The mini-heatwave shows Britain’s attitude to work has changed forever

Marina GaskWed, 31 March 2021, 5:19 pm

Everybody out: a flexible approach might work for staff, but does it work for businesses?
Everybody out: a flexible approach might work for staff, but does it work for businesses?

Walking through local parks this week, it was like someone had switched the world from drab to high definition. Taking full advantage of the early spring sunshine and gradual easing of lockdown, Rule of Six barbecues and picnics had sprung up like crocuses. Legs were out, sunglasses on and sound systems echoed in the distance, with similar scenes playing out on green spaces and beaches across the UK.

The collective sigh of relief is almost audible. But have we given up on work and gone fully feral, those of us that can? Without a doubt, our attitude to work has changed – possibly forever.

Since March 2020, the concept of flexible working has gone from pie in the sky to genuine reality. With around 11.4 million people on furlough for the past year, there is a definite enthusiasm for a new way of working – and an intolerance towards the old one. Last week, Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon was forced to respond to a leaked presentation by 13 first-year Goldman bankers complaining about “inhumane” working conditions and 95-hour weeks.

What would have been unpalatable – but par for the course – working practices are now perceived as unconscionable. Many of us have simply developed a taste for a more balanced way of life. According to Elaine Carnegie, founder of workplace well-being and mental health consultancy BeingWorks: “Since the start of the pandemic, people have been fitting work around their lives rather than the other way around and seeing their lives from a different angle. They are thinking more in terms of well-being and family values now.”

This is surely no bad thing. Samuel, a 31-year-old broker, is well used to 15-hour days. In a previous job, he would get a text message from his boss if he left his desk to nip to the loo. “It was very much a cut-throat industry,” he says. “People are constantly tired. They get insomnia. Some are just miserable. I’ve seen marriages that have gone down the pan.”

He thinks the culture is changing, though, particularly in the light of the pandemic. “It has made employees realise the true value of mental health,” he says. “In the financial industry, I don’t think it was something that was very much thought of before. It was pretty much [that] you were robotic. You do your work, you go home, you get paid, you come back. But now companies are starting to do Friday night drinks on Zoom and checking in with each employee.”https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/Nb4mjdw2cyU?enablejsapi=1&modestbranding=1&origin=http://www.telegraph.co.uk&rel=0

With the mental well-being of the workforce now a major focus, CEOs are really listening. PWC recently announced to its 22,000 employees changes to allow greater flexibility for post-pandemic working, responding to staff feedback and to changing working patterns accelerated by Covid. This includes the flexibility to continue working from home as part of blended working, with an expectation that people will spend an average of 40 to 60 per cent of their time co-located with colleagues, either in their offices or at client sites.

But are we living under a mass illusion about what society actually needs? A flexible approach might work for employees, but ultimately does it work for business? As some colleagues start putting their needs above those of the business, being unavailable for Zoom meetings at certain times or choosy about not wanting to work certain days (Monday and Friday usually), it’s inevitable that employers will take note of who is prepared to be amenable – and who is not.

With unemployment at 1.7 million in January and the UK on course to lose more than a quarter of a million businesses this year, there will be many more job losses. So as businesses struggle back onto their feet and difficult financial challenges are faced, they may decide outsourcing to cheaper workforces makes more sense and even swap offices for flexible contracts, putting an end to benefits like paid holidays.

There needs to be a gradual reconnection with staff to bring them on side – especially if there is resistance to a return to the office. “Be honest about the reality of your company’s situation, but talk about it in an empathetic way,” says Carnegie. “Collaborate to find hybrid ways of working. Remember that a detachment of trust may have occurred over the last few months and your teams may feel less invested in the company. You need to help them realign with its values – and that means listening, too.”

While the office-based 9 to 5 may be a thing of the past for some companies, the benefits of being physically present at least some of the time cannot be ignored. According to Faye Watts, founding partner of accountancy firm Fuse, “when you share an office, you overhear conversations about clients that are relevant to you and get a much higher level of team engagement. Junior staff get to learn from other team members and the body language, camaraderie and shared experience, the parts of the job that bond you as a team, make everyone feel more motivated.”

People sunbathing in St James’s Park in London on March 30 as the temperature hits 24C - Leon Neal/Getty
People sunbathing in St James’s Park in London on March 30 as the temperature hits 24C – Leon Neal/Getty

If the world of work has changed for good it was high time. A younger workforce has no truck with out of touch bosses, hierarchical systems and wage slavery. One 30-something who has been out of financial services for five years has noticed a big difference between the job interviews she used to have and the ones she’s having now. “I’ve noticed people pay more attention to your overall well-being when they set up your working arrangements,” she says. “When we were changing jobs before, no one ever mentioned well-being and whether it was a good culture. I think the landscape’s changing dramatically. And if they want to retain employees, they have to make adjustments.”

Carnegie says a compassionate approach and a gradual transition will be crucial in the light of the last year: “We’ve been through change after change and coming back out of lockdown into the world of work and reconnecting with colleagues will be challenging.”

A study from HR software provider CIPHR has revealed that 35 per cent of all UK workers said they would not work in the same office or work environment as someone who has refused the Covid vaccine. “Many people have had traumatic experiences. Some will experience social anxiety, while some will be excited to be back in the workplace. There needs to be a gradual rebuild towards a new working life.”

Preconceptions of how and where work is done have changed irrevocably since the rapid and necessary shift to working from home, with a hybrid model now favoured by many companies. Tech firm Siemens recently created a ‘work from anywhere’ policy for 140,000 of its employees, allowing them flexibility for a proportion of their work week.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/kfsb2S2DH9k?enablejsapi=1&modestbranding=1&origin=http://www.telegraph.co.uk&rel=0

Joe Hildebrand, managing director of ?What If! Innovation, part of Accenture, says: “Millennials are running companies now, so they’ve permeated the fabric of big business already. We’re seeing things like the creation of chief wellness or chief mental health officers and that’s becoming a board-level conversation.”

He is seeing a focus not just on mental health, but on giving employees “more autonomy and purpose,” which is “what younger people in the industry are looking for”.

Businesses aren’t doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. “The power dynamic has shifted,” he says. “The big companies are now having to compete with the start-ups. We’re all competing for the same talent and that’s a massive challenge, so the consulting industry needs to up its game.”

Harriet Molyneaux, managing director of research consultancy HSM, has noticed high levels of burnout during the pandemic, often related to the “always on” culture of working from home. But she has also seen employees getting more serious about flexible working and having real control of their time. She has a warning for employers who ignore these demands. “If they keep those long working hours in an inflexible way of working,” she says, “they’re only going to attract one kind of person. Within an organisation, you need different types of people and different perspectives.”

Marina Gask is co-founder of audreyonline.co.uk, the platform for midlife women who want a career shake-up or a fresh start.

Christina Patterson is host of the podcast Work Interrupted and author of The Art of Not Falling Apart (Atlantic Books, £9.99). To order your copy for £9.99, call 0844 851 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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