Start again

A recent study from the UK on the impact of COVID-19 reveals that only 1% of respondents intend to return to the office full time. Now, you might be of the view that this has nothing to do with the African workplace. But I think you’d be wrong, especially when it comes to service industries.

And wrong also in thinking that modern African employee attitudes are very different from those anywhere else in the world. Why would they be, with ubiquitous access to what the rest of the world is thinking about every minute of every day?

As we used to say in advertising, by all means, underestimate consumers’ experience but never underestimate their intelligence. The world of work, in many sectors of our economy, will experience a profound change in the coming months and years. All those people who woke early to commute far, work long hours in environments they didn’t really enjoy, then commute home late into the evening. They are going to force the change and employers will have little say in the matter. Unless of course, they act first.

So let’s focus on the big issue here. It isn’t really the obsolescence of formal office premises. That’s just a symptom and many employers who have been paying unreasonable commercial rents for half a century should explore the alternatives with good cheer.

The big issue is this: companies are social constructs. Each represents a tacit agreement between employees and employers to join together in an enterprise. That they will follow an agreed direction, and collaborate to make agreed outcomes happen. Woven around that are all manner of customs, artefacts, signature behaviours and informal support networks.

While technology will ensure that we can talk to each other and share information, what it cannot do is preserve or enhance social interaction. While in the short term it is improving productivity – measured in terms of task completion – how good will it be for the long term? How will employees develop the stamina for endless virtual encounters wherein it’s impossible to pick up facial signals and body language?

The UK survey gives us an interesting insight.  Most employees are not making use of the four kinds of support their employers have rushed to provide. Social support (only 25%), home office support (23%), financial support (16%) and legal support (11%). Instead, employees are turning to one another with 45% saying their most effective support was from co-workers. Only 18% claimed that support from leaders and managers was effective.

So, employees denied the comfort of social interaction are turning away from established hierarchies. Now, there’s a challenge for business leaders that dwarfs any Millennial issue.