Working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic characterised working life for many since the extraordinary events of 2020 unfolded. The rhythms of daily life were drastically and suddenly altered. Spatial rhythms changed as people worked in their domestic spaces and adapted to other people’s use of shared space, and temporal rhythms changed as different working patterns emerged. For non-essential workers, lockdown offered an opportunity to reconfigure working lives away from the constraints of commutes, everyday work settings and ‘presenteeism’. Now the workforce is waiting to see how many of these new patterns will shape our working lives moving forward. Has the pandemic been a trigger for real change in where and how we work, or a temporary intermission from traditional work practices?
Prior to the pandemic, partial homeworking had been considered as a pivotal strand of the aspirational work-life balance. Research considered the emancipatory opportunities that such a working life might offer. Such flexible forms of work detached from traditional urban workplaces have long been interesting to scholars researching the quality of work and where it takes place. As a result of the pandemic, swathes of the global workforce have worked from home, encompassing a huge range of industries and jobs. This explosion of homeworking stimulated commentary and studies concerned with productivity, hybridisation of the workforce, changing workplace geographies and inequalities - particularly in relation to gender.
Has the change been as profound and long lasting as was initially predicted? In the podcast, we argue that we seem to be in a period of stasis as organisations rein back on many offers of flexibility, and workers are once again exhorted to get back to the office, not only to benefit from collaboration with others, but to spend money in city centres. Hybrid working is still with us, but the rhetoric around home working is becoming less favourable.
Our research leads us to hope that some things may change in how we craft our working lives, post pandemic. The key points we discuss in the podcast include:
Trust: Organisations need to build on the trust that emerged during the pandemic. Flexible working has frequently been determined by the quality of the relationship between employees and the organisation, and more specifically the trust that line managers and colleagues have in individuals working away from direct supervision and in spaces less easily accessible to monitoring. Many of the perceived barriers which were said to render remote working impossible have faded away as people learned to design their working lives differently. Employees have had the opportunity to show that they can work remotely with success. This trust in people’s skills, experience and ability to manage their own lives should remain.
In the podcast, we discuss how the stories that organisations tell about themselves about how people are assumed to work best have been disrupted by change. The assumptions and narratives that underpin these stories (e.g. employee are more productive in the office), may have changed and new norms and expectations need to be developed. These may be different to how they were before and we argue they should be focused on a more individual’s experiences and inclusive listening.
More listening to what works as change unfolds, and more modelling from leaders. What we have we learnt from the last few years in change management research is the value of listening and incorporating people’s individual experiences in setting the boundaries and preferences for working lives. Any opportunity for two-way communication from popular forms of consultation (staff meetings, working focus groups, etc.), in the online environment have become less meaningful and no longer provide real voice to employees. We argue that organisations need to develop a culture of listening, listening to each employee’s story and voice. They need to proactively support employees by listening and understanding their individual experiences and circumstances.
This is a chance for organisations to reset the basis of their relationships with employees about when and where work is undertaken. The future is still unknown, but we hope, it will be one where leader’s model more inclusive ways of work.