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    Are working people experiencing the biggest social experiment the modern world has seen?

    Munira Hirji, Head of commercial management at Beazley

    Flexible, smart, remote, activity based. These buzzwords have been growing in popularity over recent years to describe the way we work and the evolving definition of what constitutes a place of work.

    Yet, despite the increasing normalcy of flexible hours and one-day-a-week home working for office-based roles – even in more traditional, corporate industries – the speed at which the trend has accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown has taken the working world by surprise. 

    Fast forward to a new mindset

    In the early days of lockdown, when the extent and severity of the virus were still unknown, many people expected to resume their usual working habits within a few weeks. Remote working set-ups were considered temporary measures and for those managers who still believed that good performance was contingent on being in the office, a return to the traditional workplace was a priority.

    Fast forward to the present, and the cultural acceptance of remote working has been compressed from what was expected to take several years into mere months.

    For those so-called white collar industries that do not require staff to be based on site, the lockdown period has proven that remote working is not only viable but that it can work effectively from a business standpoint.  

    Of course, examples of successful remote and flexible working models are not left down to luck; adoption of technological advances, a solid staff communication culture and a desire to embrace remote and activity-based working are all key to success. For those that have seen the model work successfully, any remaining trust issues connected to a move away from supervised working have been challenged, if not disproven entirely.

    Such is the cultural sea change that employers are likely to adapt their future real estate needs based on the feedback and requirements of their employees, suggesting that fixed places of work will likely be flexible and less definitive in nature and used more for meetings, collaboration and team work than solo work which can be done from home. From a commercial perspective, this trend could reduce real estate requirements. From a cultural perspective, it could spell the end of the employer mandated place of work.

    The future generation

    For the existing and future workforce, the extended lockdown period due to COVID-19 is likely to be a game changer. It has normalised remote working and given the workforce the body of proof they need to advocate a more permanent move away from office based working. For as long as flexibility remains a priority for employees, it will also mean that companies that are not able to offer activity-based and remote working options will struggle to compete to attract the brightest and best talent.

    As the mobility trend evolves, the potential pool of talent that companies can draw from could become truly global. Equipped with the right technology, members of staff can work from anywhere, removing geographical restrictions and enabling individuals to be based in locations that prioritise a work-life balance over proximity to the office.

    The question that employers must increasingly ask themselves is, what experience should our office space offer employees to make them choose us over their home office, local café or shared working space, and why does it matter?

    Hidden dangers

    One thing that a company-managed working space can offer is an opportunity for colleagues to communicate and collaborate in person. We live in an age where loneliness is prevalent, where more people live alone than in previous generations[1], and where digital communication means that logistically, we needn’t see another soul as we go about our day to day lives.

    While the ability to work anywhere has its benefits, research indicates that social isolation – such as that experienced by many during the coronavirus quarantine – and loneliness can have a detrimental effect on both mental and physical health, triggering feelings of depression and anxiety.[2]

    The impact of loneliness on a person’s ability to work can be severe. The ability to perform tasks can be reduced, creativity stifled and cognitive function such as reasoning and decision making impaired.[3]

    For millennials and Generation Z, the habitual use of technology to communicate means that, in theory, they are less likely to feel cut off from the world. Yet, young adults are one of the demographic groups most likely to suffer from loneliness and negative feelings associated with isolation.

    While the use of social media and technology-based communications can be beneficial when used to enhance a person’s existing relationships, when it becomes a replacement for interpersonal interaction it can quickly become detrimental.[4]

    No (wo)man is an island

    The plethora of online courses and classes that have popped up over recent months as an alternative to physical attendance is impressive in its breadth and innovation. From virtual choir groups to distance learning diplomas taught by some of the world’s top universities, you really can find it all online.

    However, when it comes to professional development, there is no substitute for on-the-job, active learning.

    Only 10% of a person’s learning comes from formal training, with 70% from work-based activities such as problem solving, review processes and overcoming challenges and 20% from working with other people[5]. The more learning is integrated into the work environment, the more effective the development of employees. 

    While the connectivity afforded by technology serves to enhance an individual’s access to their work and colleagues regardless of location, it cannot replace the valuable experiential and social learning that takes place when colleagues convene in person.

    Flexible working is appealing, but it is not a panacea. Employees and associates need to interact with each other if they are to develop strong interpersonal skills, which in turn are good for businesses.

    Wellbeing first

    Awareness of these risks is, arguably, the most important consideration for employers. Where many employers have prioritised the safety and wellbeing of employees in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they can continue to do so by allowing employees to define their own parameters for healthy and happy working.

    For companies such as Beazley, this approach includes encouraging employees to return to the office only when they feel comfortable to do so, as well as providing internal channels for open and honest dialogue regarding mental health and the wellbeing of individuals.

    Similarly, providing employees with the means to use video calls while working remotely provides some much welcomed human interaction, as does the continuation of corporate & social responsibility activities and shared interest groups such as book clubs; charity, inclusion & diversity committees; and internal support groups.

    Striking a balance

    As lockdown conditions begin to lift, the concept of returning to work and what exactly that means is evolving. The global lockdown has taught many employers that employees

    can perform and business thrive without everyone being in one building. Flexible working conditions continue to incentivise employees and support the recruitment and retention of talent.

    For employers that can strike the right balance, trusting their employees to perform their roles without physical supervision, there is a healthy and harmonious middle ground where employees feel both supported and empowered.  

    Employers that are bold and embrace the flexibility that technological advances have made possible are also demonstrating a desire to prioritise the wellbeing of their workforce. A better work-life balance may reduce the likelihood of burnout and work-related stress, thereby promoting good mental health and freeing up time for individuals to pursue personal interests that may reduce feelings of isolation.

    Flexible working and working collaboratively are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to the future of the traditional workspace, perhaps it’s time for companies to create their own traditions; a set of customs that underpins an ethos of mutual support and prioritises the wellbeing of its people and its business.       

    [1] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2019.pdf

    [2] (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(19)30230-0/fulltext)

    [3] https://www.vivekmurthy.com/post/2017/10/10/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic-harvard-business-review

    [4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28937910/

    [5] https://702010institute.com/702010-model/

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