With a barrage of headlines ‘calling time’ on office life, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of what the future of working will look like. But, as Aramark Northern Europe’s Jim O’Brien explains, the realities of workplace life after COVID-19 might not be so drastic. In fact, we might just have forgotten many of its benefits.
In March 2020, offices across the region closed their doors overnight. In a wave of disruption comparable only to the introduction of the internet, lockdown restrictions changed ‘work from home’ from a sign of corporate progressiveness to an immediate operational necessity.
Now, as restrictions ease, the debate over remote versus office working is in full flow. As a largely one-sided debate so far, there has been a lot of commentary on the ‘gripes and pains’ of going to work - the long stressful commutes, traffic, packed public transport and parents rushing to make the creche pick up. However, little consideration has been afforded to a less vocal majority who do not like – or do not have the means for – working completely from home.
Many people enjoy the social aspect of the workplace environment. Most of us have friends at work who we enjoy seeing over a cup of coffee or a nice lunch. This social interaction has been sorely missing over the last few months.
Our biggest breakthroughs and strongest collaborations happen often by accident in our daily workplace interactions – chance conversations in a meeting room, at a desk, in the corridor or around the canteen. And it is this shared sense of purpose and collaboration that many have also been missing these past few months.
House Rules for Home Working
While not every person will go back to the traditional five-day working week in the office, employers need to remember the valuable role the office plays in engaging employees and creating better products and solutions. Work is not just about doing a series of tasks; it is about collaborating with others in an enjoyable and engaging way. COVID-19 has unlocked a whole new set of digitally supported solutions in that regard, but there’s no comparison for face to face interaction.
Studies and feedback have shown that our work in isolation is far more task driven. A Microsoft Teams or Zoom meeting wearing a headset has replaced walking over to a colleague’s desk, forcing a far more contrived setting for something that might have involved a friendly conversation. Diaries are full, interactions are overly formalised, and a personal touch is regularly lost down a dodgy internet connection.
With a blurring of lines, we also now see a blurring of expectations – of always being ‘available’ with your green online light on. To have no excuse because you couldn’t be “out”, or in the cinema, or at dinner, or with friends. That expectation often is not coming from companies but from our own self expectations and peer interactions. The greatest adoption of working from home may have also brought in the greatest blurring of work and home life than we’ve ever known. And despite what that may mean to different employers, our people could be the ones to suffer unless we think differently about the nature of work.
The intangibles of the workplace
What everyone, from the disruptors of Silicon Valley to the more conservative companies in your local industrial park, benefits from is the way that company offices play an integral role in collaboration, innovation, personal progression, and more. As the world returns to work, and the need for innovation and growth is business critical, it’s time we remembered why the shared workplace matters.
From a People Strategy perspective, attracting and retaining emerging talent is business critical. Ensuring those employees grow within the business, move up the ranks and eventually become leaders is the success story that all HR departments strive for. For that to happen though, we need much more than task orientation.
Any progression programmes worth their salt involve mentoring, coaching and exposure within the wider organisation. As well as formal programmes, shadowing, observing and casual mentoring catch ups are equally essential.
As well as the Millennial and Gen Z demographic we often hear as more demanding and purpose driven within employee groups, the reality is again less headline-grabbing. Professionals of all ages need some formal in person development and regular interaction with their peers, whether its networking events, conferences, tradeshows etc. for both personal and professional development. These needs are not going to be satisfied by remote digital interaction alone. Talent driven organisations need to bring people together so that the whole is far more powerful than the sum of the parts.
HR as a Guardian of Company Culture
HR is perfectly placed to play a leading role in the office return by focusing on the principles that will rebuild a company culture with real employee engagement.
Culture is critical to any company’s success. It is felt “from the walls to the halls” and transcends tasks, guides, checklists, and Teams calls. It is something to be experienced and there is something very human about the way we value connecting with others in person, even those who we do not “need” to interact with to complete tasks.
At Aramark we have invested huge energy into our organisation to bring our culture to life, from the pictures on the walls to the company events to office facilities which enable people to thrive. Communication is central to creating that office culture. As part of recreating that environment, we need to reassure our employees who may be nervous about returning to the office by implementing and explaining our exhaustive safety-first protocols.
Office life has its ups and downs, and some offices will require a bigger rethink than others, but the role of offices in post COVID-19 corporate life might just be more important than ever. We are human beings who thrive on personal interaction and, speaking personally, I’m really looking forward to seeing more of my colleagues and friends at work!