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Establishing a new ‘normal’ at work. How to balance individual needs with organisational wants

As the world begins to slowly unfold after the horror of the global pandemic, we look to how we move back into a new ‘normal’ at work. Herein lies a labyrinth which needs to be unravelled. After nearly 18 months at home. What does work look like now?

The majority of us have been working from home since March 2020. At first, it was an uncomfortable experience. Setting up a physical work space in a spare room, a corner of the living room, at the dining table or in the garage. Then, came the need to get to grips with virtual meetings – the unmuting, the range of functionality and of course the sheer volume of meetings that flooded our diaries. Hours spent sat at our desks in head phones. Throw into the mix the closure of nurseries and schools and the need for many of us to balance childcare and home schooling within our working days. Those first few months were tough. But we got there, we all established a new normal and slowly, a gleaming set of benefits soon revealed itself. No commuting, no dashing around between meetings, the removal of the pressure to look ‘office ready’ and less disturbances to really focus on tasks (in between the home schooling!)

Domestic life became easier with the ability to balance chores with work – throwing in some washing just before the start of a meeting, getting to the supermarket at a decent hour or just being able to take a walk at lunchtime. We’ve all felt more present in our lives, able to be there more for our dependants whether it’s children, parents, partners or pets. Everything feels a bit easier when you are constantly at home. There are however, some downsides.

From a practical perspective, we don’t always have everything we need at home – decent printers, access to resources in other departments, a work space that is fit for purpose such as a decent office chair or stable wi-fi. For those who live alone, there has no doubt been regular feelings of isolation and loneliness. At the other end of the scale, those of us who live with partners and/or children, have felt periods of cabin fever, of not being able to get away from it all or just enjoy a bit of quiet time and are craving more of a divide between work and home.

Like anything that has been related to the pandemic, it’s not straightforward.

Now as we head into a new phase, the one where we look to re-kindle our pre-COVID lives, the former benefits of being in work may not feel so beneficial anymore. Social interaction in person isn’t quite so enjoyable with social distancing measures and masks still in place, in fact, they can make individuals feel even more isolated. Others, have thrived through the creation of their own environment – perhaps listening to music or a certain radio station when they want some noise, but the control to enjoy silence when they choose - not easy to re-create in an office environment.

With this next phase, a new concept has entered the conversation, one which requires some careful planning - the hybrid approach.

Some organisations may be put off by a move towards a hybrid model. The hassle of organising and managing who’s in and who is at home, the cost of running an office that isn’t full day to day. In their minds, it’s easier and better value to go back to where they were before COVID – everyone back in the office all of the time. Other organisations may have already sold off office space or not renewed leases and consequently their people are left working from home full time. How would it feel to never go back ‘to work’ again? It will continue to be particularly hard for those who live alone…

If you are an organisation who hasn’t yet worked out what the new normal looks like for you, then this is a challenging but exciting time ahead. You have the opportunity to shape the future, to make a real difference to the motivation, happiness and productivity levels of your people, but success lies in the way that you approach and execute your plan. Confused? Here’s our advice on the 3 most important areas to tackle:

Be clear on the needs of the business and then hand it over to be formulated from the ground up

This is an opportunity to mould a working solution for your people, but first you need to be clear on what the organisational wants and needs are. By setting this out first and foremost, you can then hand over the rest to be defined by individual teams to enjoy freedom within the framework.

What does the team require to be effective?

Once the organisation has clearly set out its wants and needs, managers should be free to open up the conversation with their teams. This is all a careful balancing act of wants and needs – the organisation, the individual and the team. The most important thing is an open and honest dialogue which needs to be handled with skill. This is a task which some managers will rise to more naturally than others. It’s useful to start with the end in mind – what are you/the team trying to achieve in terms of outcomes? Which tasks need to be undertaken as a team? What can be done alone? Using a technique around ‘must, should, could’ is useful for establishing some rigour around ideas.

What does the individual need?

Here lies a fantastic opportunity to engage every employee with the organisation. Giving them the opportunity to discuss how they’d like to work (taking into consideration the aforementioned needs dictated by organisation, the job role and the team) and the feeling that they are being listened to and where possible, their needs met. For many employees, having some flex to how they approach their working week has never been presented to them before and it’s a really exciting prospect. Perhaps an employee was struggling to balance childcare on a particular day which was adding a silent pressure onto them? Or an individual may have been yearning to attend an exercise class but could never get home in time - now is the chance for them to speak up and potentially fix issues that were related to their working hours and physical place of work if it can meet the needs of the business and their role.

Nothing is set in stone

Keep an open mind. It can all be up for consideration – an approach doesn’t need to be set in stone, it can be trialled, tweaked and if need be, ditched! The past year has shown how adaptable we can all be and that this is a process of evolution.

The important thing to remember is that this is about providing us all with the opportunity to bring our best selves to work, whether that’s in the office or at home. After the experiences of the past 16 months, we and the organisations we work for deserve it.