How Covid-19 has demolished traditional office structures

The pandemic is enabling organisations to reset and rethink how they operate in future, says Siobhan Brunwin

Covid-19 has turned the world of work on its head. Not since the industrial revolution have we witnessed such an impact on how and where we work and operate almost overnight. Following lockdown and stay-at-home orders, office workers have ditched their daily commutes to work from dining room tables, kitchens and bedrooms in their own homes. 

While working remotely is not a new concept, the scale of people working from home during recent weeks has never been seen before. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 49 per cent of adults in employment worked from home in April 2020, For context, the ONS also found that 30 per cent of employees worked from home in 2019, with many working remotely for a couple of days a month, rather than full time. 

With the bulk of the workforce operating from home, not only are the traditional styles of how we are working shifting, but also what employees want and need from their employer have changed. Employers that are getting the best out of their people are shifting from traditional styles of hierarchy and communication to a more democratic, flexible and empathetic work culture. With ‘work’ feeling like the only sense of ‘normal life’ for a lot of us (though still feeling absolutely not the normal) there is more focus than ever on how employers are treating their people, and more importantly how they are supporting them and making them feel. All companies have had to pivot to make sure their people are still getting a rewarding employee experience.

At MullenLowe Group UK we have had a huge focus on emotional fitness through this time; we have posted out to all our people a guide to mental wellbeing, and offered weekly yoga, pilates and meditation. We have also kept our focus on our people’s development, launching our new development review process virtually and continuing to offer training and events through online platforms and put a huge focus on regular, transparent and very human corporate communication. 

While working in lockdown we have seen the raw realness of the people we work with like never before. We have been looking through virtual windows into each other's lives, seeing inside colleagues’ homes, seeing them in loungewear without their suits or make-up, seeing their pets, their babies on their knees in meetings. We are not just all working from home, we are working through a global health disaster that has cataclysmically disrupted our lives. We are having much deeper, richer conversations with colleagues. We’re asking ‘how are you’ and really meaning it; we are going through a collective grief of what our ‘old’ lives looked like while trying to virtually support our teammates who are experiencing the very real loss of loved ones because of this devastating virus.  

Companies that harness and nurture this new way of working may well find their employees are doing the best work they’ve ever done – long gone is the CEO hidden away in the corner office, with staff often too nervous to approach them. Employees and their leaders are opening up more and more, often cutting straight to the heart of work or personal issues with a newfound sense of professional honesty and empathy being not just acceptable but essential.

There has been a lot of talk about lockdown being a great ‘leveller’ with us ‘all in it together’. Yes, we are all in the same storm, but we are definitely not all in the same boat. Working through this pandemic some hierarchies have melted away, such as the physical barriers of corner offices. However, this lockdown has been a very individual experience depending on each person’s circumstances. Hierarchies have appeared in teams that we didn’t see in a pre-Covid world: those juggling work with homeschooling, those living in shared accommodation with no communal space to work in, those living alone and those with no outside space to enjoy the glorious sunshine. Employers need to learn lessons from this period and going forward stop trying to focus on their people as a collective group when making people-related decisions, and I fully expect to see an increase in people seeking out companies that offer a bespoke employee experience. 

The discussion about the ‘future of work’ has never felt so meaningful. During the pandemic, managers have had to evolve from a ‘micro’, hands-on style to having to truly trust their teams. This new style of manager/employee relationship we will continue to evolve with managers focusing on judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance. Without the ability to notice work habits and issues in the office during this time, managers have needed to become more proactive in providing support to their employees and trying to understand them at a deeper more individual level. We need to make sure these new habits of management we have built don’t get lost. Employees who have developed new routines and built new habits such as dividing their day into office communications, personal time and deep work will not want to switch back into the regular nine-to-five and the ways they were working before. 

How employers have reacted and treated people during this crisis will be a focal point of reference for current staff and any future talent you want to attract who will want evidence that you really put your people first. It is clear that the current crisis offers a chance for employers to reset and rethink how they operate in the long term. It is not just the traditional nine-to-five office structure that is being questioned, it’s the way we work with each other, the types of relationships we want with our managers and the shift to a more trusting, people-first approach. We shouldn’t just be looking at the physical office becoming more fluid, adaptive and agile – we should be questioning the whole employee experience. With the seismic changes that have rocked the world and its workers, it’s clear that the old world is evolving. 

Siobhan Brunwin is people director at MullenLowe Group UK