Over the last few months, Australia has taken unprecedented steps to get the nation back to work and support the survival of local industries. As restrictions start to ease, what will our workplaces look like post-COVID?
COVID-19 introduced never-before-seen global change in the way work is done. Workplaces went from office bound jobs to remote working almost instantaneously.
The only other employment shift at the same mass scale in history was the standardisation of the five-day working week by Henry Ford back in 1926, and even then, it took years to be rolled out across the rest of western civilisation.
The pandemic has delivered incredible scenes as employers and employees rallied together to make the rapid transition to remote working as efficient and as seamless as possible to keep their businesses going.
The benefits of remote working have been proven with workers citing increased productivity and less stress.
The pandemic has massively accelerated the adoption of flexible working with some of the world’s leading tech companies, Twitter and Square, announcing that 100% of their workforce can now work remotely.
There is no doubt that the forced move to remote working has shifted the old perception of many ‘traditional’ managers and they now appreciate the positives that it can bring for the workforce.
However corporate leaders revelling in the short-term success of virtual working may now be tempted to sign up for a near ubiquitous remote working business model.
Moving to a widespread, long-term remote working model however could be a grave mistake for many.
One of the biggest challenges for remote teams is the uphill battle to build and maintain a sense of identity, culture and cohesion.
No doubt there are ways to compensate for the lack of face time in the short-term, but trying to sustain a real sense of cultural identity without physical proximity is like dating someone online from overseas.
Yes, it’s possible to cultivate true intimacy, but difficult at best.
While companies can foster collaboration through video calls and virtual coffee catch-ups, over time these interactions will likely reduce, and before you know it, small isolated and individualised work habits start to emerge.
What has been the downside of remote working?
Some employers have experienced negative impacts on the mental health of their staff, the disintegration of standardised organisational processes, poor decision making, and anxiety emerging as people feel lost without team members to bounce ideas off.
The very cultural fibre – the stories, office rituals, symbols and values – that makes the business successful starts to come undone.
When physically together, team members can easily bond over shared events like inside jokes from meetings that went awry, casual conversations over lunch and late nights spent hammering out deliverables in the office.
That type of bonding simply isn’t fully possible in a remote model and that’s for an existing team, nevermind the challenges of starting a team from scratch. Communication becomes harder virtually.
There’s also those to consider who may already feel disadvantaged in the workplace (e.g. women, minorities, junior staff, quieter employees), and will face additional challenges being heard and valued virtually.
Face to face time can be absolutely critical for many of these same groups as they seek to expand their networks and gain access to power.
As for company culture, many teams have lost colleagues to redundancy and it would be naive to assume everything will be as before.
COVID-19 has challenged every company in its own way and will have triggered identity crises for many, bringing into question who they are and what’s important in order to survive.
However, this crisis is also a great opportunity for companies to proactively reset and rebuild their cultures to make them stronger than before.
Culture influences an entire organisation and serves to bind the fundamental elements of a company together to create more efficient and effective operations.
Therefore, team culture is an organisation’s best chance to succeed and thrive in this highly competitive and uncertain global market.
What is the way forward?
Leaders should take this rare moment in time to consider how their systems, processes, procedures, decisions and actions align to their overall purpose and values.
The key to doing this is undertaking a gap analysis to highlight where change and improvements need to be made before the culture organically morphs into something unplanned.
Doing so will allow leaders to better communicate with their stakeholders about who they are, what they stand for, and what makes them different.
So as restrictions ease and companies grapple with these difficult decisions, safety and public health guidance should continue to drive decision making.
Remote working can be a powerful tool when considered carefully and implemented strategically. The key is using a carving knife approach to organisational design, not the chainsaw.
What works for a small, tech start up may not work well for a larger more traditional corporation.
Rudy Crous is a corporate psychologist and the CEO and co-founder of Shortlyster, a HR tech platform that matches organisations and candidates together for overall job, team and culture fit.