Back to the office? Claire Singers on the case for blended working

Claire Singers

As the biz contemplates returning to the office after a protracted lockdown, does its approach to working practices need to change? Executive coach and diversity consultant Claire Singers argues the case for blended working…

It took a global pandemic to achieve a revolution in working practice, where working from home became a reality for everyone in the music industry, an industry that was largely resistant to remote working. 

On lockdown day, the switch flipped, from working in the office five days a week to working at home five days a week. Now is the time to agree what re-entry and recovery look like in the ‘new normal’ – and it’s pointing towards a blended working world.

It has been established beyond any doubt that people can work at home productively and it’s very unlikely that things will return to how they were, social distancing will see to that. Companies are now contemplating how to return to their offices, and what this might look like. A slew of employee surveys are saying that the majority of people want a blended working life, such as two days in the office and three days at home, cancelling out the negatives of each arrangement and reaping the benefits of both. Office time is for collaboration and innovation, social interaction, sharing water cooler moments, while home time is for implementation and the ‘doing’.

It has been established beyond any doubt that people can work at home productively

Claire Singers

“At the beginning of lockdown I found my life/work balance got worse, I couldn’t switch off, I was even using the time saved commuting doing more work, and then I realised that I needed a structure with timed breaks,” said one publishing CEO that I spoke to as part of my research. “I encouraged my team to do the same: none of us will ever return to an office five days a week, but all of us want split weeks.” Everyone’s experience of working at home during lockdown was different but almost everyone wants to pivot to a new working reality, and for many that means less international travel. One CEO said that last year he flew to the States 18 times, often just to “kiss the ring of an artist”, and concluded what a huge waste of time that was, to say nothing of the environmental impact.

“Back to back Zoom meetings left me feeling drained,” said one director of digital marketing. “The focus required looking at faces on screens is way more intense that when we’re all together in a room. I’ve started mixing it up more, using email and phone calls… The latter unshackled me from the desk.”

“For the first time since we had kids, I felt that we were genuinely co-parenting and that my job was just as important as his,” said one group account director. “The home schooling was tough but being locked down together gave us the family time we were both missing out on”. 

So, what are the rules of engagement for creating a blended working life? Firstly, carry out an employee survey asking how they want to work and what their concerns are about safety. 

Then create a written policy for working split weeks and seek consultation. The suddenness of lockdown meant most companies were making it up as they went along with no guidelines on how to reshape working lives. In many cases, the command and control management style asserted itself in the virtual world by scheduling interminable Zoom meetings, and then there was the case of the company quiz scheduled for 4.30pm on a Friday and an instruction to keep the webcam on at all times. This form of micro-managing tells staff, ‘We don’t trust you’, and it should be eradicated in a thought-through blended working policy. Such a policy can include supporting staff to manage life/work balance, and how to disconnect in the work from home environment. 

You should create a clear plan on the logistics of returning safely to the office. Staff have experienced the pandemic in different ways with some more nervous than others about commuting to the office. Ensure line managers continue to check-in with staff about their mental health, there may be changes caused by the uncertainty of ‘re-entry’ and the approach of autumn and winter. 

You could move to asynchronous work and away from synchronous work, meaning working to their own time schedules and focusing on outcomes rather than monitoring activities. Some work better at night while others prefer early morning starts and a break in the day. The pandemic has shown that we don’t all have to work in sync.

Leaders need to show the way and continue with either all-remote or blended work, their staff will mirror their behaviour. Those line managers that are great at empathy and empowering their staff, will thrive in a split working structure.

For people to adapt to the new normal, they need inspirational leadership and clear communication on what the future holds for them and the organisation. It’s time for leaders to embrace the new working reality and create a unified culture in a blended working world.

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