Thriving in the Now Normal

July 26th, 2021
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It’s Not You, It’s All of Us: Thriving in the Now Normal

The Global Pandemic has enforced a culture of remote working upon employees across the world. Consequently, extensive research has been conducted to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on these virtual worlds of work. The importance of such research is not only to explore the current environment in which employees operate, but also, to identify the necessary solutions for employers and organisations to adopt. The Now Normal can be thoroughly exemplified under the following core issues: working in a hybrid approach; levels of productivity; employees wellbeing, as well as the digital divide. These integrated components of remote working beg the question: what does the Now Normal look like and what can we do about it?

Working in a hybrid approach

There has been a lot of speculation around what a post-COVID world will look like. However, the nine to five shifts at the office, every Monday to Friday, is a notion of the past. According to Harvard Business Review, many organisations have announced a work approach that includes three collaborative, in-person days and two online days per week. This new work approach aligns to what most employees prefer. In fact, IQbusiness research shows that 60% of employees prefer to work remotely some days, and at the office on other days, while only 4% would prefer to be back at the office full-time. It is unsurprising then, that many organisations are looking towards implementing a hybrid work approach. Although the particulars of this approach may differ across organisations, the basis of their premise remain the same: increased flexibility and rotational office days, with special cases applying to the occasional meeting.

One of the greatest benefits of a hybrid work approach is that it offers greater employee flexibility while reducing commute time. According to IQbusiness research, employees rank these as the top two benefits of working remotely – feedback that has encouraged the organisation to introduce a hybrid approach under COVID-19 safety regulations. The hybrid approach caters to different needs and preferences, empowering employees by giving them a choice to come into the office or stay home. On an organisational level, benefits include reduced overhead costs, as less office space is needed. It is notable, however, that it has drawbacks – namely, difficulty in implementation and facilitation. For instance, workshops whereby half the attendees are physically present and the other half virtually, may be more challenging to manage. Not only does this pose a technical challenge in terms of accommodation, but it also creates mental and emotional barriers between each of the respective groups of attendees. In this instance, there may be an emergence of presenteeism bias. Those that chose to attend in person have increased visibility in office spaces, therefore they may be unintentionally favoured and made aware of inter-organisational opportunities available to them.

Remote working and levels of productivity

Although there has been a reiteration regarding a positive correlation between productivity and working remotely, as per research conducted by Mercer, the world’s largest outsourced asset manager, there have been increasing concerns about the surge in work hours demanded from employees. It is estimated that 53% of employees that work from home are more likely to work overtime, which is due to the culture of remote working that has blurred the lines between work and personal life.

While it was anticipated that working remotely would allow employees to swap their commuting times with taking up new hobbies and participating in activities like exercise, a Bloomberg study showed that employees are more overworked, stressed, and eager to get back into the office. This study also highlighted that those employees who worked remotely, though their workdays started later, were spending more time on email and communication in their evenings, working up to three extra hours per day. This could be a consequence of the blur between the work-life balance because valid reasons why employees cannot or should not do their work at any given time, are no longer applicable in their own opinions, thus, they are overworking themselves due to the difficulty they face regarding disconnecting from their work.

Employee Wellbeing

Despite the flexibility that working remotely offers employees, people who work remotely are less likely to take sick leave in comparison to office-based employees. This is a consequence of remote working, which facilitates an environment where people feel pushed to work whilst they are sick or the instance whereby people do not get sick as much.

In relation to employees feeling pushed to work whilst they are sick, employees may be facing challenges due to virtual presenteeism. As it stands, employees may feel like they need to work more because they are not visible in the workplace, thus they could suffer from increased stress and eventually burnout, which affects their mental wellbeing. Regarding occasions where employees do not get sick as much, it is notable that working remotely gives employees the immediate health benefit of being less likely to catch common colds. It also decreases the chances of infections and germs spreading like they would in environments that have many people due to the isolation factor associated with working from home. This inadvertently allows for strengthened immune systems and less booked sick leave, thus more productivity which could eventually lead to burn out.

Organisations should make employees aware of this unconscious bias regarding working remotely versus working in office spaces and create a culture that rewards them for how much value they add instead of rewarding them solely based on being at the right place, at the right time or overworking themselves to try and compensate for physical absence – a notion advised by Harvard Business Review. It is important for organisations to provide clear guidance to employees about what kind of expectations are present when referring to working from home when one is sick. Thus, they need to re-assess their sick leave policies and ensure that the wellbeing of their employees that work remotely are considered.

Remote working and the digital divide

Remote working has exposed and exacerbated the digital discrepancies that exist across the world. Organisations have been thrust into this digital environment and, have had to invest generously in training and upskilling their workers to meet the digital demand and global digital literacy standards because of the furthered exposure of the existing digital divide. Currently, there is unequal access to software and hardware required to aid employees in thriving at their jobs from the comfort (and safety) of their homes, which has been highlighted in the expectations surrounding the migration to remote working.
Remote working has exposed the fact that access to strong, quality internet is terribly skewed. With fibre, 4G and LTE options previously being categorised as luxuries for homes, this digital shift has made them necessities for many. Unfortunately, internet products such as fibre are still limited to locations with built-in fibre cables and related infrastructure – an exclusivity in favour of popular suburbs and some urban areas in certain parts of South Africa. To further aggravate the matter, data and electricity costs create more obstacles for some South Africans due to the existing wealth gap present in the country, further substantiated by South Africa holding the record for the highest Gini-Coefficient Index in the world. Many employers have rolled out internet subsidies, data reimbursements, modems, and sim cards to respond to this issue, however, these temporary solutions cannot possibly address the country’s biggest economic issue: the unfair distribution of resources and infrastructure.

IQbusiness has proposed data allowances for employees, making the use of integrated platforms for communication and productivity purposes, as well as providing the necessary training and IT support to compliment this. This enabling and empowering of employees has always been inevitable, however many can thank the pandemic for this accelerated equipping of employees.

What does this all mean for the future ways of work?

It’s not you, it’s all of us. In our Now Normal, the mandate of employers should be the adoption of human-centric approaches to address the complexity of the abovementioned challenges that are now being faced by organisations. Though it is an extensive journey, it is vital that organisations firstly acknowledge that their employees are affected differently by the shift towards remote working. Secondly, every organisation’s mandate should address the existing gaps in employee support so that all employees have the resources they need to thrive in the workplace and in their personal lives. And finally, that organisations prioritise the implementation of sustainable solutions so that both organisations and their employees do not merely navigate but rather thrive in the Now Normal.

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