How COVID-19 has changed the way we work at work

Sharon Rush

Cast your mind back to when it was announced that ‘lockdown’ measures would be put in place to help resist the spread of COVID-19. Doesn’t that feel like a lifetime ago?

So much has happened in that time and only now do we feel like we might be finding some sort of routine. The road to achieving that routine has been a long one, and though there may still be a few bumps to come, many are feeling more prepared to tackle the ‘new normal’.

In my experience, a crucial part of this journey has been the ways of working and communication guidelines set out by employers. For good or for bad, this guidance has had an incredible impact on the majority of us. Many Directors or team leads will have set out provisional direction as to how – and the frequency in which – their teams should connect with each other during this period and it has changed the way of leading a team. But truth be told, the only expectation that our employers can have, is that there shouldn’t be any expectation at all.

The new routine

For example, take the now typical virtual conference call. These are often scheduled at all hours of the day – especially if you’re working across different time-zones – and can make it very hard to draw clear boundaries between work and play. Yes, these calls took place before, but employees also had the opportunity to leave the office and transition from professional to personal.

The then rules of lockdown meant that people would be expected to forge ahead despite facing long lengths of time in one environment. Though required from the perspective of the nation’s health, in a professional capacity, this was not sustainable. In a normal week, you would likely meet up with friends, go to the gym, commute to work or go out for lunch and this would resemble societal structure and/or routine for you. During this time, we’ve had nothing of the sort and that can create a lasting impact.

The psychological impact

So high are the stress and anxiety levels caused by this pandemic, that really, it’s been near impossible to maintain the same productivity levels. In stressful situations like this, there are physiological responses in our bodies. Our stress hormones increase and we prepare to fight or flee. As COVID-19 continues, each individual will have many physiological adaptations, each time they feel stressed and each time they feel worried. And over time, these repeated hits, physiologically and psychologically, can accumulate.

That accumulation is known as allostatic load, which is essentially the impact on our bodies when they’re exposed to high-stress situations, time and time again. And while many will feel as though they are doing nothing most days, the brain is still dealing with the anxiety and strain of this pandemic. Employees are likely to feel exhausted, but not because their bodies are working hard, but because their brains are.

Unique circumstances for each individual

Understandably, there is no set formula to cope with this situation as every individual will be experiencing unique circumstances. You may be living with your three flatmates, or you may be having to home-school three children. You may even be living alone and craving any sort of companionship. For the more introverted among us, this change in lifestyle may have been welcome, with the high number of conference calls being the only fly in the ointment. Introverts will likely be happy to move forward with lower levels of interaction with colleagues. On the other hand, the more extroverted will be continuing to seek out new ways to socialise to keep their energy levels up. The lack of a buzzy, office-type atmosphere can be a big miss and have negative impact on communication and team work.

In early days of social distancing, there were many features that suggested that the best way to adapt to working from home was to recreate the office environment. Get up at the same hour, create a space similar to that of your desk. But office life and the 9-5 doesn’t concede that we all have different body clocks, or that we’re all productive in different ways.

The new normal?

All of this makes it very hard for businesses to strike the right balance, but some businesses are seeing this as an opportunity to either go completely or partially remote. The list starts with Twitter, which decided to go 100% remote. Other companies such as Nationwide, Facebook and Barclays, are also pondering a permanent shift to remote working. This suggests that we could be approaching a time where working from home is fast becoming habitual.

As we look out towards the future, there is no telling what the ‘expectation’ of employees will be, but one thing is clear, we are seeing a power shift from employer to employee. Each individual will come out of this period having a clearer understanding of what suits their needs and will be keen to find an environment that can offer different ways to work, at work.

This blog post has been written by Alexander Mills, trusted advisor at The Skillset Set Group.