Updated: Sep 9
Author: Nuala Dent
Two and a half years into the pandemic, in addition to war, technology and climate change, and the near future feels incredibly uncertain. The impact on our personal and work lives has been immense. In my work as an organisational consultant and leadership coach, a recurring theme that clients present is related to managing and/or implementing return to work policies. Remote working has proven to be effective, though not always ideal, which creates questions about what aspects of work are more suited to remote working, and what is more effective when done onsite.
While many organisations take a rules-based approach to the management of staff's return to work, others are adopting a principles-based approach, giving managers autonomy to decide what best serves their team. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people are able to effectively manage the process, while others push authority up the line, asking for a ‘rule’ that can be applied. This can cause frustration at different levels of management and may indicate some development is required to support managers in having difficult conversations. For example, are they having conversations with staff about the rationale for returning to office-based work, are they listening to their staff’s concerns, are they able to negotiate an outcome that meets both individual and organisational needs?
Among staff, there seems to be a continuum of responses. At one extreme are staff who implicitly trust their managers and follow without question, and at the other extreme are staff who distrust their managers and challenge every decision. And it may be with good reason, if their managers are not actually ‘managing’ their staff and the resources available to them. In the sweet spot in the middle, there are staff who are encouraged to think with their managers about future work practices.
In some ways, remote work has given staff a lot of authority, to choose when, where and how to manage their work. For staff who previously felt overly-managed, this autonomy might have led to an improved sense of agency, and may make them reluctant to return to the workplace, and the way things were. Secondly, in remote working, outcomes are often valued over number of hours worked, and can lead to increased staff satisfaction. It may be that the push back from staff is related to a perception that a return to onsite working implies a return to their contribution or value being measured by the number of hours worked, instead of the outcomes achieved. These factors may contribute to the emerging dynamic of ‘quiet quitting’, that is, staff being disengaged from work and doing the bare minimum as a way of demonstrating their frustration with the organisation.
Image credit: https://akkon.in-the-band.net/
It makes me wonder if organisations are facilitating conversations about the value of remote working and the value of onsite working. Organisational research demonstrates that quiet work is suited to deep thinking and strategic work, and may be more suited to remote work, while group work can be beneficial for creative thinking and innovation, making it more suited to on-site work. It seems to me that organisations are perfectly suited to offer one key thing that is largely missing from remote work - a physical environment which promotes in-person interaction and which can contribute to mental health and wellbeing.
One thing that the pandemic has taught us, is that isolation is one of the leading contributors to poor mental health. Could we reconsider the value of organisations as building community and fostering connections? This would support a mentally healthy workforce. Doing so requires a slight reframing of what an organisation is. We often think of organisations as concrete structures which cannot be changed, however, an organisation is essentially a human construct, designed to enable people to organise around a vision or goal. For many organisations, a primary goal is the delivery of products or services. What if, alongside this focus, we could prioritise an organisation’s responsibility to support a mentally health workforce? If so, we would expect other things to follow, such as the development of trust, creative thinking and new ideas – all of which would contribute to organisational efficiency and effectiveness and, in turn, impact the delivery of products and services in a sustainable way. The desired outcome is the same, the journey is different.
Of course, this approach needs thought and care, and a capacity to work with the dynamics that result from returning to the workplace after a long period of remote working. If you are interested in developing your organisation’s capacity to navigate the changing nature of work, and would like to explore how your experience has changed and is changing the way you work, then join us at the 2022 Group Relations Australia (GRA) working conference.We will explore questions such as:
What are we learning from our experiences?
How is it changing the ways we think about leading, relating, and managing?
How might we bring this learning into our workplaces?
The history of now: creating meaning (in the present moment).
28 November - 2 December 2022. In person, in Melbourne Australia.
We hope you can join us in this opportunity to explore your practice and reflect on ways to navigate the changing workplace.