What have businesses learned from 2020?

Mieke Whaley explains how employers can use the challenges of the past year to create better and more supportive post-pandemic workplaces

2020 was a peculiar year, especially for employees. For millions of workers across the globe, the nature of their workplace, and sometimes even the work itself, was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Across our organisation, we have seen our employees battle admirably against adversity and our team has taken away a number of key learnings.

Thinking about physical and mental health

For many, switching from the office to the living room was an overnight scramble and some could not easily recreate their ideal work environment. Now, remote working has become the norm and people are stuck in these suboptimal environments. This situation has made many employees more aware of their physical health, for example musculoskeletal issues, in their new workplace.

However, it is mental health that has potentially been hit the hardest. The once-sacred defined lines of home and work have been blurred significantly – we've had to be reminded to stop working to avoid burning out. Employees who may not have experienced mental health issues before have seen their psychological wellbeing deteriorate, while those with existing conditions might have seen them worsen. Loneliness, isolation and boredom are only three of the challenges brought on by lockdown and home working.

The upshot, which can hopefully be taken forward, is that we have seen employees be more willing to say that they are not okay, reach out for help and have open and genuine conversations. Since people are more aware that their mental health may be impacted, they have been more willing to discuss these challenges than in the past and are actively looking for mental health support to a scale that is unprecedented. 

Leaders are acknowledging that they need to draw upon empathy and authenticity to support their people – they see the need for regular, meaningful and purposeful engagement to make up for the loss of physical interaction brought from the office environment. Hopefully this mindset is carried forward into the future.

Finding the right fit

To that end, while there are those who have found working from home a strain, for others there will be a desire to retain flexibility.

Connecting with colleagues has also changed and the engagement of employees is undergoing some major shifts – companies have had to embrace virtual approaches and have become more creative. However, it is recognised that it cannot fully encompass the whole employee experience and it will be interesting to see how this continues to develop.

Employees will want more flexibility, but they still crave the interaction they get from engaging face to face with colleagues. People will want ‘core days’ where they can connect in person but will also ask for the flexibility of working from home to help balance their professional and personal life. People now understand the pros and cons of both working from the office and from home – and people are likely to want to create an individual blend containing a little bit of both.

2021 begins with hope

So with people now more aware of their own health, and with the prospect of a new normal in which they decide the best way for them to work, 2021 starts with a glimmer of hope. As the first vaccinations are being rolled out across the world, we witness the power of collaboration when efforts are joined for the greater good of mankind. The same team spirit should animate all of us moving forward into the new year, when many companies will need to rebuild confidence and set goals for a brighter future.

However, 2021 does come with some continued uncertainties and will require flexibility and renewed focus as we come up with plans for how and when we return to the office. This will require certain adaptability and flexibility from employees and employers alike.

My message for 2021 is take greater care – care for our community, care for ourselves and care for those around us. If we learn from the challenges of last year and look to the future, employees everywhere will enjoy a more fruitful 2021.

Mieke Whaley is EMEA director for people and business partners at Medidata