The pandemic has afforded us an opportunity to make a radical step change in our very relationship with work, says Steve Murphy.
Although many workers will have found being furloughed, working remotely or facing changes to their working patterns challenging, many others will find the benefits will be hard to rescind. Few relish a packed commute, rush-hour traffic, overpriced meals or having limited control over one’s working environment.
Employers should focus on three key areas.
1. Structural change
Organisations can use wellbeing standards and certifications, such as WELL, Fitwel and the London Healthy Workplace Award, to ramp up or start implementing changes to design, services and policies to make the office a more attractive place to return to, and enhance employee wellbeing. Examples include:
- Lighting: Install circadian lighting that follows natural rhythms to reduce stress and support healthy sleep patterns, alongside encouraging employees’ exposure to natural morning light.
- Catering: Review catering contracts to ensure healthy and varied meals for workers, and incentivise healthy options. For smaller organisations, quick wins such as complimentary fruit boxes or non-caffeinated drink options have been proved to raise productivity and increase employee satisfaction.
- Biophilia: From potted plants to rooftop gardens consider measures to introduce vitality and shared custodianship into the workplace. Studies have shown that even artificial plants or images of vegetation have the same effect on lowering stress levels.
- Air quality: Although not an inexpensive option, this can have a huge impact on health. Options to improve air quality include increasing fresh air flow rates and improving air filtration, and choosing furniture, fixtures and finishes with reduced VOC levels.
2. Policy change
Structural changes and innovative service offers have to be championed at senior level. For measures to stick, internal policy and employee engagement are needed to support change. The right to flexible working, for example, has been one of the worst kept secrets in the UK, since its legal introduction for parents in 2003 and extension to all workers in 2014.
As a consultant, when I have discussed this issue with organisations’ HR departments, the common approach is to wait to see if any requests are made and act reactively instead of taking an active approach to rolling out policy changes and employee communications highlighting access to – and benefits of – flexible working.
Flexible working was once seen as an exception, an option to accommodate unique individual requirements. The current pandemic has initiated the world’s largest working-from-home experiment and shown that, in many sectors, working remotely and flexibly is feasible at scale.
It is unlikely that people will want to work from home all of the time, but remote working is likely to increase. There will still be a great value in face-to-face interactions and access to workplace facilities, but the need to be physically present to demonstrate value and productivity may well (it is hoped) become a remnant of the past. Offices will still be required, but their purpose will evolve.
3. Cultural change
An outdoor space can be reconfigured for breakout use, lunch breaks and socialising, although staff will be hindered from using it if the workplace culture persists in valuing working through lunch or exclusively holding social activities at the pub after work. Cultural change takes time and consistent effort.
A common mistake I see organisations make is choosing workplace programmes and wellbeing initiatives without employee input; a missed opportunity to gain ideas, understand employee priorities and obtain buy-in – recognising that people are more supportive of an option that they have been involved in choosing.
The current crisis has created uncertainty for all. The human face of work and service delivery must remain at the forefront for employers, operational managers and employees, ensuring that returning to work is not a return to old habits.
Steve Murphy is a senior consultant at JLL, WELL AP and Fitwel Ambassador