COVID-19 and Culture: Exploring the long-term impact on home working
It’s known that when people go through upheavals or sustained periods of change or uncertainty, it can cause changes in behaviour. When those changes happen across large groups of people and across long periods of time, it can lead to wide-spread cultural change. In this article we explore whether the experience of living through the pandemic will change the attitudes, values and beliefs of people, at home and at work in the long term.
For many of us, COVID-19 has been the biggest global culture shift to happen in our lifetimes. We’ve heard the next ten years being referred to as ‘The COVID Decade’ and there’s no doubt the impact of the pandemic will be felt across all areas of society for a long time yet.
But how will the impact of COVID-19 culturally manifest in the longer term? Will we still obsess over hand washing or struggle to cope in large crowds due to a fear of contagion?
The long-term impact of working from home during COVID-19
The media has portrayed images of abandoned city centres and deserted offices as a result of the pandemic but as lockdown eases in many countries, will working life return to how it used to be?
In our most recent Crisis Culture report published in March 2021, we explored how working from home has become a tale in two parts. On the one hand, most people have become used to working from home. On the other, many would return to their workplace in a heartbeat.
Some were thrilled about their greater productivity and flexibility, as well as the time and sanity reclaimed from long, stressful commutes. Others couldn’t wait to get back to the office, to talk face-to-face with people and work collaboratively in a single co-located space.
We said back in March that the pandemic would change the trajectory of approaches to flexible working. And as lockdown measures ease, this is certainly the case with many professional companies allowing staff to decide for themselves when to come into the office – a decision largely based on the task they’re doing.
This is backed-up by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development who predicted a surge in home-working post-pandemic back in July last year.
Working from home may weaken company culture
But as more of us choose to work from home, we have to question the impact on company culture. An organisation is defined by its culture and this can be hard to ascertain if you’re mostly at home.
Colin Hewson, a Lead Consultant at Tribe, says, “For me, the standout pandemic issue is forced home working. It risks a slippage in organisational culture including safety. How will new starters get a feel and understand the organisation’s culture is if they’re sat with their laptop in the kitchen?”
He continues, “For some, their individual wellbeing is also at risk if their only social contact is in the office.”
Hopefully the introduction of flexible working will overcome this issue and in the last few days it’s been announced that English train companies are launching flexible tickets to meet the needs of workers spending more time at home.
Remote working will reinforce social inequalities
But are we exaggerating this trend for home working? Are we overthinking the issue? It seems to depend on the type of work you do. According to McKinsey research carried out across nine countries, more than half the workforce has no opportunity to work from home.
Some jobs require working with others or using specialised machinery. Some, such as using medical equipment such as X-ray machines or CT scans require specific locations. Deliveries always need to be made out and about. Many jobs such as these are low wage and so remote work risks accentuating inequalities at a social level.
But many manual workers have ‘saved our bacon’ over the past 18 months, literally by delivering food to our homes and other items due to shop closures. Key workers have gained new levels of appreciation. From speaking with a refuse collection client, we heard how during lockdown, refuse collection was valued and respected with their workers out on the streets, being put at higher risk of catching COVID-19. But pre-lockdown, members of the public would get so frustrated at having to wait in their cars behind their lorries that they would regularly mount the pavements to get past, risking injuries to the workforce.
Will this respect continue? Or will it fade as our lives begin speeding up once again and the daily stresses return.
How do you rebuild company culture after such a big period of uncertainty and change?
If working from home is an option for your workers, how you approach/embrace the option will certainly say something about your organisational culture.
Accountancy firm BDO has told staff to decide for themselves when to come into the office and KPMG has launched plans for its UK staff to embrace hybrid working i.e. work a ‘four-day fortnight’ in the office, with the rest of the time at home or with clients.
However, some firms are ordering staff to be ready to return to the office when restrictions are lifted, including the US banks Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. What does this say about levels of trust and flexibility?
What do you think about the future predicted trends? Do you think home working is here to stay, for those able to?