Anna Roberts, Founder of Dubai-based Achievher—a premium digital coaching and mentoring space for high performing women—Performance & Communication coach and award-winning TV and Radio show host, shares her insights with Katrina Kufer on reassimilating into a work environment post-COVID-19, drawing on a background in helping professionals overcome fear and build confidence by empowering them with strategic communication tools.
The global COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously illuminated strengths and weaknesses in the way that people work and communicate professionally. Though some corporations are reverting to traditional modes as “normal” rhythms resume, others are feeling the long-term effects of working-from-home. As of this year, 16% of companies worldwide are 100% remote, such as Spotify. Many tech giants are pioneering the permanent adoption of remote or hybridized models, including Safesforce, Facebook, Google and Amazon. Part of the evolution may be attributed to the additional expenses needed to reopen offices, the legal liabilities surrounding health considerations and risks, as well as the redesigns necessary to ensure new realities like social distancing.
However, it is also symptomatic of adopting more employee-centric approaches. An estimated 77% of remote workers say they are more productive from home and express a healthier and more satisfying work-life balance. Flexible work circumstances have been in play well before the pandemic—countries like Sweden, New Zealand and Japan have experimented with shorter work days and/or weeks—however the post-COVID-19 landscape has seen a broader, more involved re-evaluation of how people want to work, and how they work best.
But in adopting a more human-centric approach, has an inadvertent widening of a distinct division between types of employees emerged? Some individuals may be keen to return to work as they operate best in person , while others might experience a harder time mentally readapting to a structured environment inconducive to their personal energy, productivity and time management skills. While 44% of companies refuse to allow remote work, COVID has highlighted that the professional rhythm is not “one size fits all”. A potential point of contention between employees and corporations, it seems, however, that increasing numbers of employers are open to new models, thereby giving more voice to those they employ.
"Where and how are you happiest doing work?"
KK: What are the biggest challenges—mentally and/or physically—of returning to a traditional workspace?
AR: Disruption is something that continues to dominate our day to day lives; be that cities or countries that are moving through different levels of lockdown at the moment, such as Australia or New Zealand, or that we may be forced to isolate when we come into contact with someone who has tested positive. These fluid and ever changing situations that we find ourselves in prime us to be in constant state of flux; reacting to challenges and changes constantly. How do we deal with this disruption? It requires bigger responsibility and accountability on ourselves to be able to control what we can control, and release and respond to the changing dynamics of our new world. This means that work or situations in your professional life might be dictated by say Global HQ or the city you live in but you decide on your health, your habits, your sleep, your energy. We now have to advocate for ourselves, and the impact we can make within our organization. Equally, organizations need to recognize the changing role of business in the post covid world and what the future of their industry might look like. I think a great exercise to go through with managers and their team is to talk through what this transition might look like and ask; how do we make this a safe environment for everyone? What challenges and opportunities come to mind? Where and how are you happiest doing work?
Some want to return as soon as possible, perhaps challenged by trying to work at home with kids or missing the socialisation aspect. Is the eagerness to jump back in too abrupt? How can we stop being overwhelmed by re-assimilation into traditional workspaces and modes and what can help us transition successfully?
This all boils down to choice and autonomy, both of which have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The next step is to understand the expectations between employee and employer. Successful transitions require clear communication of expectations, responsibilities and accountability. We may have more time now to integrate back into working from the office, but it will still take a period of adjustment and insights into our own strengths and challenges to successfully manage. A quick way to work through overwhelm is to ask yourself what is the source of overwhelm, how can I better manage my time or delegation amongst myself and my colleagues and what assumptions do I need to challenge to learn and grow from this situation?
Has the shift towards remote work highlighted that the “tried-and-true” method of office life is outdated in a current reality and lifestyle that is inherently and increasingly more digital and globalised?
I actually think we need to examine the time period prior to COVID when digitization and the advent of email came into our working life. While we might be working from home, we cannot and should not replicate what office life was when we are at home. We need to explore new systems and ways of communicating when we are working remotely, to be able to balance digital life with “in real life”. For many pre-COVID, office life—the physical setup, the commute, the noise and the impact on deep work within the knowledge economy—wasn’t working well, and to go from one extreme to the other isn’t a solution either. We need to recognize that with a new business environment we need to create new ways to address the needs of our employees and our customers. When we look at the structure of digital meetings it’s important to assign expectations, to check in with the team, and to give them an overview of the agenda before beginning. This is key for team members who are then able to prepare their contribution and not be blindsided.
How about in relation to countries or tech giants that have shortened the work week, work hours and/or granted a permanent remote work set-up?
I think they’ve been able to really see how they can balance profits and people. We know there has been a fundamental shift in business versus government trust, and businesses pre-COVID were expected to operate to the benefit not only of shareholders but also for their employees. Now as we enter a new era of work, pioneers and champions are now leading in the future of work and are an example for others. I hope we see a shift here in the region for a more employee-centric way of doing business, and in turn government leading by example in terms of regulations and in how to operate to maximize people and profits.
In what way do you think quarantine and working from home has impacted our method of and ability and willingness to communicate?
We’ve seen examples of overcommunication in order to be seen working, as well as introverts who struggle with speaking up and being seen and heard on video conferences. When we look at communication, and how we can communicate efficiently, we need to understand what we’re trying to communicate and who we’re trying to communicate with. New methods to communicate might be used, but are they the most efficient? Are we better off 1:1 rather than group calls? I think it’s up to the individual employee to really take charge of their communication approach and develop their unique style.
Humans are social, but we had to spend the last while in relative isolation, where the biggest challenges reported were ability to “unplug” after hours (22%), loneliness (19%), and communication and collaboration (17%). How will that impact mental health in the long run? Is it something that will make people stronger and more adaptable, or has it been a period of extreme stress/trauma which will instead require recovery?
The pandemic has brought about a new error of humanizing our working relationships and shedding light on mental health issues. While we may have collectively faced lockdown and quarantine, we’ve all had different experiences of what that was like across socio-economic classes, industries, gender and geographically. Firstly, recognizing that we experienced something as disruptive as COVID-19 is a simple way of being kind to ourselves. Secondly, seeing what we’ve learnt in this time, how we’ve grown and how that may have changed our value system is also key. We also need to examine how we are dealing with stressors in our life and working through this to heal and recover. For many industries we’ve been able to connect in a more personal way with colleagues and associates by getting a glimpse into their lives at home.
About The Editor
Katrina – arts, culture and lifestyle writer and editor (BFA Fine Arts, Parsons the New School for Design; MA Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) – has lived in 16 countries and written for a multitude of prestigious publications in the MENA region. Based in Dubai, Kufer is interested in observing new environments and exploring cross and inter-cultural connections.