Lessons from the Pandemic: The Workplace
23 March 2021
By Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE FAcSS, ALLIANCE Manchester Business School, University of Manchester
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the British social reformer John Ruskin wrote: “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 they must have a sense of success in it”. Over the last century and a half, we seemed to have lost sight of this simple but important reflection, as we have worked harder, longer and lost a sense of balance in our lives. This was highlighted in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures on sickness absence the year before the pandemic took over our lives, with 57% of all long-term sickness absence a result of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as in the OECD calculations that the UK lost 4.5% of GDP due to mental ill health.
We have heard in recent months from many HR professionals and occupational health professionals that this pandemic will change the workplace forever. So, what are the lessons we have learned, and how will they change our working lives?
First, we have successfully experienced working flexibly, although most people didn’t want to work wholly remotely or to do home schooling at the same time! Before COVID-19, the global research evidence was that if you could, and wanted, flexible working, it enhanced job satisfaction, lowered stress-related sickness absence and improved performance. It is now clear that flexibility, or what is now termed the ‘hybrid model’ (i.e., working from home substantially, but not exclusively) will survive the COVID-19 period, and should deliver to the bottom-line because it provides employees at all levels and in all sectors, with the autonomy and control to get better work-life balance they have craved over the last decade (Norgate & Cooper, 2020).
Second, we have learned how important line managers are in team-building, recognising when people aren’t coping, supporting their staff and engaging them during difficult times. As we enter the era of hybrid working, job insecurity surrounding the impending major recession and the uncertainties of Brexit; how workers fears, concerns and developmental needs are managed will be very significant in any post-COVID-19 economic recovery, as well as in employee health, wellbeing and performance (Cooper, 2021). HR and occupational health professionals have for many years advocated the need to promote and recruit a different breed of line manager, one with high levels of emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion and a wide range of social skills. We need a different generation of bosses from shop floor to top floor, where there is parity between their technical skills and their people skills. We have for too long promoted people based almost solely on their technical skills with scant regard to their social and interpersonal skills—the COVID-19 era and impending recession will change that forever.
Third, listening to the concerns of the millennials and the Z generations during the pandemic, they seem to want something different from their parent’s generation. They are frequently referred to as the ‘snow flake generation’, because they are not prepared to work in a workplace culture that doesn’t seem to develop, value, trust or engage them but treats them as disposable assets. They want a ‘values-led’ and ‘purpose-driven’ workplace culture. These generations will lead us into this new greener world, where values count, where having a sense of purpose will drive their performance and ambition, and where they will contribute to the quality of life at work and in society more generally.
And finally, I hope that this pandemic has enabled us to think differently about what really matters in our workplaces and in life more generally, including relationships! Many of us have been deprived of our extended family, friends and work colleagues for many months, so, let’s hope that we will learn to be more tolerant of one another. As Ronald Reagan once quipped “I’ve always believed that a lot of the troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other”. And when it comes to the workplace, Studs Terkel summed this up in his acclaimed book Working: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying”.
Cooper, C.L. (Ed) (2021). Psychological Insights for Understanding Covid-19 and Work. London & New York: Routledge.
Norgate, S. and Cooper, C.L. (Eds) (2020). Flexible Work: Designing Our Healthier Future Lives. London & New York: Routledge.
Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE FAcSS is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. He is a founding President of the British Academy of Management, President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), former President of RELATE and President of the Institute of Welfare. He was the Founding Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior, former Editor of the scholarly journal Stress and Health and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Management, now in its’ 3rd Edition. He was awarded the CBE by the Queen for his contributions to occupational health; and in 2014 he was awarded a Knighthood for his contribution to the social sciences.