The last year and half of the pandemic has changed the nature of the workplace for many years to come. We have experienced a massive health crisis, enforced remote working, job losses, profound global changes (eg turmoil in the EU with British withdrawal, conflict between China and the West, soaring energy prices, concerns about future pandemics, etc.), and the beginnings of another major recession as governments withdraw support from businesses as the global vaccine programme begins to weaken the pandemic. The good news is that this has allowed us to reflect on the fundamentals of the workplace; about hybrid working, the role of the line manager, the length of the working work, how technology might transform the way we work, etc.
Flexible or hybrid working has been on the agenda of many organisations over the last decade (Norgate & Cooper, 2020; O’Meara & Cooper, 2022), but the pandemic has accelerated this process, and the future for many, except those who have to be at the ‘coal face’ of the office, will mean working substantially from home, returning to the central office when needed for team building, the development of new products and services, and to socialise with colleagues. This will have a profound effect on the role of the line manager, who will have to manage people, some of whom will be ‘in the office’ while others will be ‘working from home’. We will need line managers who have well-developed social and interpersonal skills to manage a flexible workforce, individuals who can team-build in this hybrid model but also who can ensure that their direct reports have manageable workloads, realistic deadlines, are not overloaded and are coping with the intense pressures of the business recovery.
Pre-Covid, the UK government’s Health & Safety Executive reported that 57% of all long-term sickness absence was for stress, anxiety and depression. During the pandemic, the Office of National Statistics reported even higher levels of anxiety and depression (63%) in their large national wellbeing survey. These workplace manifestations alone with have a profound effect on the role of the line manager going forward. Not only in line managers needing to manage hybrid teams of subordinates, to team build, provide a sense of purpose and communal goals but also in being able to recognise when their direct reports aren’t coping or showing signs of stress when they are working substantially from home. Unfortunately, most businesses promote and recruit managers based on their technical skills not their people skills. So, until we promote and recruit people for managerial roles in the future, where there is parity between their technical and people skills, we will continue to see less effective team building, lower productivity and more stress-related ill health. As Mark Twain once wrote “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”. In the meantime, what do we do about the existing pool of line managers to enhance their social skills in the short-term.
First, organisations ought to be doing audits of all their line managers, from shopfloor to top floor, on their empathic and emotional intelligence, providing training for those with low levels of social skills. In any case, HR usually knows where the proverbial ‘bodies lies’, that is, which leaders are not as effective given their poor people-management skills. Second, HR needs to re-configure their assessment processes to find a way to ensure parity between an individual’s social and technical skills when promoting or recruiting line managers. And finally, business schools need to go back to the 1970s and consider T-group and experiential training for all those doing management degrees and MBAs, instead of being exclusively ‘cognitive input machines’! Managers ultimately need to manage human beings! Knowledge about HR, OB, accounting/finance, marketing, economics, etc is part of the managerial learning process, but where in the curriculum does it get ‘personal,’ where individuals discover more about themselves and how they are seen by others in their interactions–so that they can manage a flexible workforce more effectively, are aware of when people are not coping, know how to psychologically motivate their teams, become better listeners, become more collaborative rather than command and control figureheads. At the moment, my own view is that business schools are doing only half their job, ignoring a vital aspect of people management, being a human being! Lao Tzu of Taoism wrote, “a leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say ‘we did it ourselves’”.
We also need to consider what will happen when furloughing and government support for businesses (eg re-introduction of business rates, loses of direct government loans, etc.) will disappear, as we enter the post-Covid era. It is predicted to lead to a major recession, leading to large-scale job loss and intrinsic job insecurity for the ‘job survivors’, and it may be many years before recovery will lead to economic growth at pre-Covid levels. The health and wellbeing of employees in all sectors will be at high risk of stress, and senior management will need to ensure that line managers, from the shopfloor to the top floor, get training to develop their emotional intelligence (EQ) and social skills to enable them to support their staff, and look after their own health (Bevan & Cooper, 2021).
The real challenge for senior management in the private and public sectors will be to create wellbeing cultures which retain and support their staff during these difficult times. If ever there was a need for health and wellbeing professionals, counsellors via employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and other support staff (eg. Mental health first aiders), it will be over the next few years. This is a great opportunity for HR, occupational health, workplace psychologists and other caring professionals to embrace these challenges and support employees and organisations who need help and solace. This is particularly important for small and medium-sized businesses, the charity sector and various parts of the public sector, where HR and occupational health infrastructure is almost non-existent.
There is a growing movement toward a strategic approach to workplace wellbeing rather than an individualised approach such as ‘mindfulness’ at lunchtime, meditation, bean bags and massages at your desk! (Hesketh and Cooper, 2020). We are seeing more Directors of Health and Wellbeing, or in the US Chief Wellbeing Officers, reporting directly to HR Directors, and in some organisations directly to the CEO. Although wellbeing is not a regular Board agenda item on FTSE 250 companies yet, there are an increasing number of them highlighting wellbeing metrics in their annual or social responsibility reports, with Board scrutiny from time to time (Cooper & Hesketh, 2022). Within the next five years, the need to retain millennials and top talent, to reduce stress-related ill health and to enhance productivity, senior executives will see strategic wellbeing at work as a bottom-line issue. We need to change, and the pandemic has enabled us to do this. The future requires that we change the nature of the workplace to meet the needs of employees and other stakeholders, but change is not easy, as Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: “it should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating change….The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new”. But now ‘change is here to stay’!
When Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, when things didn’t go well for him in the Dardanelles campaign, and its fallout for him personally afterwards, he wrote: “Many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry, and mental overstrain by persons who, over prolonged periods, have to bear exceptional responsibilities and discharge duties upon a very large scale. Some advise exercise, and others, repose. Some counsel travel, and others, retreat. Some praise solitude, and others, gaiety….but the element which is constant and common in all of them is Change…..a man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat…but tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts…It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant, that relief, refreshment are afforded.” It is the great challenge of employers and managers to think about how we might change to support and help those who will be the walking wounded in our workplaces as we come out of the pandemic into a world recession. It is achievable, but we need to be innovative and challenge the orthodoxy of the past. Even John Ruskin, the British social reformer, reflected at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1851 on the health of the worker of his time, that “in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and the must have a sense of success in it.” This applies today in this ever-complex world of work.
See other articles from the Annual Research Volume 1.
Bevan, S. and Cooper, C.L. (2021). The Healthy Workforce. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.
Cooper, C.L. and Hesketh, I. (Eds) (2022). Managing Health and Wellbeing During a Crisis. London: Kogan Page.
Hesketh, I. and Cooper, C.L. (2020). Wellbeing at Work: How to Design, Implement and Evaluate an Effective Strategy. London: Kogan Page.
Norgate, S. and Cooper, C.L. (Eds) (2020). Flexible Work: Designing Our Healthier Future Lives. London: Routledge Books.
O’Meara, S. and Cooper, C.L. (2022). Remote Workplace Culture. London: Kogan Page.