Corporate, Covid-19, In the Eye of
Reimagining office culture and working life after Covid-19
11 January 2021
The unwelcome advent of Covid-19 has changed the way many of us live and work overnight. The unknowns currently are the evolution of the health and economic crises and what mindset changes will arise. One thing is certain, however - the world for ‘knowledge’ workers who used to operate full-time from offices has probably changed forever. To emerge successfully from the current pandemic, organizations will need to nurture their employees’ digital, cognitive, social and emotional skills, as well as their adaptability and resilience. But how are employees faring in this strange and new modus operandi of their working lives?
When it comes to nurturing talent many businesses are finding that it is their younger employees who are facing particular challenges. We know that the elderly are at the highest risk from the disease itself, but the young are those who suffer some of the worst collateral damage, especially when it comes to employment.
However, it isn’t the loss of jobs that is causing unease - so far, the bite has proportionately had more of an impact among blue rather than white collar jobs. Those who retain their employment can be adversely affected by the new normal: Working from Home (WFH).
When interviewed by the author in the London Times recently Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the UK’s NatWest (RBS) bank said of remote working: “It’s the unstructured human contact stuff that concerns me. We’re going ahead with our graduate new recruits this autumn, but it’ll be testing for both sides - how will they get to know us and us them if they hardly ever come into the office? What worries me about remote working is the difficulty it has with social capital. Promising young people won’t get noticed. Promotions will be missed.” Sir Howard admitted he was himself somewhat flummoxed having spent decades getting up immediately to don a suit and tie. Now most days he has nowhere to go except his study.
We spoke to a lawyer, rather than a banker, to get his take. The 27-year-old - who preferred to remain anonymous - is working at one of the top Magic Circle law firms initially in Hong Kong and now in London. He has mixed feelings about the last eight months.
“The first wave and being locked down at home wasn’t too bad,” he says. “I certainly didn’t miss the commute to work. But now the second wave is getting to me. It’s gone on too long. I think it’s different for millennials like me who are single, without kids and tend not to have much space at home. I have no garden and working in the kitchen or even my bedroom gets to you after a while. That said I have been lucky to go to Devon to my parent’s place.
“I’d die happy if I didn’t have to check-in to another Zoom call again. By the time you get to the 5th in one day it is enervating. I feel I'm ok in that I'm already on the ladder and making progress. The money is very good. But it must be very strange for new joiners who have never actually been inside the office.
“A lot of my social contacts were at work and you can no longer go out to a bar to decompress together when the working day is over. There’s no clear demarcation line between work and home.”
The critical factor which will set organisations apart in the talent war, especially for Millennials, will be how smart they are in adapting.
Five days a week in the office is gone
The magazine The Lawyer, a favourite read of the legal profession, recently surveyed 1200 of its pan-European readers. Fewer than 3 percent of survey respondents said they would be quite happy never visiting the office at all once the pandemic had subsided, compared to the 84 per cent expressing a desire to come in at least one day a week. However, it was equally clear that the days of all staff wishing to be present in the corporate office five days a week are now long gone. Fewer than 3 percent of survey respondents wish to do a full Monday to Friday shift in the office in future. Two to three days is the preferred option, with more than half favouring this working arrangement.
What was significant was those who were missing the office very much. These were the junior members of the profession – trainees, legal apprentices and paralegals – who benefit from the interaction with their mentors and managers. But it is notable that even they do not want to be in the office five days – or even four. Around half favour coming in two or three days a week, and nearly a quarter say one day per week or less in the office is enough for them. Their superiors may disagree.
Talking to a sea of dead eyes
Bruce Daisley was the EMEA Vice President of Twitter until earlier this year but is also the author of the best-seller The Joy of Work. “The critical factor which will set organisations apart in the talent war, especially for Millennials, will be how smart they are in adapting. You must be able to connect with your people in different ways. Working from Home is a different medium. Those that think a once-in-while company-wide session where the leaders address 2,000 people with their cameras off won’t hack it. They will be talking to a sea of dead eyes who are becoming progressively more disengaged and disconnected. Smart organisations willing to invest time differently are doing things like getting senior leaders to engage regularly with 5-6 new starters in small, intimate meets. The other thing which is sensible is to do what Microsoft have done with Teams software and introduce a ‘digital commute.’ But, in truth, I can see that there is no way those in their 30s, 40s and 50s will want to be back five days - they’ve seen a better way to live and get balance.”
Rhian-Anwen Hammill worked as an investment banker before becoming a financial services headhunter and then executive coach who specialises in the family business and family office sector. “If working from home continues in perpetuity,” she warns, “it could be destructive for young people. In the short term, millennials tend to be elastic and adaptable - many have decamped to their parents’, who have more space. But the key will be measurable levels of engagement with the business. Zoom wine tastings were fine to maintain morale but it’s getting beyond that now. Keeping them close and motivated will become increasingly tricky.”
Rhian believes the current cohort of young professionals are of another hue to her three decades ago. “The young are different from when I went to Goldman Sachs after university. I put on my GS skin daily - performed the act. But they want to be heard and to matter from day one. That makes them less likely to slavishly buy into a corporate culture. They are fickler. Things must work for them. And vice versa. Things are more democratised. Talent is borrowed by business for a time and then it takes itself elsewhere.”
She doesn’t, however, think all is lost in the current unpredictable state of flux. “They are also able to create digital connectivity much better than my generation could. Even my kids [aged 13 and 11] can build friendships in the virtual world. So, don’t worry too much. They may be more resilient than we think.”
At Ardian, we strongly believe in the value brought by younger generations.
Going (almost) fully remote isn’t sustainable
How to maintain culture - that invisible glue that binds organisations together - during Covid-19 is a thorny problem. Certainly, Sergio Ermotti, the outgoing CEO of UBS thinks “a rate of 85% of people working remotely is not sustainable” for banks such as his. Likewise the JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told the Sibos conference in October: “There will be some permanent work from home, people who permanently rotate, or have a schedule of three days in and two days out, something like that. I don’t think it will be 100% of the population, I think it will be 20-30%, and it’s got to work for the company and the clients. It’s not just whether we like it as employees,” he said. That is a clear message that he wants most of his people back in the office either leading or being part of the charge.
If an organization's culture needs to be imbued over time and learned by example, then it’s likely to be new joiners and the relatively young who will fail to pick it up by osmosis. Becoming part of the team is one thing, but more generally the mental health of the broader population is being tested with the news being so unremittingly negative.
When interviewed by the BBC, Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics and a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, said that “for an unfortunate minority of people, perhaps 10 to 15%, life will not return to normal”, due to the impact of the pandemic on their mental well-being. Australia’s Black Dog Institute, a leading independent mental-health research organisation, has also raised concerns about “a significant minority who will be affected by long-term anxiety”.
Tim Johns worked for Unilever, BT (formerly British Telecom) and the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and is now a leadership consultant who has written a book during lockdown called Leading From Home: The Legacy of Lockdown.
“It’s hard to remember but there were big forces being brought to bear before Covid-19 when it comes to the future of work,” he says “Covid-19 has masked some temporarily. Office culture was far from perfect before: long commutes, presenteeism, the meetings culture, concentration on outputs not outcomes, a silo culture. I used to go to offices on every continent and they were all the same and, I suspect, all guilty of similar shortcomings.” Johns says employers must work hard to understand home culture and be accommodating.
“But a lot has been lost: the serendipity of two minds meeting in a corridor or the lift and something creative arising. Working from home also increases the fear of missing out (FOMO). Natural networking has now almost disappeared.” He points out that his daughter, who shares an apartment with a Ministry of Defence worker, has to leave the living room when a sensitive video call begins. But he’s an optimist overall: “Nobody will flip back to 100% office-based work, which at its worst could be described as ‘mass incarceration.’ The winners will be the flexible and the adaptable, and the young are frequently good at this.
"At Ardian, we strongly believe in the value brought by younger generations,” says Jérémie Delecourt, Member of the Executive Committee and Head of Corporate and International Development at Ardian. “Our whole team became even more united during this crisis – we pulled together as one and rose to the challenge. Many are questioning how companies will deal with the working from home phenomenon after the pandemic is over. This is something to which we're giving a lot of thoughtful consideration because Covid-19 has changed attitudes and behaviours, probably for good."
A lot has been lost: the serendipity of two minds meeting in a corridor or the lift and something creative arising.