Back to the workplace: ”Forget about back to normal”

On 21 May, many Danish workplaces began to gradually allow employees to return. Now is the time to decide what to make of the experiences we gained while working from home, a researcher in working culture writes.

One must not let a good crisis go to waste.

These are the words of Malene Friis Andersen, a researcher at the Danish National Research Center for the Working Environment. In the past year, she has been thoroughly researching the working life of Danes during the corona pandemic. 

“Now that we're starting to open up again, we can put an end to the past years’ experiment in working culture and move into –  if not the normal world, then –  the world again. It is time to decide which experimental results to take with us when the restrictions are lifted and we are once again free to choose how to do things,” she explains.

How do we reconnect?

Malene Friis Andersen and her research unit interviewed 116 managers and employees shortly after the lockdown last year. At the time, having to work from home and collaborate digitally was a first for many. And according to Malene, now is a good time to revisit those initial experiences before we risk forgetting them with the return of normalcy.

And we need to go beyond talking about a few weekly days working from home and holding digital meetings with the colleagues in Jutland.

Malene exemplifies: “We need to go deeper and talk about the role of our teamwork in solving tasks successfully. When do we get the feeling of working together towards a shared goal? What kind of knowledge do we need about each other's projects and task solutions for us to get the best possible synergy?”

In other words, we need to reconnect with our colleagues in a new way. Our working relationships have not just continued as before.

“It is not like we just pressed the pause button on our employees, work relationships and dynamics when society closed down and can now press the play button. Some relationships have become stronger, some have become weaker. Many say they have to some extent lost touch with their colleagues' work. So we are not quite as synchronised as we were when we physically showed up for work, ” she says.

We have experienced the crisis differently

Malene Friis Andersen does not have a fixed set of instructions for what workplaces should do now. One of her most important points is that we have experienced the crisis differently, and there must be room for listening to the different experiences at the individual workplace.

“We have to be very careful not to assume that others have experienced the past year the same way we have. We need to be curious about how our colleagues have been doing,” she says.

That is why Malene Friis Andersen's research team has launched a package of knowledge, stories and tools on the website tailored to both managers and employees. It is an invitation back to the first phase of the crisis, where we were not yet fatigued because of social distancing, disinfection and distance work.  Instead, there was a focus on the opportunities that also arose from the situation.

“We cannot make directly transfer this experiment to our present and say that since this worked well during the corona crisis, it also works well now. We have to decide once again to try it out – this time in a normal world,” she says.

Manager: Beware of lack of attention

According to Malene Friis Andersen, a somewhat overlooked topic is that managers have been working overtime, both physically and emotionally. They have been given more personal information about their employees. Or they have lacked just that and have therefore had to struggle to maintain a strong relationship with their employees.

In other cases, some teams and organisations have had problems with employees feeling devalued compared to others.

“We have seen that those who have undertaken corona activities and corona tasks have become more important and have received more attention from the management. Then perhaps those who have performed routine work have an experience of being overlooked, even though they have also put in an effort,” she says.

“Is there a sense of injustice that needs to be addressed? We probably also have to take that conversation. Everyone has made an extraordinary effort in these times.”

From onboarding to re-onboarding

A new IDA study shows that young people are the ones who have had the most difficulty working at a distance.

They are the ones who need the informal workplace training. As newcomers to the job market, they depend on socialising to get to know a new work culture. And they are also the ones who need the most peer training, Malene Friis Andersen explains.

“It is more difficult for new employees to just reach out to their experienced colleagues at a distance and ask for help and advice. You may feel that you are burdening them with your questions.”

"Many workplaces should also consider setting up a new introductory course for the new employees who have joined during the corona crisis. It might just be to meet up with them and say, 'now we change settings again, what do you need now?' Let's call it re-onboarding.”