Whilst hybrid, remote and activity-based work saw their beginnings in a pre-COVID-19 world, these ways of work have gained momentum, with the pandemic a key catalyst to their accelerated adoption in workplaces across the world. The impacts on workplace culture have been far reaching.
Mounting crises, doomscrolling and altered work arrangements: a perfect storm for workplace culture and mental wellbeing
It has been some time since Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern’s conceptual introduction to the “polycrisis” in 1999. In his later work ‘On Complexity’ in 2008, Morin put forward that humanity exists within a network of systems that are interlocked, so that a crisis in one would generate crises in all others. Fast forward to 2022 and an evolution of the term, “permacrisis” no longer needed explanation. Indeed, it became the Collins Dictionary word of the year.
One may be challenged to find a more fitting illustration of either the former or the latter term, than the complex and ever evolving tapestry of geopolitical, climatic, and macroeconomic crises we see unfolding around us today.
The mental burden of the state of the world is weighing heavy on the minds of employees, particularly with the advent of doomscrolling. Overloaded by bad news, what once made us anxious, now makes many numb and disengaged.
With significant shifts in the world at large and the way we are interacting within it, it is little wonder then, that the dynamics of the workplace have shifted. Work has changed not only in response to actions that were arguably necessitated by the pandemic, but also because we have changed collectively.
Workplace culture or the culture of work?
As workplace cultures have changed across our organisations, so too has the culture of work. There has been an evolution in the way employees view work, with eyes wide open to the true capacity of their employers to enable flexible and hybrid work.
For many organisations, hybrid and remote work along with variations thereof, have become standard. As far as employees are concerned, there are clear and undeniable benefits of which to speak. The time gained from avoiding a commute to repurpose for a walk, precious extra minutes of sleep, time with family, or perhaps the knowledge that dear Fido will have some company at home during office hours, cannot be ignored.
It is worth reflecting on what’s been lost as we have redefined what, “being at work” looks like.
Work as place
Traditionally, workplaces have served employees as more than venues in which tasks are completed. They were hubs of unstructured incidental social interaction, collaboration, and innovation. Water cooler banter, spontaneous brainstorming sessions and coffee breaks with co-workers contributed to the complex and intangible fabric of workplace culture.
Now, organic interactions have become increasingly scarce, their lack posing a serious threat to the social cohesion that once defined workplaces, workforce wellbeing and bottom-line performance. A largely hybrid and remote workforce has brought to light the absolute human need for in-person connection and how this extends to the professional sphere.
Hot desks, activity-based work, lockers, and office “neighbourhoods” have further gained momentum, as part-solutions of sorts. Many organisations have hoped that by creating flexible work environments suited to specific tasks, employees will be motivated to attend the office more regularly. This would, in theory create opportunities to connect and bond over the work itself.
Lost connections: No employee is an island – the challenges with flexible work environments
By its very nature, activity-based working, with its emphasis on discrete tasks, can foster a sense of detachment from the workplace as a place of belonging. It can jeopardise interpersonal connection and act to weaken the bonds that form the foundations of a cohesive team.
In their 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review, ‘The Truth About Open Offices: There are reasons why they don’t produce the desired interactions’, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber point to evidence suggesting that whilst structures for omnichannel collaboration have spread, they are producing less meaningful interaction.
When the authors conducted research tracking employee face-to-face and digital interactions at the headquarters of two Fortune 500 firms before and after they transitioned from cubicles to open offices, they found a 70% fall in face-to-face interactions when the switch to open offices was made.
Human connection is not merely a nice-to-have; it is a fundamental need that influences employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention. Those working the 9-5 physically alone in a retrofitted office-bedroom are living a reality in which they are, in the truest terms, very much alone for the better part of their week. Aloneness is amplified and can lead to loneliness if it stretches across into the private life of employees.
Overshadowed by the loud voices of those benefiting from these new ways of work, we must acknowledge and safeguard those who are quietly struggling with such workplace arrangements. Those living alone who also have limited social connection outside of work, along with those who live in remote and isolated areas may be particularly vulnerable.
Due to the shame associated with loneliness, there is likely to be some reluctance on behalf of employees to share if/when they are experiencing it. Impacts to the workforce may therefore be underestimated.
Like other psychosocial hazards, remote and isolated work are psychosocial hazards that organisations must actively manage. For more on the management of psychosocial hazards in the workplace, see here.
Belonging as a prerequisite for good teaming
Organisations must recognise that fostering a sense of belonging is not a consequence of successful teamwork but rather, a prerequisite for it. When employees feel connected to their colleagues and the broader organisational purpose, values and mission, they are more likely to collaborate effectively, have opportunities to share their knowledge, and contribute to innovation.
Whilst there is no one-size-fits all solution, organisations are increasingly recognising the need to counteract the impacts of separateness with intentionality to enable their workforces to build and maintain human connections and relationships.
Leaders as the Integrators
The role of leaders is frequently emphasised within the context of organisational improvement. In creating human connectivity and meaning, leaders play a pivotal role in addressing the need for human connection and shaping what it looks like within the context of their own workforce. Indeed, when consulting with our clients, we have learned that leaders can hold the key to meaningful interpersonal connection. Leaders set the tone through the prioritisation of interpersonal connection though the way they model behaviours, set agendas, provide time and opportunity for connectivity, and create the space for employees to engage in meaningful conversation to discuss ideas that are important to them.
Technology as an enabler of positive workplace culture
Technology can help counteract the transactional nature of task-based work in several ways. App based platforms such as Vitality Hub, designed with the gamification of wellbeing initiatives in mind, can be utilised to facilitate team activities, group wellbeing challenges and overall help humanise digital interactions by connecting employees to a shared purpose beyond the work-related tasks which they are assigned.
One of the antidotes to isolation is building collective purpose. Technology platforms that foster and harness this idea will enable teams to thrive once more. Human relationships and connections are analogue constructs, but their enablement will likely be, at least in part, digital.
Over recent years the complex landscape of the working world has evolved, in part because the world at large and the way employees are engaging with it has changed. Hybrid, remote and activity-based work have become the norm at many organisations. There have been many valuable benefits reaped by employees. Some of these have however, come at a cost to connection, innovation, and the wellbeing of certain vulnerable workers. Remote and isolated work is a psychosocial hazard which may be going unchecked by organisations from the point of view of hybrid and remote work. The challenges are complex. Leaders can rise to meet these challenges by prioritising and creating opportunities for interpersonal connection beyond task-based interactions. Whilst technology cannot replace the fundamental human need for connection, human relationships can be encouraged and enabled digitally. Organisations will need to navigate the complexity in ways that are fit for purpose to meet the needs of their own workforces to create a safe, healthy and positive workplace culture for all.