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No one wants to return to the workplace they left

By | 01/06/2020 in Blog posts

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The workplace as we knew it no longer exists, putting the onus on boards to think about how people want to work going forward

If the past few months have proven anything, it’s that employees working from home has been a success. So much so that major tech companies say they are open to their staff working from home permanently.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister has suggested a four-day week to help boost the economy, after seeing the productivity that can be driven out of people working flexibly from home. While, a UK financial services firm has found that 87% of their people now want to stay working from home, 75% of the time.

Under normal circumstances, it would take decades, if not generations, to make such a radical shift in the way that we work. But with previous concerns that people can’t be productive at home proving invalid, the workforce is challenging the old order and wants to shift the balance towards fitting work around their lives, instead of their lives around work.

All of which puts the onus on boards to challenge the executive to support this shift in working, in a way that continues to optimise how people work and how productive and motivated they are.

Building back better
Just because people have been able to work effectively and productively from home, doesn’t mean they are working as well as they could be. For example, systems designed by IT professionals might work on a practical level, by allowing people to share documents they’re working on, but are these systems and new working practices facilitating team working, innovation, creativity and healthy working practices?

Similarly, while virtual meetings via platforms such as Teams and Zoom have proved surprisingly effective, what happens when some people return to work, while others continue to work from home. Will remote participants still have an equal chance to contribute to the meeting? Or will the powerbase shift back towards those sitting together in a room, as it often did before the lockdown?

For the new world of work to be effective, boards will need to challenge the executive to think about Building Back Better – the UN’s term for coming out of a crisis in a way that improves on what’s gone before.

The issues that undermined people’s effectiveness at work before, be they overwork or blame cultures, poor management practices or a lack of sight between people’s individual objectives and the businesses overall goals, are unlikely to have disappeared. So how can the new ways of working emerging be improved upon even further to address these also.

Compassionate leadership
Unlike some political leaders and advisors we could mention, trust in business leaders has been noticeably enhanced by the crisis. The financial crisis affected people very disproportionately, whereas the coronavirus epidemic, at least in the first wave, has genuinely impacted everyone in some way.

There has been a sense of everyone being ‘in this together’ which has led to a much more empathetic response from leaders, with them telling people to ‘take care of yourself’ and ‘think of your family first’ which was sadly lacking with the rise of zero hours contracts and precarious working conditions gathering momentum before the crisis.

How well the new ways of working evolve will be very much dependent on business leaders sustaining that newfound trust from employees, which will in turn be dependent on whether or not the old problems of corporate greed or putting organisational interests ahead of people return to the fore. Boards are going to have to make hard decisions about how best to weather the impending recession but the importance of having an engaged, productive and committed workforce isn’t to be underestimated when it comes to thinking about how best to achieve this recovery.

Leading by example
Boards work best when they meet the reality of life. For example, a director faced with his or her home flooding due to global warming will naturally be much more committed to tackling environmental risks than someone who has no first-hand experience of this.

Similarly, for boards to effectively lead a new shift towards as many as three quarters of employees working flexibly, and mostly from home. They must also continue to work in this way to see how it can be made most effective. Not least by resisting the temptation to immediately start holding all board meetings in person again, instead of first defining and reflecting on what could be working better and looking into other ways of making this happen first.

This can be supported by doing a deep dive into how they handled the crisis, focused not only on what worked well and what didn’t, but also how the board worked together. Because, the other thing proved by the months spent in lockdown, is that we are all still very dependent on one another. So, how well we can continue to work together and bring out the best in each other will define both how well we exit the crisis and how creative and agile we can be in how we move forward.


Alison Gill is a behavioural psychologist, triple Olympian and the co-founder of Bvalco, a board evaluation consultancy focused on helping boards become fit for the future.

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