it back in. All businesses need to rethink, reassess and reinvent

Fundamentally, companies always strived to create the perfect work place. Now the challenge is to create the right work experience.

This should top the to-do list of any business leader in 2022.

By Dion Chang

Originally published in City Press

Image credit: Standsome Worklifestyle

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