Will we have the courage to face into all we’ve learned?
Are you and others in your organisation taking the time to notice what you learned over the past 18 months? And if so, are you facing into what that might mean: for you, for your team, for your organisation or the wider system your work exists within? (that can get pretty big!)
This brilliant question was generated at one of a series of events in 2021 that has become a collective inquiry Mayvin is leading into how we move mindfully into post-pandemic working patterns. This grew out of noticing that lots of organisations that had moved to home-working during the pandemic were considering how to, or venturing forth to create top-down policy frameworks for how teams move back to the office or towards new hybrid ways of working. These are useful, necessary even in medium/large organisations, but not the full story in our changing world of work.
At our first event (Listen into Working patterns in the NHS during Covid podcast episode) in May 2021 the timeline for the office return was slipping back, very little was tangibly changing and we were curious about how things would work out in practice. Whatever organisational policy said, how would the local, team-level practices combine to create emergent patterning at the organisation or even UK / global levels? In the language of complex adaptive systems, how would the local interactions combine in complex ways to generate emergent global patterning?
Over the course of our inquiry, incorporating three events to date, some aspects of our post-pandemic ways of working are becoming clear. There is critical learning which we hope will help you as a leader, manager, or navigator in these changing ways of working. Beyond the physical working environment policies and processes being rolled out, there is much to pay attention to:
- Relationships and the practice of relating – we know people have differing levels of comfort with relating online to in person, some finding it better due to, for example, power dynamics shifting as we are ‘humanised’ through being seen in our home environment with family and pets making appearances; conventional office symbols of status (e.g. dress, office size or having one) disappearing and that being an equalizing force for some. For others it has been more challenging, where there is no suitable workspace in their home environment, lack of social contact or increasing isolation. In between these we all need to recognise the challenge of relating well, beyond an agenda or connecting beyond the work that needs to be done when working virtually or in the emerging hybrid practices. The nuances of relating, responding and intuitively engaging with others in the moment all become harder, though not impossible, though a screen.
- Needs of the individual vs. the organisation – throughout this period there has been a fundamental shifting of power between the organisation and the individual. Individuals in many contexts have found themselves asserting their needs more readily – in some cases through voting with their feet and moving further from their place of work or resigning altogether in search of a new and different life (referred to as the ‘Great Resignation’, this is the subject of much research and discussion in the business and wider media). Others are now asking to continue with established home working patterns initially enforced by the pandemic, which offer huge benefits for some in terms of work-life balance and well-being. The March 2021 research by Demos found that 79% of people who were required to work from home want to continue doing so. Where the work is being done, objectives achieved, people are happy and productive and relationships are healthy, on what basis should an organisation still demand their employees to come into an office? This is a live question many organisations, but also managers at every level, are trying to answer in their local environment. For what purpose do we need to come together in person as a team? This will be different depending on the work and the organisation, but also the culture. An organisation’s response to this question no doubt demonstrates something of its culture and how it attends to the needs of the individual in this change process. One thing is for sure, well-being is firmly on the agenda and has become the duty of every organisation and manager alike to attend to.
- New realms of privilege emerging - new working patterns have established new working privileges: for some that being the privilege of being able to work at home, others the privilege of being allowed to go back to an office, others having no choice at all about their place of work. The inequalities in this are stark in many cases and for others it is more nuanced and now becomes something we must pay attention to alongside the broader issues of diversity and inclusion in our workplaces. Think of those moments when you might have taken the opportunity to ask something of a senior leader while they made a cup of tea in the kitchen or grab a colleague to pitch an idea at the end of an in-person meeting, or even just the opportunity to hear and see people at work around you when working in the office. Are these moments privileged opportunities now, or are there ones that we need to learn to create within our hybrid working practices?
- Anxiety and ambiguity – There is a lot of anxiety and stuck-ness around. Some of that is employee anxiety on changes being imposed, some of that is leader/HR anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and some of it is a bigger, more existential anxiety about how uncertain the world feels right now. COVID-19 and lockdowns have had a huge impact on individual well-being, leading to a significant increase in those suffering from mental health issues, depression and related issues. In our conversations throughout this inquiry, well-being has become a front and centre consideration in the development of new working patterns. Many organisations were of course already working to support employee wellbeing, but there is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated this agenda.
What our podcast stories and our experience tell us is that while we can’t remove uncertainty entirely, we can mitigate large amounts of it. If we face up to the changes and shifts happening in and around our workplaces, there is much we can do to make a difference. Here’s what our community has shared through our inquiry:
- Give people agency – get people involved in the change process, offering a balance of freedom and guidance to navigate and help shape the emerging working patterns in your organisation. Be open about the experimental, cyclical nature of the process – many were forced into a mass experiment of working from home – continue with that spirit, helping people see as far as each cycle of experiments allows rather than assuming a new pattern will be fixed in place for evermore. This is about offering some freedom within the overall framework.
- Build this transformation into your organisation culture – recognise the culture change element, how the process of change and establishment of new patterns demonstrates and shapes culture itself. Just as the National Church Institutions (Listen in to the Remote Working and culture change in the Church of England podcast episode) did, we can talk with employees about their experience of work, find out what’s worked for them over the last 18 months, hear what better would look like and generate an understanding of the types of productive patterns it would be good to amplify now. New practices and behaviours are needed to work in more flexible ways in the hybrid model, and in turn this offers an opportunity for potential democratisation within the workplace. Giving people access to the tools and skills to work well whether in the virtual or hybrid model is a baseline, with this supported by access to senior members of the team and opportunities for creative collaboration. The way in which these new skills and practices are developed, through experimentation and iterative change programmes, offers the ability to build a culture of inclusive change.
- Recognise the changing role of management and leadership – anyone in a role with management and leadership responsibilities is critical in successfully supporting their teams to establish and embed new ways of working. Managers are already carefully negotiating new working patterns, having to balance individual and team needs with those of organisation. As discussed in Tony Nicholls’ article on ‘Reintegrating Leadership and Management in Practice’ these new demands on leadership and management alike require co-operative inquiry to explore the new behaviours and values needed to support more flexible, hybrid working practices. This could mean the development of principles or frameworks for hybrid working and piloting them, seeking to learn as you go, as Trade Remedies Authority are doing right now (Listen in to How the Trade Remedies Authority is supporting staff in developing new working patterns podcast episode). At the heart of this, we would argue it is the practice of leading and managing ‘in relationship’ with each member of your team, enabling a level of safe experimentation, where team members can speak up and develop reflective, if not reflexive capabilities together.
What people have explored in this inquiry and what we heard in the case study podcasts is that, of course, there is no single or ‘right’ answer to how we develop productive post-pandemic working patterns. ‘Facing into what we have learned’ in these conversations has shown the breadth and depth of areas for exploration that emerge under the heading of working patterns.
At Mayvin we can help you continue to explore, navigate and design your approach to post-pandemic ways of working. We can support you, your team and your organisation in developing new ways of working in relationship with each other and in continuing to learn, adapt and lead change in the face of uncertainty.
If this is something you'd like to explore with us, please get in touch: [email protected]
 See, for example: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2021/nov/01/the-great-resignation-almost-one-in-four-workers-planning-job-change, https://demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Post-Pandemic-Places-Report.pdf, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index