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5 lessons learnt from a year of work during the Coronavirus

Woman with baby sat at a table, smiling. Text: Embracing the future of work - 5 lessons learnt from work during coronavirus

We’ve all been through a big change

We’ve been through a tumultuous year, and have had to make many changes to the way we live and work during the Coronavirus. We’ve all had to adapt, but along the way we’ve been taught something new about ourselves as well as the way we work.

For one, regardless of where we stand on working from home vs the office, this has been a transformational year. Perhaps we’ve taken on homeschooling our kids or completely redefined our working routines, things we would never have thought possible back in February 2020. Maybe we’ve struggled with zoom fatigue and the isolation of working alone, missing the camaraderie and support of our office colleagues. Perhaps we’ve been furloughed and had time to reflect on our lives, or take up a new interest or venture. Or perhaps we were knocked for six, facing mental health challenges, our energy and motivation sapped, leaving us questioning the purpose of our jobs – perhaps even life itself.

So what have we learnt about work during the Coronavirus?

Have we learned when and where we need to be to be at our most productive? About ourselves and the relationship we have with work? And how might we ensure that we take the good stuff, the lessons we’ve learnt, the orthodoxies we’ve busted and make the most of this transformative period. Not only to survive, but to thrive in the future, in what psychologists call post-traumatic growth.

At Hoxby, we’re fortunate in already being set up to handle some of the most significant changes the pandemic forced upon organisations, such as working remotely without an office or working around other commitments such as homeschooling and childcare. We’ve been working that way for more than five years. And across the 40 or so countries our people are based in, our engagement, productivity and wellbeing scores were stable throughout the whole global pandemic.

In fact, some of the trends we’ve seen have reinforced and accelerated our view about how work should be done in the future. So, while lots of businesses have been trying to keep the lights on throughout the past year, we thought now would be a good time to ask ourselves, ‘What did we learn over the last year?’

With a bit of creative license and a completely unscientific process, we’ve narrowed this down into a few common themes and called these our five lessons.

Lesson 1: We need to rethink our relationship with work and focus on our wellbeing

Did you see the LinkedIn story about Jonathan Frostick and his heart attack? It went viral back in April when he shared a photo from his hospital bed about his near-death experience and the decisions he made because of it.

He vowed to make six life changes:

  1. I’m not spending all day on Zoom anymore
  2. I’m restructuring my approach to work
  3. I’m really not going to be putting up with any s#%t at work ever again – life literally is too short
  4. I’m losing 15kg
  5. I want every day to count for something at work, else I’m changing my role
  6. I want to spend more time with my family

The problem that Jonathan is all too literally representing in both his health situation and his points above is that we are all overtired, more stressed out and overworked than we ever have been. We’re fatter, spending less time with our kids, and the lack of meaning in our work is causing us to question what the hell we are doing with our time – while our work culture is creating a mental health epidemic.

This stuff isn’t good for organisations either, as we’re taking more sick days, our engagement levels are lower and, despite huge technical breakthroughs, productivity hasn’t improved in decades.

Changing our relationship with work starts with challenging our beliefs about work: that we need to be constantly climbing the ladder, working late, or at the very least being online in front of a screen for at least 40 hours a week, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (in some countries that’s almost half of the daylight hours available).

The fundamental problem is we tend to judge our progress against a simple number, such as our salary or our bank balance, and we conveniently ignore all the other aspects of our lives that we need to truly create the healthy, contented and prosperous condition we all aspire to – or what the World Health Organisation likes to call ‘our wellbeing’.

At Hoxby, we believe that wellbeing means having a healthy balance by focusing on five key pillars of our lives:

  1. Having a healthy body
  2. Having a healthy mind
  3. Feeling connected with others
  4. Being able to learn and grow
  5. Being able to create meaning and purpose in our lives

Looking back at Jonathan’s realisations, they are remarkably similar. Creating meaning and purpose – wanting every day to count for something. Losing 15g – having a healthy body. Wanting to spend more time with family – feeling connected with others.

So rather than getting straight back into the rat race or seeing time out of the office as time lost in the dash to the next promotion, why not take this opportunity to reset and re-evaluate why you’re working in this job in the first place?

If we’re to avoid a similar fate to Jonathan, we need to stop drifting through life, simply absorbing and accepting the cultural norms about work that we pick up from our parents, our schooling and our communities. We need to take the time to consciously think about how these beliefs are shaping our futures. Beliefs as fundamental as why we’re working and how and when we work (hint: avoiding endless Zoom meetings is a good start). Ultimately we should rebalance our lives to spend more time on the important things in life, such as our health and our relationships.

Lesson 2: The working day doesn’t need to be 8 hours long

‘It is frequently the most obvious and taken for granted and therefore the least studied aspects of culture that influence behaviour in the deepest and most subtle ways’ Edward Hall

Have you ever thought about why the working day is 8 hours? It hasn’t always been that way.

In fact, 200 years ago an 8-hour working day was the socialist dream of Robert Owen (who thought that 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure and 8 hours of rest seemed like a nice balance). At the time this sounded like a utopian concept as the combination of religious doctrine along with hard-nosed bosses meant that many people worked upwards of 100-hour weeks on factory floors. What became known as the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ (a term coined by Max Weber in 1905), stated that those that shirked their work, or didn’t fulfil their talents or their professional ‘calling’, risked eternal damnation.

The word ‘weekend’ was only added to the dictionary in 1878, when more and more workers were allowed to leave at lunchtime on a Saturday, while it was Henry Ford himself that popularised the 40-hour work week.

Today, it seems the 5-day week is finally starting to lose its grip on our culture, though not the length of the working day itself. A number of organisations have started experimenting with four-day weeks, with many reporting positive results in happiness, wellbeing, engagement and productivity. Perhaps the most interesting and potentially influential one to watch is Unilever, who ran a trial in New Zealand; if they were to adopt it globally, their size and influence could see them become the 21st-century equivalent of Ford’s 40-hour a week policy.

But no one seems to be challenging the notion that 8 hours a day is the right amount of time to be spending at work. Neuroscience – and in fact anyone who cares to observe themselves during a working day – knows full well that we can’t concentrate for anything like that long, and we need to take plenty of breaks and have several unproductive times throughout the day. Perhaps we’re a morning person or a night owl, but we’re rarely both (or if we are, we’re probably snoozing after lunch at 2pm in the afternoon).

In fact, if we explore the working practices of some of the greatest, most creative and arguably most productive thinkers of the past – from Charles Darwin to Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf to Ingmar Bergman, as this excellent article does, 3–4 good hours of work per day seems to be the common theme.

So rather than getting distracted by the noise around 4 or 5 days a week, which seems to miss the point that the very fact that we can cram our work into less time means we’re being hopelessly unproductive somewhere, maybe we should focus on keeping our calendars and diaries clear for 4 hours a day to do good, deep work, instead.

This isn’t so much as a time-management tactic as an internal psychological move, to give up demanding more of yourself than 3 or 4 hours of daily, high-quality mental work. The truly valuable skill here isn’t the capacity to push yourself harder, but to stop and recuperate despite the discomfort of knowing that work remains unfinished, emails unanswered, other people’s demands unfulfilled.

Lesson 3: The role of a leader is evolving again – from commander and controller to coach and (social/ environmental) conscience

As we wrote in our 5 rules for leading remote teams back at the start of the pandemic in 2020, without the ability to see people at their desks, leaders really have to trust that their teams are motivated, know what they’re doing and use their time productively. Outside of crisis situations and hierarchical military organisations, it’s doubtful that the alternative – a command and control, measuring and monitoring, micromanaging style of leadership – ever produced great results over the long term, anyway. Partly this shift has been forced as the average boss today has twice the amount of direct reports as they did 15 years ago, so many find they are simply too stretched to adopt any other style of leadership.

During the pandemic, leaders in many organisations also saw the emphasis and importance of their role evolve in two other key ways. Firstly, by becoming people coaches rather than task organisers or dictators, with emotional-intelligence skills such as communication, listening, empathy and adaptability playing an increasingly important role over technical skills. And secondly, to understand and attune to the environmental, social, and ethical causes that employees believe in.

Simply relying on hierarchical positional power and using the line ‘Because I said so’ or ‘Our responsibility is to our shareholders’ doesn’t cut it anymore. Increasingly, employees are banding together on political, ethical and social issues, as witnessed by the response of a number of organisations to the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, top talent chooses to work for purposeful and environmentally-friendly organisations that align with their political beliefs.

If you’re burning carbon, using more plastic than necessary, or you’re not actively promoting diversity, you’re probably going to have to spend even more time explaining and defending why you’re doing so, and lose credibility and credence in the process.

The rise of the B Corp movement – not only have over 100,000 companies signed up, but their businesses are growing at a rate 28 times faster than the national average – proves that there is another way of doing business. Leaders who take a stand and embrace the multi-stakeholder model are the people we want to follow in the future.

At Hoxby, we’ve led with our purpose – to create a world of work without bias – which continues to attract people to join our cause. We’ve become a B Corporation and we operate without a fixed hierarchy. Instead, we have a blind recruitment process where individuals can apply for scopes of responsibility, where in one project they could find themselves reporting to someone they are leading on another project.

Lesson 4: Purpose at work just got even more important

Another impact of work during the Coronavirus pandemic is that many of us have had to quite literally bring that work home. Having perhaps fought against this for years, fearing for our work-life balance or the sanity of our families or housemates, we now find ourselves working in front of them. It’s harder for us to hide the ridiculousness of some of the phone calls we have to have, or pretend to ourselves that what we’re doing is of some higher importance. Our kids, our partners and our friends see straight through us.

Instead of having a grandois office to go to, where the architecture makes us stand taller and walk faster, the trimmings of work have been removed and boiled down to the basics that we need – a screen and a keyboard, and perhaps a cup of coffee on our home-office desks or kitchen table. It starts to make us think, is this it? Is this how I’m spending the vast majority of my life? What is this work for?

We’ve also seen the rise of a new phenomenon during the pandemic, a feeling of stagnation, monotony and emptiness, which psychiatrists are calling ‘languishing’. Symptoms include burnout, a lack of motivation and numbness. It’s a series of emotions, rather than a mental-health condition and it’s taken off during lockdown so much so that it might be the dominant emotion of 2021, according to organisational psychologist Adam Grant.

Putting these together – the questioning of the purpose of our work alongside the feeling of numbness and lack of motivation – it’s clear that the meaning we get from work is increasingly important. This is also perhaps because so many other avenues where we might find meaning (or distraction) in our lives have been closed off. When we can no longer go on exotic holidays abroad, or even simply to the pub, the cinema or a nightclub with friends, we find our days and our minds increasingly taken up with work. And when work doesn’t give us a good answer to the question ‘What are we doing this for?’, then we start to struggle and lose motivation.

An abundance of research suggests that purpose-led organisations have long outperformed the market, with 40% higher retention rates, higher growth rates and ROI. If you’ve not considered it before, perhaps now is the time to really get to grips with your organisational purpose, and to ensure that this is being communicated, and more importantly felt, by everyone across the organisation.

Lesson 5: We miss the community – but we can create that in more interesting ways than just being in an office

Finally, we know humans are social creatures. We’ve missed each other during the social distancing restrictions. Witnessing the supporters at Euro 2020 brought home just how amazing the feeling of being in a crowd together for a common cause can be. It’s more fun to do things together, to share the laughter, the joy and the ups-and-downs of life’s vicissitudes. Doing drinks together on Zoom just isn’t the same.

And yet, the connections we make when we embrace technology for our work, as well as the ability to collaborate and connect in different ways, can not only resolve but also enhance the feeling that we are part of a community. The choice of platform here is critical. It has to be easy to use, to work on our mobiles and laptops as easily as sending a text. It’s why Hoxby chose Slack over Microsoft Teams, and why so many communities such as Leapers (for those going freelance) and professional networks like the NOBL peer community made the same choice.

When we open up and explore the online communities that are already out there we find it’s actually easier to meet like-minded people, or ones that can teach us new things or offer connections and suggestions. The internet has given us this incredible opportunity and powerful resource to connect with people wherever they are in the world and we’ve only just started to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

When there is a clear, shared purpose and a well-moderated and curated community (like, ahem, Hoxby), you really can feel more connected and part of a bigger community than ever before. And now that people are allowed to meet up again, we can add the offline world to the best of the online by meeting up for work dates or, in Hoxby’s case, at our annual get-together festival.

Though, just because we can, that certainly doesn’t mean we need to start commuting straight back into the office.

Hoxby gives you access to the collective brainpower and diverse insight of hundreds of professional and creative experts in 40+ countries around the world. We draw on the unique diversity within our community to uncover insights and create refreshing solutions to your brief. Our Communications, Creative, Finance, Futureproofing, HR, Innovation, Operations, Marketing, Sales and Technology business functions can solve almost any business challenge.

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Ben Foulkes is a business psychologist focused on leadership and culture; he is a Futureproofing Business Director at Hoxby.