As we continue to look at getting back to work, our guest writers this week ask the question, "Has the pandemic fundamentally altered people’s attitude to work?" 

The dynamics of getting people back to work into offices, shops and factories is now high on the political agenda. The challenges seem particularly acute in the UK as we seem to be more reluctant to return to our previous normality than many of our international comparators. Nevertheless, the economic consequences of not doing so are self-evident. There is already a huge bill to be paid by future generations. Further delay can only make a bad situation much worse. 

Talking to companies and employees over recent weeks has highlighted the complexities here. It would seem that there is now a recognition that the extended furlough/home working has affected how people regard the workplace and created divisions between those able to take advantage of the government’s generosity and those that weren’t.

Westfield Health report that: 

-35% of those interviewed believe that furloughed workers have less to worry about 

-66% of furloughed parents and 56% of all furloughed workers report a negative impact on mental health 

-51% of workers at home believe that their colleagues are doing less than they say they are  

-Less than a third of employees wanted to return to work at the time interviewed  

-28% want more support from their employers 

Getting employees back into the Pre Covid routines is not going to be without challenges. As a nation, we already had massive problems on attaining an internationally standard of competitiveness. It has been suggested that the ambience in many British workplaces, characterised by a generally impersonal approach at best by the majority of managers and by an adversarial stance by many others, has led to unhealthy dependent/entitlement attitudes. Perhaps aggravated by the political/social systems which have prevailed in the UK over many decades, we may now face an even more difficult challenge in creating world class workforces. The decline in British manufacturing in the 60s and 70s probably had this at its core. A reactive workforce is never going to be competitive in the longer term. 

What has worried myself and others over the past month or so seems to be an emerging impression that many leaders, particularly in the SME sector, view the resolution to the consequences of the pandemic to be a more directive, controlling role for them. They see the route forward as taking a tight grip on the organisation in the "don’t do I as do, do as I say" fashion. Such an approach may make the leader feel a bit better about themselves but it is not going to do a lot for the workforce. The juxtaposition of a worried and confused workforce with a driven and impersonal management style may be a recipe for further inefficiencies. Add the chaos that is Brexit into the mix alongside the need to eventually pull back the costs of Covid, and the outcome could be more retrenchment. 

What is the solution? Well, naturally I would say embracing wholeheartedly a focused approach to employee engagement. My co-author, Philip, would argue that this has to be done holistically, embracing physical and mental health in order to meet the "what’s in it for me?" motivational question. However, we would say this as we are both evangelical about a more people-centric approach. Nevertheless, even allowing for our natural biases, we would strongly urge management to recognise that this time it is different and the challenges more complicated. 

At the very least, accept that employee engagement is not at all about soft, social engineering. It is hard and demanding. I remember one manufacturing director ruefully reflecting on the first two years of adapting to this approach and musing about the paradox that he had sacked more employees over that period than ever before. He concluded that with an autocratic approach, the workforce will resist any action to discipline carried out by management and provide a good excuse for the latter to back off. With this more engaging style, the team would demand action on individuals seen to be wilfully undermining their efforts. Managing poor performance is a rare skill but increasingly necessary. 

Life post Covid is going to be difficult. Perhaps healthy, people centric leadership is the best bet you have. 

Professor John J Oliver OBE and Philip Dyer (Healthy Leaders) 




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