How lockdown has freed up working relationships
By Shiv Brunwin, People Director at MullenLowe Group UK
First published by Business Vision, Jan 2021.
Historians often remark that there are decades where nothing happens, and then weeks where decades happen. For businesses of all shapes and sizes, the weeks surrounding March of 2020 felt like exactly this; a moment where decades of change were condensed into a short few weeks.
It was a period of dramatic societal upheaval. Suddenly our lives were thrown into draconian times, locked in our homes, phrases like ‘social distancing’ became part of our daily vernacular and - for many of us - it began an unprecedented period of working from home. Those early days of lockdown, although extremely worrying, confusing and stressful, did have a certain excitement to them. It was novel working in a way which would have been unimaginable just weeks before; we were all in it together, figuring out how to make it work.
When that first lockdown happened, it’s fair to say the majority of us thought it would last a few weeks, maybe a couple of months at a push. Eight months on and here we still are, but there has been a dramatic shift in the changing relationship between employer and employee since we left our offices back in March. For many people, although they have been apart physically from their teams, they feel closer to their colleagues than ever before. As the lines between ‘work’ and ‘home’ blur, so do the lines between ‘boss’ and ‘friend’.
Lockdown has evolved the relationships managers have with their employees. A recent survey from Cigna Europe revealed that nine in 10 Brits say they have become closer with workmates during lockdown, and 82% of respondents said that their workplace relationship with their boss had improved over the pandemic. In 2020, the idea of a ‘work’ and ‘home’ persona has all merged into one as we have developed a much intimate knowledge of each other's lives outside work.
The improvement in the employee/manager relationship must be driven by the clear shift in trust. Through the pandemic, managers have had to evolve from a ‘micro’, hands-on management style, to having to sit back and trust their teams. Without the parameters of physically seeing your team, you have had to move to measuring your team’s output on productivity rather than presentism.
For some, they have actually had more facetime with their boss over the pandemic as we have all shifted our focus to more regularly checking in on people. You might have normally spent hours sitting opposite someone but engrossed in emails and spreadsheets - not spending any quality time with them. Now, those 1-2-1 meetings on Zoom and the like force us to have better, deeper conversations.
However, not everyone is feeling closer to their work mates. The long-term impacts of endless screentime and not being in a physical space with colleagues has seen loneliness spike. Research by Total Jobs found that over half (46%) of UK workers have experienced loneliness during lockdown; this rises to 73% among younger workers. The lack of social interaction, especially for those who have started new jobs completely virtually during this weird and confusing time, has meant it's been difficult to form friendships at work. I for one long for those impromptu conversations that working together in an office gives you, bumping into someone while making a cup of tea and having that delicious sort of random, comforting office chat that used to permeate our working day. End of week virtual drinks, although fun and a lovely way to end a week, do not compare to the buzz of a busy office on a Friday full of people winding down for the weekend.
There has rightly been a focus on the future of the office, and much debate on whether we ever need to go back to them at all. However, it isn’t just the traditional office structure that has been questioned or changed during this time - it's how we are working together. How can we continue to nurture our working relationships through screens? Will we become so used to working virtually that the thought of having to deal with our teams face to face will make us feel uncomfortable? We need to continue to focus our energies into embracing a more trusting, people-first approach. Change that might’ve taken years has taken weeks - and as we progress further into the ‘new normal’ we need to make sure these new habits of management don’t get lost.