How can leaders future-proof their workforce?

It goes without saying that our working lives have changed. And as Covid-19 becomes part of everyday lives, leaders need to stay ahead of the game; to continually reassess the risks of remote working including the emerging risks of returning to the office. 
It’s also vital to be informed by the latest trends and research.

What worked pre-COVID may not work again.

Staff have shifted their expectations, working-habits and vigilance-levels, and adapted to a new normal. As a result, leaders have to adapt alongside them and update approaches accordingly.

Whether you’re an optimist who thinks a vaccine is just around the corner or a pessimist who thinks we’re years away from it, it’s all irrelevant when it comes to preparing for the workforce of the future. 

There is little chance of going back to our ‘normal’ office lives. COVID or no COVID, there is a new normal, a new way of working which includes working from home as well as working from the office. 

Change has happened, and it is here to stay. Leaders must adapt to support their people and ensure business resilience with increased efficiencies and higher productivity. 

What do we know so far?

Lucky for us, there now is research and analysis we can (and must) rely on to future-proof our workforce.

Microsoft conducted a study of the brain waves of over 2,000 people working from home, which revealed that sustained concentration in video meetings leads to a phenomenon now known as ‘remote meeting fatigue’. Safe Work Australia has produced a wealth of resources for employers to ensure they adequately manage risks relating to working from home. 

We are also seeing journalists showing an increased interest on the topic, with the AFR writing about the casualisation of professional life in their article ‘Goodbye power suit: will the office become more casual?’ Even Adam Grant (an unlikely candidate), wanted in on the action and has explored (via a Ted-Talk) how science can help address the risks associated with remote work.

If you’re not keeping up with the latest research trends, then you risk making decisions that are not evidence-based. 

As business leaders, we have a responsibility to stay current and relevant to help our people thrive and not merely survive COVID19. 

What are the risks of remote working?

A survey of international opinion identifies the following risks that have emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside down.

Isolation

Even without the added risk of contracting the virus, it is well established that isolation and disconnection can be a detriment to our mental health, putting us at risk of depression and anxiety.

Poor work environment

The majority of people spend their day working from the kitchen table, or any other area in the house not overrun by children or noisy housemates. In fact, a global poll found that only 35% of respondents in one study have a dedicated home office[¹]. So, it’s no surprise that distractions, internet connection issues, and lack of ergonomic work environments are key risks in remote work.

Organisational changes

New staff arrivals can’t easily be celebrated. Further, the lack of face-to-face contact often hampers the ability of newcomers to form close working relationships quickly.

A yearning for water coolers

Working remotely is foreign to many office workers. The storied ‘water-cooler’ (or, more recently, coffee machine), which provides much positive interaction and growth in relationships, is no longer available.

Working from home often means working twice as hard

Some employees, especially women, are often faced with two demanding jobs – looking after small children (even supervising their education), as well as their regular workload. A recent survey showed that parents find it difficult to meet household demands while working from home – with 54% of parents experiencing stress.

Reduction of income

As companies face significant downturns in their revenue, they have to make difficult decisions and staff hours may be cut. A reduction in income often leads to the added stress of meeting regular mortgage, utility and childcare payments. 

It’s all well and good to have surveys confirm our suspicions around the isolation, lack of proper working space, and overall added stress our people are facing, but how do we address these issues? 

What works and what doesn’t?

What can leaders do to address the risks?

As an extrovert, my first response to anything and everything is – communication, transparency, and more communication with your staff.

This time, I stand corrected because the data tells a different story – it says we’re overdoing it.

In our efforts to adapt and demonstrate agility, we started using tools – Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Video Chat (and the list goes on) – on a daily basis, for hours on end. 

Those outside the tech industry, who were new to this way of working, could not contain their enthusiasm. They jumped all in and filled their diaries with endless, consecutive e-meetings. 

Research suggests that video meetings are one of the factors that lead to fatigue and isolation. Why? Because we’re continuously focused on our screens trying to absorb information without the physical, non-verbal cues, or the ability to ‘read the room’ and check-in with each other. 

This is particularly hard for introverts – who are always wondering, is it my turn to talk? Before they get a chance, someone else has jumped in and seized the moment. 

Lastly, researchers also found that screen sharing – the tiny view of those in the meeting – makes it difficult to interact and engage with the content on the screen and leaves people feeling frustrated.

These findings are not unique, they were confirmed by a study in Microsoft’s Human Factors Labs which established that brainwaves markers associated with overwork and stress “are significantly higher in video meetings than non-meeting work like writing emails”. 

Further, the high levels of sustained concentration mean that fatigue starts to set in early, 30 minutes into a meeting, making the days feel long and painful.

Tech giants like Microsoft and Google are quickly adapting by introducing new functionality to their tools which helps mitigate some of the risks with remote work. Examples include ‘Together Mode’ and ‘Dynamic View’, which make meetings more engaging by using AI to optimise shared content and video-participants dynamically. 

Leaders need to be across these developments and invest appropriately in digital solutions to combat remote-meeting-fatigue and isolation.

However, technology isn’t the whole answer. We need to think more broadly about our duty of care to our staff, and how we go about creating an environment where our people can thrive, not merely survive this crisis.

Here is a list of non-digital strategies and solutions that make working from home easier for our people.

Non-digital options to consider:

As leaders, we need to be looking at these trends and adapting, together with our people, in order to help them and your business thrive. 

Finally, I’m not one to love quotes and clichés, but I found this to be extremely relevant in light of the new world we find ourselves in:

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
– Charles Darwin
Written for Hargraves by Irini Agollari
Founding Director Risk & Compliance Management
Swan Noir

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[1] Harris Poll Survey commissioned by Microsoft on May 26-30, 2020 among 2,285 total adults ages 18+ who are currently working remotely across the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and China

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