When we talked to clients about agile or flexible working before the pandemic, we would encourage them and their teams to have the choice to work from anywhere they would be most productive; whether that be utilising activity-based environments in the workplace, from their homes or the local café, while also having the flexibility to go about their daily lives.
The upside of being forced to work in an agile way from home during this period is that staff and employers have realised they can be more flexible in their approach to working practices. Under normal circumstances this would tend to have positive effects on productivity, employee wellbeing, collaboration and culture.
However, this current imposed agile way of working with enforced restrictions isn’t the new normal. It has removed the element of choice which is crucial to any successful agile or flexible working practices a business puts in place. People are craving social time with their families, friends and loved ones; individuals can’t currently go to the gym or for a drink after work.
Now that we’re beginning to see the first glimmer of light and the first signs of lockdown restrictions easing, it’s important we look to the future workplace and how it needs to find a balance between working in an agile way which contributes to a productive and safe working environment while taking into consideration the various attitudes individuals now have about working from both the office and from home.
It’s not what anybody wanted, but the transformation of our working lives under lockdown offers a unique opportunity to step back and reassess how we work and what lessons we can learn now we’re beginning to look at returning to our offices.
Understandably, a great deal of attention has been focussed on the use of technology to make sure we can stay in touch with friends and colleagues, continue to work and collaborate with our teams. This distribution of work into a new technological realm was happening even before the lockdown, so it’s fair to characterise its rapid uptake of an existing trend.
One facet of the workplace that is just as important as technology but probably less talked about is culture. As well as being inherently a good thing to do for people, the creation of a company culture that serves them and makes them proud of the organisation for which they work makes business sense.
In the new era of agile working environments and distributed work settings, it is culture just as much as technology and shared spaces that links people to their colleagues and the company’s values and allows them to work together towards a common goal.
Culture is one of the foundations of productivity and wellbeing and there are some clears ways we can use to create a working culture that people can be proud of.
Understand your own culture
A study of 80,000 managers published in Harvard Business Review found that one of the defining characteristics of successful organisations is that the management team understands the culture of the organisation and their understanding lines up with that of workers. This is not something that can be assumed, but underpins every effort to create a great working culture. The organisation should be open to changing that culture on an ongoing basis, especially when there is a fundamental shift in its environment, as we are now seeing.
Make work meaningful
In some ways, finding meaning in our day to day lives can be more important than happiness. If people understand their role and know that the work they do serves a range of objectives, and not just profit, they are more likely to join and stay with an organisation. They will be more productive and will suffer less from stress and other work-related issues, not least because they are proud to be bound up in meaningful work.
There are – of course - pragmatic reasons for looking after the wellbeing of employees but there are also cultural benefits. People need to feel that they work for an organisation that looks after their physical and mental wellbeing. Firms can express this in both the design of their offices and the culture they create. Biophilic design, flexible working, fresh food and encouraging people to switch off at the end of the day are just some of the ways that firms can create a culture of wellbeing.
Design for culture
The best office designs are not just an expression of an organisation’s culture, they embody it. So as well as the visible aspects of the organisation’s culture, including its brand, the culture should be embedded in the products the company buys, the supply chains involved, the decisions it takes about sustainability and its management systems.
Know where you’re going
Clear objectives, shared with the organisation, offer everybody an understanding of the firm’s mission and culture, but also their place in it. A clear direction not only helps the organisation to pull together but helps to create a culture of positivity, especially when people understand their goals and celebrate achieving them together.
The period of lockdown and its enforced isolation may have demonstrated the potential of technology to link people, but it has also shown how valuable our connections with other people are. There are well researched reasons why physical presence helps people to share information in certain ways, but there is also a human element to sharing time and space with others that we should never underestimate.
The creation of an agile working culture means that people should feel they have control of their time and place of work, both inside and outside of the office. It’s not enough to pay lip service to the idea of empowerment. Empowered people are more likely to enjoy a good work-life balance and create their own working days within the framework of the firm’s culture. They will feel free to move through the office to work in the ways they need and with the right people.
Although many organisations are already on this path, the current period of lockdown is the perfect opportunity for others to test such ideas before the return to the new normal. Working culture may never be the same again for many, but we already understand a great deal about how to create and express the ideal culture for an era of agility.
By Gary Chandler, CEO, Fourfront Group
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