As a society we adapted very quickly to the call to work remotely during the health crisis; indeed, it was a welcome shift. Okay, it presented some challenges and minor inconveniences, but overall many felt it was no sacrifice to not be in the office. As the health crisis continued, lockdowns came and went, some returned to offices whilst others continued to work remotely. Latterly, some started to lament their absence from the workplace, welcoming the opportunity to get back, recognising some very definite benefits of rebuilding their social capital with their colleagues.
Reflecting on these reactions, it seems to me there are parallels with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “The five stages of grief” (https://www.ekrfoundation.org/5-stages-of-grief/5-stages-grief/), which she subsequently adapted to the change curve. Not everyone goes through all five stages, but there are indicators that many organisations and their employees are at some point along this curve:
Shock and denial: the initial reaction to the need to return to the office is quickly replaced by evidence of denial. An acquaintance recently went to a colleague’s gathering. The venue was a crowded city bar, but he couldn’t find anyone who had been to the office that day. Many cited the risk of contracting COVID for not going in, and yet there they were in a crowded bar!
Frustration: manifests itself in a number of ways, but some colleagues express theirs by citing “Why do I need to go to the office? I am just as productive at home.”
Resignation: for many, the realisation that they are going back to the office has settled in.
Experimental phase: where most currently find themselves, employers are setting new expectations and providing guidance, by offering hybrid working. Teams and individuals are figuring out how that works best for them.
Decision making: has manifested itself in attrition, as people determine if they want to work within the new paradigms or follow their own aspirations (Whitney Johnson, HBR: https://hbr.org/2022/04/the-great-resignation-is-a-misnomer). Yet contrary to many reports, organizations appear to have had little trouble in finding new talent.
Integration: amounts to accepting change, adapting to the new normal and getting on with it. Whilst some organisations are already there, many have some way to go.
The humanist in me would like to believe that the future of work will be shaped around people, in order to drive the best outcomes both for the organisation and the individual. I fear that will not be the case. The current labour shortage makes it a job seeker’s market. Organisations are increasing pay, perks and benefits to attract new talent and retain tenured staff. On the other hand, some organisations (including Google) are cutting pay for those who want to work remotely on a long term basis.
A global recession, caused by rising prices and interest rates, volatile markets, regional conflicts and fragile supply chains could flip the market on its head. It will also erode the finances of those who retired or “downsized” during the pandemic. Work will become attractive, or a necessity. As the labor pool grows there will be less pressure to accommodate employee demands, and employers will be in a stronger position to establish more rules and boundaries, more requirements and criteria.
With so much of this out of our control, I look to others for inspiration and words of wisdom. So I will leave the last word to Socrates (470-399BC):
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”