Culture   //   March 24, 2022

Two years on: What we’ve learned from the Covid-19 era and its effect on the way we work

A microscopic organism is responsible for once-unimaginable changes around the earth. How we live — and die — are different in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As are how, where and why we work. 

After more than two dreary years, during which the coronavirus crisis has killed at least 6 million people worldwide, insights are emerging that aim to shed light on what we can learn from the upheaval and what lessons can help shape the traditional office experience and work-life balance, for the better.

“The global pandemic brought a realization that work could be different, and that people do not need to be in an office all the time to work effectively,” said Lisa Whited, senior associate at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), a global business consultancy headquartered in the U.K. “The impact going forward for individuals, organizations, cities and society is profound,” added Whited.

Here are six things we’ve learned. 

Reassessing embedded assumptions

As Covid-19 forces people to reconsider the world and their place in it, workers are expecting business leaders to provide the opportunity to work flexibly.

Adaptability is the new currency when it comes to how to approach the future workplace, as both current and prospective employees will seek to prioritize a flexible work environment more than ever, according to a recent AWA report, which explores the lessons learned from the pandemic. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.

One of the myths that got busted over the last two years of enforced remote working, was that employees couldn’t be trusted to perform without in-person supervision. That mass realization among employers has led to an unprecedented shift to new ways of working.

If anything, productivity improved in remote and hybrid setups, according to the AWA report. Business leaders will need to keep embracing that change, to remain competitive places to work. “The importance of organizational leaders having an open mind to reassess embedded assumptions about how we work is central… we uncovered ways of working [remotely] that are better for people, organizations and society, and business resilience,” said Whited. 

Overcoming work challenges 

For the longest time, the idea that some offices could be replaced by at-home work environments seemed impractical, to say the least.

For example, securities traders buy and sell stocks and other commodities at a stock exchange for a commission. Their job duties can range from bidding, managing paperwork and watching and gauging the stock market for trends or changes, to looking for investment options and devising strategies. Whether they do so on behalf of individual clients or they work for a specific firm, regulation dictates they must do so in a supervised environment. 

When the corporate world worked from home during the first two years of the pandemic, traders and their firms didn’t shut down. Instead, cameras were positioned in their homes to ensure constant remote oversight and to function within the rules. They simply found a way to continue. 

In other industries, all that was necessary to overcome Covid barriers was a change in outlook – a different mindset.  

What was once considered “weird” or impossible became normal.

Work-life rebalance 

The spread of the Covid contagion prompted many people to stop and consider what they valued most in their lives.

“What we learned through the pandemic is that people have been working very hard for many years to fit into ways of working that did not suit them,” said Whited.

With the benefit of hindsight and plenty of time for retrospection, it’s become clear that previously workplaces were designed with a singular approach, that didn’t cater to the diverse needs of whole workforces, according to Whited. Employees yearned for flexibility, “whether it was managing young children’s schedules, taking care of elderly family members, or taking care of themselves through making space for exercise, more sleep, and improved eating habits,” she added.

But during a health emergency, companies are compelled to adapt. 

Nearly every pandemic-work related survey has found majority support for continuing to work at home at least two days per week. By cutting back on commuting, people were saving time and money, benefits they don’t want to relinquish.

“[E]mployees recognized that they could be productive and have more time in their day and week to manage responsibilities — especially if they could reduce their commute,” added Whited.

Rebecca Kline, marketing vp at tech provider Loom, stressed that even before the virus exerted its stranglehold on the world, the work-life equation was being reassessed. “Workplaces of the future are now digital-first, and this monumental shift was already happening before the pandemic. This is great news for mothers, as they can now find balance in their lives,” she said.

Until today, though, there was a stigma attached to working remotely, said Kline. With the reimagining of the workplace — and the technological tools to help get the job done — that’s disappearing.

Offices are social hubs

The function of the traditional office is undergoing fundamental innovation. Instead of being a five-day-a-week environment where all employees are tethered to their desks, the physical workspace is becoming a central hub.

It’s now a place where workers can go to exchange ideas, collaborate on complex problems, and maintain social relationships — not sit on back-to-back Zoom calls, respond to emails or do any kind of task which doesn’t require input from teammates. 

Whited insisted that recognizing the importance of social connections is vital to a company’s success. “Providing space and time for people to connect and socialize is not a nice-to-have, but essential,” she added. 

The AWA executive said her firm’s research shows that social interaction is one of the primary reasons people want to go to the office. “We also know through previous studies that social cohesion is one of the key factors of high-performing teams,” she added. 

Loom’s Kline believes the possibility for frequent in-person, safe interaction is becoming more feasible as Covid-related restrictions loosen and cases stabilize. But that employers shouldn’t rush people. “Businesses need to facilitate genuine interactions [and] they need to allow these interactions to scale organically as workers do their part in driving the diversity and inclusion agenda,” she said.

New style of business leadership 

With new ways of hybrid working becoming established, a new style of business leadership is necessary so that the workplace functions harmoniously. Senior leaders, according to Whited, must recognize their people can be trusted without a command-and-control approach, and that flexibility can benefit the organization’s bottom line and its employees’ well-being and health.

At the same time, those in charge of an organization “need to provide training and upskill their managers to effectively manage employees wherever they are working,” she added. She recounted how the CEO of an AWA client realized the common pre-pandemic perception that, “If my people are here and I can see them, I am managing them” is no longer a valid tactic.

Whited also warned that employers will need to stamp out any so-called “presence bias” where employees receive rewards for being physically in the office. “Performance management systems and work norms and practices that are inclusive of remote, hybrid, and on-site employees must be carefully created and introduced,” she said.

Communicating with empathy and transparency 

Companies amped up communications within their businesses as the pandemic unfolded to reassure their employees about steps to keep them safe and to inform them of operational plans going forward.

Continuing to do so, and with transparency and empathy is recommended by Whited. “Leaders who communicated early and often, in a caring and empathetic tone, were viewed as in tune and trusted. They might not have had all the answers every time they spoke, but their openness and vulnerability make them appear to be a more humane leader.”

Despite what has been learned so far about the evolving workplace, Whited also asked “What other benefits to a company’s bottom line and to its employees’ wellbeing might we learn if we were more open to asking questions about what we could do differently to improve outcomes?”