There’s an overwhelming volume of work – written, spoken, webinared, zoomed, and postured – about the impact of COVID-19 on work. In amongst all that voluminous thinking, there are two buckets of critical thinking that we’re watching like hawks. One is around the “what did we learn, both expected and unexpected?” and the other is “what are the sustainable changes, or improvements, if any, that we can make to the way we work from what we just learned?”

We thought we’d summarise them for you. The big themes and, in amongst those themes, the biggest opportunities.

Theme 1: Workplace

‘Workplace is somewhere you can do great work. Full stop.’

The Lessons:

After the decade (or was it two decades) of activity-based-working, and real estate prices defining ‘people per square metre’, a pandemic got us to rethink the whole idea of workplace – at speed! Firstly a ‘workplace’ can be absolutely anywhere. Secondly, you don’t need a lot of permission forms and paperwork to work from home, or anywhere else. Thirdly, we probably need a little more space – physical and headspace – to do our best work. Fourthly, fresh air, beauty, and a spot of nature are pretty cool additions to a workplace. Fifthly, we’re a little scared or anxious about workplaces as they look today. Finally, ‘connection’ is an important element to thinking, collaboration, and being human.

The Immediate Thinking:

  • We could rethink meeting spaces so that there’s fewer people per room/per meeting, and we could design them for people to join virtually as well. (A big Welcome to all those people who cannot get to the current physical workplace – remote, rural, people with disability, people who don’t like long commutes).
  • We’ll need to update cleaning protocols, safety measures and air quality.
  • The processes we’ve got to ‘control’ flexible work aren’t really necessary and probably need at a minimum, a good edit, and at best, a big rethink.
  • Keep an eye on people who don’t have a safe or good place to call home, and therefore to work from.

The Sustainable Possibilities:

  • Workplaces could be more liveable. Comfortable? Definitely. Beautiful? Maybe, and it’s well worth a try.
  • We might implement outdoor space as part of a workplace.
  • We could rethink floor plans and de-intensify our workplaces.
  • We would implement biophilic* design elements (*adding elements of nature to the workplace). Like plants, wood, flowing water. Mimic nature and decrease stress.
  • We could make work somewhere people want to be. A place you feel welcome and comfortable. Like home. It doesn’t have to be grand, but you need to feel like you belong.

Theme 2 – Ways of Working

‘Knowing me, knowing you, how much better can we do?’

The Lessons:

In an overnight experiment, we sent 85% of the world’s working population home to work. This dramatic pandemic gave us a lesson in remote work that wasn’t really about ‘flexibility and personal choice’ but did teach each of us an awful lot about how we get work done – what helps, what hinders, what we love and what we loathe. The biggest lessons have been about ‘how to lead flexibility’ (which isn’t as intuitive as we thought), how to get connected (which isn’t as easy as showing up on zoom), how to hold momentum (which is really tough without human energy) and that there’s no ‘one way’ that is best for everyone (despite the preachy Twitter battles).  And the final lesson, as we peer into each other’s lives, is about intimacy. We can know, understand, and appreciate a whole lot more about each of our colleagues, and accommodate quite a bit more that helps them work well.

The Immediate Thinking:

  • We can work more flexibly and organisations will not collapse.
  • We can work more flexibly and work still gets done.
  • We need to rethink the machinery we’ve built around ‘permission’ and challenge every piece of it for relevance to the work being done and the people doing the work.

The Sustainable Possibilities:

  • We can learn how we work best. We can learn how each other works best.
  • It sounds too easy, but we could design work for the work to be done, and the people that are doing it.
  • It could be a much more democratic process. People want to do good work, with good people, and the intimacy we’ve just lived means we can design work in a way that works.

Theme 3: Uneven Impacts

‘We’re in this together, but not really’

The Lessons:

The rhetoric has been “we’re on this together” – it is a lovely thought, but it isn’t true.

COVID-19 has negatively impacted women and younger workers much more significantly than anyone else.

This is our first ‘health recession’. All others have been economic.
And when there’s an economic recession, it hits men, because they hold the best positions in the economy so are more impacted, but in a health recession, it impacts all the jobs that are about us being with each other – touching each other, socialising, caring – and that work is done by women, young people, and often immigrants. So a health recession severely impacts those people who work with others – hospitality, retail, caring, teaching.  It’s been called the ‘pink recession’ for a reason.

In addition, our response has been to reduce casual or insecure work, to protect balance sheets. As such, the impact on the next generation has been significant. Two-thirds of the jobs in accommodation, retail and food were lost or temporarily hibernated.

Finally, big companies have closed off Apprenticeships (100,000 lost this year already) and other ‘training roles’, which are the domain of young workers.

The Immediate Thinking:

  • Make sure your most impacted employees are safe, especially if you know there is a history of an unsafe home or domestic violence.
  • Keep an eye out for employees with anxiety or other mental wellbeing issues. This may well have a disproportionately negative impact on them. Check-in and ask if you’re unsure.
  • Make sure you hold as many of the newest generation in your workplace. Sending trainees, graduates, and apprentices to unemployment queues will rob us of both future skilled workers and a generation of employees that have so much to offer.
  • Don’t diss your D&I program. We just got a lesson in how a lack of broad diversity across our female employees is leading to a serious impact on those already most negatively impacted by inequity. Don’t be part of making this divide even worse.

Sustainability Possibilities:

  • Clearly our workforce is segregated by age and gender. We can do better with a concentrated focus on diversity and inclusion.
  • Combining the need for D&I with the change in the way of working, we could start to look not at ‘bringing your whole self to work’ but rather ‘bringing your whole self to the work you do’.
  • Having proven we can work differently, we can now also look at signing up to at least 1% of our team are people with disability (the most excluded group in our society). This is called the 1% Pledge, and we can all do a lot better, but it’s a start.

Theme 4: Impact on Culture and Measures of culture

‘It has very little to do with the office, so what does really matter?’ 

The Lessons:

We just learned that culture is not a physical workplace issue – it’s a whole lot more complicated than a ping pong table and a cupcake sale. Presenteeism is a whole lot different when we’re not sitting next to each other too.

There is a significant move to rethink how we measure culture and the outcomes of work. This will (hopefully) mean much more insightful and thoughtful measurement than ‘speed’ or ‘productivity’. (This theme links to all the other themes as well).

The Immediate Thinking:

  • Ask your team how they’ve found it? What have they learned about themselves? What have they learned about how they might work?
  • Ask your team who and what kept them connected and part of your organisation?
  • Ask your team what didn’t work?
  • Take the lessons and ‘best of’ and bring them into your company permanently.

Sustainable Possibilities:

  • Co-curate the best culture you possibly can. Democratise things that don’t need to be heavily administrative.
  • Implement new Culture measures based on what matters.
  • Implement new ways of working that drive an environment where people can do their best work.
  • Rethink work based on the work you do, the impact you want to have, and the people you need to do that work. And nothing else.

So, the big lessons are also the big opportunities.

No doubt, there are many more, but these four are the biggest of the big right now. Use them to make a better future for everyone on your team.

And if you want to know more, and you’re a mwah. member, we have a more detailed report on this work available to members and with all the links to research, resources, and possibilities on-line for you as well.

And if you want to talk to us about any of this, we’d loved to share.

Contact us at [email protected]