By Emily Dow
One need not explain the pandemic’s impact on professional interactions occurring virtually (an enormous increase in them, that is). Although this has presented many struggles, as a species, we have adapted tremendously. We have normalised entertaining people’s virtual backgrounds, which look like they are in the Bahamas or floating in space, tolerated the “sorry, my mic isn’t working!” message received through the unforgiving Microsoft Teams ping, and even habitually greet pets who lurk on screen as if valued team members. This sort of adaption is what most associate with the pandemic’s impact on working lives. However, something which has had to change is the way managers lead their team – through this 2D space of ‘Zoom’.
Once humans have something, it is difficult for us to let it go. It is a basic economic principle: we never cease to want and will not willingly give something up that provides us utility. In this pandemic age, many have loved the flexibility of homeworking and hybrid office models. Humans have loved the flexible working model so much so that 1/3 of employees would look for a new job if they had to return to the office full time. The liberation of a 10am lunchtime, the spontaneity of a speedy mid-afternoon stroll, or freedom of a Friday long-lunch in exchange for one late night catch up is too tempting. Now that we have experienced this, it will be like taking a bone from a dog returning to a regimented workweek. The vague suggestion that a 40-hour, 9am-5pm schedule need not be the recipe for success is enough to launch people into the rejection of structure – maybe that is extreme. After all, more than half of workers in the UK have reported missing in person conversations with their co-workers, yet 55% of UK workers have experienced a boost in their productivity working from home, thought to be from the spare free time in their day.
The change in employee productivity from homeworking has been under debate – does it enhance productivity, or is it a detriment? A study found that workers spend 10 fewer minutes a day being unproductive when working from home. Although this sounds negligible, it is an entire 40 hours if somebody works 5 days a week, 48 weeks of the year! In fact, it has been found that there is a 13% increase in productivity when working from home despite many business leaders – such as the CEO of JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs – certain it is pernicious. They are not entirely wrong, however, when the task is boring or unmotivating, workers find it difficult to complete these at home instead of in an office environment. This means managers must dedicate more time tailoring tasks to employees, ensuring such tasks are engaging and stimulating, otherwise productivity may dwindle. Dan Pontefract (Founder and CEO of The Pontefract Group) places connection as the most important leadership quality in 2021; managers should actively nurture their professional chemistry with employees rather than using virtual interactions as an opportunity to become complacent with relationships.
Leadership can follow many styles, with homeworking expediting the ostracisation of autocratic leadership. This is an extremely dictatorial, hegemonising style of leadership, controlling employees and giving them minimal autonomy. Leaders like Elon Musk and fast-paced industries such as journalism have been known to foster aspects of autocratic leadership into their day-to-day management. However, in the age of homeworking, employees can avoid the Big Brother eye of their bosses and make more decisions on how they work and complete tasks. A senior executive told the New York Times how his leadership has adapted, with the successful approach found to be to just let your employees get on with their work, and this is how productivity increases. Autocratic leadership is perhaps helpful in an office setting when employees can thrive off other relationships (70% rank these social interactions – with colleagues – just as important as their assigned tasks), however at home with the absence of colleagues, having an approachable manager is of paramount importance. In a report discussing leadership excellence, Dale Ross, the President of 3D Group, identified formal leadership training as quickly becoming outdated, and the ability to be adaptable and versatile is the essence of a successful leader. This is increasingly different to recent-historical methods of leadership and management, which often adopted hierarchical, formal interactions. The ideal characteristics discussed are increasingly behaviour-focused rather than methods-focused, implying a shift in the demeanour of a successful leader.
The interaction of the manager, chosen leadership style, and the physical location of work is where the real make-or-break of success lies. A report by the Chicago Booth Review found overall flexibility is key to worker productivity. No model suits every employee, so what is increasingly valued are options. There is a trade-off between in person interactions raising morale, and the practicalities of working from home. The hybrid model that many firms such as Meta are – and have been even pre-pandemic – following will likely be where the professional world converges. In an article by Appollo Technical, they raise concerns about the sustainability of homeworking. The world has not plateaued yet; everyday there is new news changing our lives and social interactions. However, when we reach a steady state, the impacts of home working may erode productivity. The lack of serendipitous social interaction, monotonous, repetitive setting and predictability of each day will impact employee wellbeing too, something which will be challenging and time consuming to reverse.
Although home working has been massively successful and it has restored confidence in our ability to face the unknown, I think firms need to recognise full time home working was an extreme strategy for extreme circumstances. Much of the bad side to virtual working is still to be uncovered. This is the only period in history where people have had to work virtually; it has lasted less than two years. To overcommit to what is, largely, an unknown and neglect the strategy which has led businesses to success up until 2020 would be ignorant. Yes, technology is the future and to take a positive from the pandemic, the acceleration in online interconnectedness has been phenomenal. However, as the world returns to normal (with the definition of ‘normal’ everchanging) firms should look to accommodate their employees’ preferences. By incorporating flexibility into both culture and strategy, firms could open themselves to a variety of individuals, working styles, opinions, all allowing them to succeed. By granting each employee the responsibility to steer their own working life, with a strong connection to an adaptable manager, will engineer a robust, future-proof business model.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.