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The inconvenient truth about the future of work

September 24, 2020
Andy Yates

The way we work together is never going to be the same again - so we have started an open conversation now about what this really means going forwards for ourselves, our colleagues and our business lives.

When we started lockdown there was a collective sense of shock and our survival instincts kicked in - on a personal level first and then rapidly across the business world. Fear and anxiety drove short term decisions and actions, as we scrambled to make sense of a world around us that was changing every day, even every hour. 

But underlying that initial fear and anxiety was a feeling that eventually things would get back to the way they were. That however painful this cruel crisis was, this was a pause button and eventually we could hit play again 

However, as we finally start to prepare to slowly, tentatively, (whisper it quietly) - exit lockdown, there is a different mood music playing. Reality has turned on its head in a few weeks.

A 'new normal' of working is here to stay and all businesses will have to play to its tune.

The way we connect and engage with colleagues will be very different for the foreseeable future. Colliers International are predicting eight million UK workers will be unable to return to the office when lockdown is lifted, CBRE predicts offices will remain half empty for a year at least. Business travel is likely to be decimated, with airlines predicting pre-crisis traffic levels not expected to return for years, if ever. This new normal marks a fundamental shift in the way that colleagues will need to engage with each other.

At New Wave Learning we have already held a series of key focus groups (and consumed gallons of virtual coffees over the last few weeks) with senior learning and development experts and professionals who together help support many tens of thousands of staff across the UK. Important insights have emerged from our conversations that have highlighted key immediate challenges that the new normal presents to the future of work. We wanted to share these with you, as overcoming these challenges is far more important than just putting traditional learning resources or presentations online and hoping for the best. Virtual resources on their own are virtually useless. It is out with the old and in with the new when it comes to how we need to communicate in our business lives.

From our focus groups, it is clear that whilst digital is the new norm, human interaction has never been more important to help colleagues not just survive, but thrive. We have lost the chance to natter over a cup of tea, to share ideas, to catch up, to bond, to support, to talk - in short, to be human with each other. Work has become far more transactional on video conferences. Focused on business projects, outcome and intelligence, not on emotional intelligence. 

How to ask the right questions, how to actively listen and motivate in a digital setting, how to help colleagues, team and clients feel secure, inspired and motivated when you can't meet them face to face are some of the fundamental new skills needed for the new normal. Good communication and conversations have never been more important. In other words, however counter-intuitive this may first sound, being human and communicating in a human way can be a work super power in a brave new world of digital first business.

Our focus groups have also identified a real challenge around how best to lead others and bring them along with you, especially when face to face contact will be at a premium for the foreseeable future. There are real concerns managers are now just focusing on the facts, turning to micro-management and missing out on crucial human interaction that could support teams and individuals when they need it most. For many managers it feels unnatural to have supportive or personal conversations via the inherently impersonal medium of a virtual engagement. How to have courageous and difficult conversations, give constructive feedback, really motivate and engage without personal day-to-day contact with a team is a leadership conundrum that has to be answered.

Finally the new normal is likely to breed uncertainty for some time. Some colleagues may be able to come into work, others will still have to work from home, people will be lost, teams re-organised, corporate structures torn down and rebuilt. Team re-skilling, employee wellbeing and empathetic change management will be key areas of focus. Bringing people with you is the key to making the difficult journey ahead as smooth as possible.

The world of work will never be the same again and nor will the way that we have to engage and connect with colleagues, our teams and with leaders. The new normal is anything but normal and the conversation and communication needs to start now. We all have to face the music.

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