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A new social and psychological contract?

Working from home has many perks but there is something about face to face interaction that cannot be replicated online. Dr Mark Pegg suggests creating a new social and psychological contract to unite colleagues in the workplace and provide an opportunity to be creative and innovative again.

Many hoped we would be back in the office again in June, now it will be July at the earliest. When we are free to return, there are many pressing operational questions to consider: will we go back to the office much as before, give up the office altogether, or go for a hybrid somewhere in between? My appeal to hard pressed managers is that just as much thought goes into the massive impact the pandemic has had on people and their working relationships – how will we work together again when we are back in the office?

On return, there will be colossal pressure on managers to be dynamic, to perform and rebuild business, recover lost earnings and restore profitability. It is an urgent need, potentially it’s an existential crisis. I hope they will be skilled professionals attending to the enormous pressures on staff mental health and wellbeing, using caring and creative ways to get the best out of people – to liberate energy with kindness. What I hope they won’t be is accidental managers who unimaginatively pressurise people, grinding them down to recover lost business solely by working harder.

Famously the bankers of Goldman Sachs will all be going back to the office, CEO David Solomon said ‘our culture of collaboration, innovation and apprenticeship thrives when our people come together, and we look forward to having more of our colleagues back in the office so that they can experience that once again …. ". But there is a huge range out there - at the opposite end of the scale many firms have terminated their leases and will stay virtual, hiring rooms only for meetings and events. A recent BBC survey of 50 of the largest firms shows most are somewhere in the middle, typically 3 days a week in the office. Many have reduced their floor space and reorganised their layout to move to open plan, hot desks and meeting spaces for networked teams, in ‘communities’ or ‘neighbourhoods’.

Working from home was the disruptive change to end all disruptive changes. My own surveys showed many loved less commuting, a better working environment, being more productive and enjoying a better fit with family life. Others experienced major downsides. One said, ‘working from home has felt more like sleeping in the office’, making it harder to ‘fully switch off’ Another voiced similar concerns: ‘I feel like I am living from work rather than working from home’. Another commented: ‘I enjoy working from home, but because I have no change of environment it can be hard to forget about work tasks.’ My sense of this is a bell curve where some were less productive, most found ways to deliver similar levels of performance and some even overachieved.

Other factors also apply: Office for National Statistics data shows people working from home were 38% less likely to get a bonus, were less than half as likely to be promoted and less likely to receive training. A survey by Opinium showed some 35% of remote workers experienced deteriorating work-related mental health while 30% said they were working more unpaid hours than before, with 18% reporting at least four additional unpaid hours a week.

A return to the office in its many forms is a perfect opportunity for everyone to agree a new social and psychological contract. It does not have to be written, it could perhaps be a simple one-page charter, what’s much more important is a shared understanding to attend to hugely disrupted social and psychological needs. To commit together to find new ways for people to meet face to face once again, to experience the nuances of day-to-day working life – eye contact, body language, humour, friendships and random non-work conversations that underpin a vibrant culture. The contingent that builds and drives creativity and innovation. It is at the heart of the most productive workplaces where everyone benefits and succeeds.

Although some human interaction has been sublimated into social media and other forms of local relationships close to home, many remain remote and unfulfilled in the home office – missing the down time to talk about relationships, about feelings, to pick up on moods that do not feature in meticulously planned, transactional zoom calls.

My firm prediction is businesses that recover best will be those who are most aware of their staff’s morale: recognising and respecting this by organising social activities – some will happen anyway but proactive steps will definitely help: team lunches, zoom free times, team building days, coffee mornings, mindful sessions and employee benefits that deliver mental and physical health – all part of a greater sense of energy, of wellbeing and happiness that drive productive work. The best managers will use their emotional intelligence - EQ - as well as IQ. No one forgets they must enhance commercial and technical skills in a digitally transformed world, but the winners will be those who also value kindness and compassion in their drive for a successful recovery.

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

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