Building a vibrant corporate culture has long been a top priority for any business seeking durable success. But after a year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant disruptions, more and more organisations are turning their focus towards how they can prevent the outbreak of office culture wars.
This much is clear: The status quo isn’t coming back. A recent YouGov survey revealed that 75 per cent of UK office workers whose roles allow for remote work prefer permanent hybrid work, while fewer than one in 10 favour a return to full-time compulsory office attendance.
Businesses are now grappling with how to avoid hardened divides between employees who prefer to continue working remotely and those eagerly returning to the office. Even among the latter, the persistence of the pandemic presents pressing challenges to the camaraderie and warmth that organisations have traditionally sought to sustain. YouGov found 58 per cent of people support continued social distancing in their workplaces, against only 19 per cent who oppose it, while 49 per cent favour indoor masking requirements, with 28 per cent opposed. The same divides that have plagued the wider society over these questions are inevitably seeping into workplace conversations.
For decision-makers, there’s no getting around the responsibility to make the tough judgment calls on these issues. Will they require all employees to be vaccinated? Can unvaccinated employees return to the office provided they’ve been tested and wear masks? Should the fully vaccinated also wear face coverings in closed spaces? Will policies be company-wide or segmented by department? Will employees who are uncomfortable with whatever decisions the company makes be given the option to keep working from home?
In weighing these questions, there are several demographic factors for decision-makers to consider. The YouGov survey found that the older an employee is, the more cautious and supportive of masking and social distancing requirements they tend to be. For instance, 58 per cent of employees aged 55 and older want to keep masks, a view shared by only 44 per cent of those aged 25 to 34. And given that women have largely borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s burden – juggling work, childcare, remote learning, and more, prompting many of them to reconsider their career options – companies should strive to ensure that whatever policies they formulate are fair and equitable regardless of gender, lest they bleed top talent.
Companies hoping that they can skirt these hard choices and simply count on government advice to do their work for them are bound to be disappointed. Public guidance has frequently been vague or generic, leaving individual businesses to fill in the blanks themselves in a manner that best suits their particular needs.
Flexibility and understanding must be at the core of the employer’s response. For the duration of the pandemic, a sizeable chunk of employees will continue to be fervent advocates of strict Covid-19 protocols, whereas others will be much more inclined, particularly post-vaccinations, to embrace as much of a return to normal as possible.
Workplace conflict is nothing new. It requires constant effort to foster collaboration and harmony amongst a diverse group of people.
Some offices will find that their workers’ views heavily skew one way; others will be much more closely divided. Regardless, businesses should broach these subjects in sensitive, sensible, and appropriately risk-adjusted conversations. It is also crucial to show that this commitment to employee health is not just a performance. The truly successful companies genuinely support all aspects of their employees’ wellbeing in a holistic and proactive way. This shows employees that the company is serious about wanting the best for their people, and is not just putting in restrictions as a tickbox compliance exercise.
‘Freedom Day’ has come and gone, and many UK employees are seeing the inside of an office at least a few times a week. Yet even as society opens, Covid-19 and the protocols surrounding have hardly been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Accordingly, businesses should plan for a future in which employees’ personal sense of wellbeing is a much greater priority in their choice of where – and how – to work. Employers who don’t approach these issues with empathy and understanding risk a breakdown of corporate culture and losing out on talent.
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