In his latest Business School column, serial entrepreneur, CBE, Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship and Fellow at King’s College London, Stefan Allesch-Taylor, examines why working from home might not be the dream we all thought – and how a good leader can help their team adapt.
There’s a phrase I use from time to time: ‘The hamster is dead, but the treadmill is still turning’. It’s a cliché of course – it means everything is moving but there is something rotten at the core – but I like it.
In this case I am referring to working from home. I’m not talking about it in the context of government guidance but more as the unworthy accolade of ‘progress’ that it’s being given. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes and, in my view, dangerous in many ways.
Pre-Covid 7% of the UK workforce worked from home, currently it’s about 40%. Coincidentally that’s the same as the US today. Many thought it would be awesome. After all, commutes are usually only enjoyable (or bearable) if you’re on a near empty train/plane/road. No doubt office politics and a polygraph test would both denote the truth of the contempt you hold for most of the people that work for you and those you work for – especially on bad days. The memories of those days do seem to linger longer than the good ones, don’t they?
I know some of you really do love it. After all, some people enjoy soap carving, making snow globes and tree-shaping as hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with these activities but own the fact you’re in a minority. Before lockdown 60% of all employees reported positive mental health (that’s bad enough), now it’s just 28%. Job satisfaction and job motivation are in the gutter. Increased stress levels and a failure to control work life balance are both growing. I could go on but you’re getting the picture.
For those of you in leadership roles, as I have touched on before, your management style and awareness of people as humans first and work colleagues second has to come to the forefront. It’s hard to get people not to bring their issues to work with them if they spend all day in their pyjama bottoms watching their spouse/partner/child/dog/irritated goldfish glide past them during an already stressful Zoom call – reminding them of whatever domestic issue is needling them.
I have been listening to ‘experts’ pontificate platitudes about how to keep your ‘workforce’ motivated when they are working from home. Things like, ‘reconnect to your vision, challenge them as a team, create a schedule of things to do, set up sharing tools’. My favourite was ‘buy a good quality laptop’. I laughed. Try putting that on your expenses this month.
None of the above is bad, of course. But the truth is we are getting a serious and new schism in the workplace – and we all know there are enough complexities already. Few are as dangerous to our well-being and that of our businesses as working from home. The damage that can be done to the mental health of those employees who don’t relish the isolation and the sound of silence when not on a Zoom or phone call will go far beyond the boundaries of their job and career. Depression doesn’t punch a clock.
For some leaders reading the room is easy, understanding body language is easy and managing people by listening to what they don’t say is also easy. None of these are easy on a computer screen or on a call, invariably shared by others. You don’t want to create work for yourself or hunt down a problem that you can’t detect or see yet, so on you go.
My message this month to those in leadership roles, as we are all ordered to work from home for the second time, is that if you are finding it easy working from home, despite appearances, many of your team will not be. If you are finding it hard, so are many of them. It is not simply something you all have to put up with. You are going to need to act. It’s going to require you to think very hard about where they all are in this crisis from a personal perspective, and how that is impacting their job as a consequence of this new reality. Whether your business is adversely affected or not, the pandemic is swirling around everyone, every day.
There is no one size fits all with this type of approach, no unilateral team building exercises nor tasks to complete. Despite what the experts say, we have never been here before. It’s going to take a tailor-made approach based on your own understanding of your team to make sure that – right under your nose – you are not missing the destruction of the drive and enthusiasm of great people, perhaps not just for your business, but also for just about everything else.
Get more business advice from Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor here.
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