Many healthy returns

Remote working

The workplace is no-longer the traditional office for many. Organisations are challenged by the need to embrace new ways of physically working: planning space, maintaining higher standards of hygiene, enabling teams to work effectively together and recognising that home working is going to be needed (and even wanted) for the foreseeable future. All of those challenges are overlaid with the absolute need to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of staff.

As we move through summer, many offices and other workplaces are re-opening and businesses are trying to imagine how on earth they are going to be able to ensure safe and effective working. This uncertainty, and the requirements for correct physical distancing, and enhanced hygiene standards, is going to place a strain on employers and employees alike.

It may be tempting for employers to think that wellbeing goes only as far as sterile surfaces and the provision of hand sanitizers. These are, no doubt, important. However, if there is one thing that we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that people are experiencing many other threats to acute and chronic wellbeing, beyond the risk of infection.

We must not downplay loneliness and disconnection from family, friends and colleagues – these have been identified as being hugely important. Anxiety over finances and job security have also had an impact, as have the stresses of balancing work responsibilities with running a home and keeping the family fed, entertained and educated.

Some effects of enforced isolation – the good and the bad

Since the UK went into lockdown in March, employees and their bosses had to adapt very quickly to new ways of working. For some, working from home became a revelation. No commuting – saving time, money and stress.

Many people have experienced sleep difficulties, so the extra time afforded in the morning has been some compensation – either as a chance for more sleep, or the opportunity to enjoy a walk in the early morning spring sunshine, as way of getting in the right frame of mind for the day ahead.

Empowerment

Research has consistently shown that empowered workers are more productive and engaged. There is higher job satisfaction and greater wellbeing. Working from home, away from micro-managers (even if they do crop up on Zoom rather too often and insist on a camera-on at all times policy), the ability to set up your workspace as you see fit, and to wear the clothes you feel comfortable in, has not led to the collapse in productivity that was feared. 

There is a risk that some micro-managers might feel their positions threatened, as organisations discover that most people are very capable of managing themselves, and their work. This might be a good learning opportunity for them too.

The rise of the introvert and the joy of peace

Leading on from issues of empowerment, it is certainly true that some people are much more psychologically comfortable working away from crowded workplaces. The enforced bonhomie and attendance at time-consuming (and often utterly pointless) team meetings can be hugely stressful, especially in workplaces with a diversity of age and experience – some people just want a bit of privacy and be left alone to get on with their job without a disruption to flow.

And this leads straight into the issue of flow – a psychological state where, once achieved, work gets done at a prodigious rate, but once interrupted (through noise, uninvited conversations, phone calls or – worst of all in my experience – pop-up chat messages on the screen) can take over 20 minutes to recover from.  Uninterrupted flow can mean immensely improved productivity.

Recovery and recuperation

Sometimes, something happens during the working day that causes episodes of stress and anxiety. Such episodes may have nothing to do with work, but, as they happen in the working day, need to be addressed. For most (and I appreciate not all, by any means), working from home means that you can disconnect for a few minutes and find a place in the home, or outside, for a breather. The opportunity to experience the outside world for a few minutes can have tremendous recuperative effects. Exposure to nature and green spaces, or even a walk round the local streets can be enough to reset body and mind. A private place to meditate can also be of great benefit.

Survivor guilt

Some of us feel guilty that during this period when tens of thousands have died, and millions are experiencing stress and anxiety over health, family and finance, let alone the inconvenience of home schooling and supermarket queues, that we have actually quite enjoyed a lot of what lockdown has had to offer.  The enforced slower pace of life, the extra thinking time afforded by those long, patient queues to get into Asda, coupled with the most amazing springtime that most people can remember has actually been something to appreciate.

There is no doubt that the air has been fresher. The sky reallyhas been bluer and we are much more aware of birdsong and the tides of nature. For me, this has highlighted a lot of what is important in life. There are good things that we must preserve from this experience as the economy begins to wake up and organisations rethink their working environments.

Fears

After the second world war, a great leader found himself ruthlessly put out of power.  Churchill led the country through a crisis and might have expected a reward in the subsequent general election. However, to his surprise, and that of the press and the establishment, he was the victim of the closest thing the UK ever came to a revolution.

It would be crass to compare the privations and horrors of global warfare to the enforced changes to office life, although it is worth drawing a few parallels.

Wartime highlighted the faultlines in society. The old order had to be abandoned in order to fight the war, and the idea that society would willingly return to the established ways of doing things, was rejected. Now, organisations are going to have to face up to the facts that the established ways of managing people and workspaces are also going to have to change.

We may even have to reconsider what we mean by workspaces. 

Do we mean just the one (or more) physical spaces to carry out work – the realm of the designer – or does it include the headspace too?

Opportunities

Workplace managers are going to have to consider whole new interactions of disciplines in the very near future: space, furniture, technology, connectivity, restoration and recuperation, and new approaches to managing people. All will need repackaging to create work environments that people want to use, and we must learn from our experiences over the last few months to create those new working environments. 

In a fragile economy, those organisations willing to invest in creating more humane working cultures will be in the best place to attract and retain eager and talented people.  Fortunately, those investments need not be huge in terms of cash and capital, but instead may require taking a little time to learn and reflect on what has taken place.

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Kenneth Freeman

I am a workplace wellbeing and design consultant with 25 years of experience. I was an early pioneer of biophilic design. My interests lie understanding the human responses to environmental stimuli and creating spaces that engage with the senses rather than fight against them.

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