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Are these Magnificent Seven Time Wasters fuelling your burnout?

Return to work leadership priorities - wherever you’ll be based

Could it be that predictions about the end of office life have been a little premature? New YouGov research shows a sizeable percentage of the UK wants a return to office life just as it used to be before the pandemic. With lockdown restrictions lifting, the topic of exactly where we’ll soon be working and how much time we spend there is very much a current talking point.

Even the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak has weighed in, suggesting that employees would "vote with their feet" and could consider leaving for a rival if made to work from home full time. There’s strong arguments for the benefits of working from home too of course.

Not so much where we work, but how we’ll be working

In many respects, the impact of the pandemic has created wider issues that transcend where people will be working. Whatever shape our organisations may take, a leader faced with bringing their organisation back in some form has a lot to consider. We’ll cover some of the main priorities as we see them, but recent news coverage and research show no shortage of opinion.

How do employees feel about their work options?

A YouGov poll of 1,039 UK workers in March, found that 44% wanted their work life to return ‘largely’ to the way it was before the pandemic, while nearly a third (31%) wanted it to return ‘exactly’ to the way it was before the first lockdown. There is also a desire to hold on to new found flexible working. Research for Nationwide by Ipsos Mori, found that 90% of those working from home wanted to continue doing so at least one day a week, with 60% saying it gave them a better work-life balance.

Reading between the lines, ‘largely’ like it was before and a preference to build in some home working suggests a hybrid mix of office and working from home will be the most attractive mix. Office life brings a social element that many have missed, a sense of belonging and opportunities to share ideas spontaneously. Home working allows a degree of flexibility, something that organisations will find very hard to claw back now that many are used to it.

Concerns raised by trainees about their 95 hour work week at Goldman Sachs gained much coverage and reminded us that, for some organisations, working life hasn’t changed. While their Chief Executive responded that it was “great” that they raised the matter he added that going the ‘extra mile” could make a big difference. The Goldman Sachs adherence to a long hours culture would seem out of kilter with growing awareness of the dangers of burnout.

While the location of where work takes place may be fluid for some time, the immediate leadership priorities are easier to identify.

Re-engaging people with purpose

It would be a mistake for organisations to assume that while many say they are looking forward to returning to work, they are going to remain loyal to their existing employer. Recent research from Totaljobs found that nearly nine in ten (89%) of UK workers are looking for a new job in 2021. And people aren’t just looking for a slight change in location or role – 45% of workers said they want to completely change sectors.

So, first of all, re-engaging people with their work and the purpose of the organisation has to be a priority. Just as organisations found their people could work from home, employees realise they could too - and with geography no obstacle, the pool of potential employers has widened. Living in London and working for a business based in Edinburgh is now far more viable. Employees usually join an organisation as they identify with its values and purpose, this may have slipped while staring at the kitchen wall over the past year. Now is a good time to re-emphasise why you do what you do as business, and where everyone fits in.

Re-building relationships

Remember what it used to feel like, returning to school after a 6 weeks summer holiday? It seemed a long time, it took time to re-adjust and establish friendships. So, what will it feel like after 3, 6 or even 12 months? At least those who have continued to work will be more closely aligned with where the business is. That’s unlikely to be the case for furloughed workers. The YouGov poll found that 38% of furloughed workers said a return to work would improve their mental health. Having spent months out of the office, many feel a mix of anxiety about their roles, vulnerability and resentment. They will need clarity and support when they return.

Of course not everyone is looking forward to being reunited with colleagues. For those experiencing poor, even ‘toxic’ relationships with colleagues and line managers, home working has provided badly needed space. Knowing that break is coming to an end can shine a light on how unhappy a managerial situation really is. Leaders and especially line managers need to be aware of behaviours that negatively impact how those relationships are renewed. They may also experience some push back from employees who have grown accustomed to freedom from micromanagement. Like flexible working, this is something that’s also very hard to give up.

Enabling innovation and creativity

You can schedule a Zoom call, but you can’t schedule a great idea, creativity or those random conversations that spark those ideas. As Rishi Sunak puts it, "You can't beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.” We think that innovation will be one of the main beneficiaries of people actually spending real face to face time together back in an office.

For this reason, leaders need to encourage conversations, support down-time and create the space and culture that encourages the meeting of minds so important to solving problems and pushing through boundaries. It would go a long way to re-discovering purpose and re-building relationships.

Managing mental health issues

As employees return to the workplace, employers need to prioritise mental health and wellbeing, building a culture where workers feel supported. This is an area where leaders need to lead by example. Praising those going the ‘extra mile’ isn’t going to do anything to encourage others who may be feeling the need to open up about their levels of stress and potential burnout. Likewise, leaders who dismiss their own struggles only feed the stigma around mental health. Silence does nothing to help raise awareness of the issue so it can be managed.

As employees return, awareness training and preventative care will need to be high on the leadership priority list. Ideally, by raising the issues as something that can affect anyone, they’ll be able to encourage others to address their mental health challenges. For many having experienced months of isolation, returning to work will be the first time they’ve been able to talk. They need to be heard.

Reassurances on safety

It’s almost a year since we wrote a blog titled ‘Advice for leaders managing return to work anxiety’. At the time safety was a big issue but Covid vaccinations weren’t available. That’s now changed and just as employees have concerns about traveling into work and social distancing, they also have a strong view on vaccinations. 

A poll of 2,000 workers, conducted by Glassdoor, found that 56% thought there should be a requirement to have had a Covid vaccination before they go back to the office. One in seven went as far as saying they would hand in their notice if they were required to return before all employees had been vaccinated. Of course Covid vaccinations are not enforceable, and those that choose not to have them will have their own reasons. Managing how this issue plays out in an office will require careful thought to avoid divisions at a time when everyone needs to pull together.

Further reading

These articles also contain tips and guidance on returning to the workplace and cover some of the man issues organisations and their people will face.

Advice for leaders managing return to work anxiety
The practicalities of returning to work won’t matter if the psychological issues aren’t addressed - and there are likely to be many.

What leaders can do to support workplace mental health
Failure to tackle the problems caused by the pandemic isn’t an option for any organisation that wants to do the right thing for its people and also remain productive. 

Advice for leaders: Creating an engaged and productive culture in the future home based organisation
Discussion of what remote working will mean to the future remote based organisation. It’s a far reaching strategic issue.

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