In this Future of Work series, Employment Law Partner Claire Thorogood considers the key issues arising in the workplace and how employers and employees can begin to adapt and prepare.
In this series Claire will consider how the aftermath of the pandemic continues to impact on the workplace, the potential impact of AI on all our jobs and organisations, strategies for managing the recruitment and retention of talent and whether the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 represented ‘peak EDI’ for employers and where that leaves diversity on the ‘To Do’ list.
An Occupational Revolution
As we approach the 3rd anniversary of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown, it feels as if we are slowly but surely returning to the office more or less full-time– albeit reluctantly. If 2020 represented a workplace (or home-place) revolution, 2021 was the year of the “new normal” – a broad consensus that hybrid-working was the future: a blended approach that offered up efficiency alongside collegiality (by appointment). However, ‘hybrid’ manifested principally throughout the year as a home-based reality. Offices remained predominantly empty despite wide-held belief that certain employee groups were losing out and employers’ growing unease.
And, at some point in 2022, the hybrid-tide turned. At first and perhaps predictably, it was the US investment banks with their traditional command-and-control instincts that called time. Other employers, with the pandemic seemingly at a safe distance, took a different tack; they sought to persuade employees to return to the office. There were vague promises of creative collaboration and the supposed allure of social contact. But then came the Great Resignation and the Talent Battles of 2022. Salary was not enough; the workers demanded flexibility and employer fear set in: if the workers didn’t get it from you, they would get it from someone else.
Then, in the UK at least, the mini-Budget of September 2022 caused a re-set. Overnight recession, record inflation and interest rates dominated headlines and finances. Workplace security could not be taken for granted; energy bills and mortgages needed to be paid and the balance of power appeared to shift to employers. Employee fear of being out of sight and out of mind kicked in and employers felt more confident in requiring the return of employees to the office. And yet…. around the same time, the Quiet Quitting phenomenon, emerged; just as the numbers of employees returning to the office increased, a passive aggressive work to rule response was triggered in some. And more recently, I’ve heard the term “resenteeism” in use to describe the grudging irritation felt by some on being made to return to the office for 3 or 4 days a week.
But the truth – or rather, evidence - is that (effective) hybrid working is better for everyone. So, why can it still feel like pulling teeth?
The Case for Hybrid-Working
In her 2020 international bestseller, The Lonely Century A Call to Reconnect, Noreena Hertz explores the global crisis of ‘loneliness’ – defined by her as a sense of disconnection and/or exclusion. Yet, as the date of publication suggests, this “social recession” began long before the pandemic and Hertz records research from 2018 that found that 60% of UK office workers felt lonely at work. She also points to our move towards contactless as a “way of life” and choice before any Covid lockdown.
So, office work is not in and of itself the answer to loneliness and nor is remote working fundamentally bad. However, Hertz sets out the unequivocal evidence of the critical benefits for individuals, organisations and society of in-person contact. In fascinating and extensive case studies and research, she demonstrates how as social animals we benefit from coming together in person and how even fleeting positive interactions boost our health and make us feel seen and validated. As humans reliant on each other for survival, we have developed facial “mirroring”: a way of reflecting the other and how, in doing so, we develop connection, co-operation and empathy. Digital communication forms are not effective substitutes.
Whilst some employees may point to the greater sense of connection in their home-communities as a result of the pandemic, the evidence nevertheless points to remote working and the “always-on” culture as increased risk factors for loneliness which, as Hertz demonstrates, comes with significant societal and individual costs.
Earlier this month, Harvard Medical School reported on the longest ever study of human life carried out over the past 85 years. It concluded the people who were happiest, who stayed healthiest as they grew old and who lived the longest were the people who had the warmest connections with other people.
For employers, employee engagement is closely correlated to how connected employees feel to their colleagues and employer which in turn impacts on sick absence and productivity.
We Are What We Repeatedly Do
But as well as social animals, we are also creatures of habit. The pandemic broke the office habit but in my next piece in this series, I’ll consider how organisations and individuals can re-establish an office habit that leads to strengthening and positive connections using in part the 3 components of the “habit loop”: cue, routine and reward. But as Hertz concludes “it takes time and repetition for people to truly bond: “You can’t buy community, you have to practice it”.
 Robert Waldinger | The Good Life | McKinsey Author Talks | McKinsey