The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly revolutionised the world of work in the 21st century. It has reshaped the employment landscape so dramatically across the world, altering the outlook of the workforce, perhaps forever. Due to these changes, mental health is under real strain, with the frequent stress that many individuals were already feeling exacerbated by the complexity of hybrid workplace.
According to the 2022 People at Work Report, an estimated staggering 53% of employees in hybrid workspaces believe that their work is suffering because of poor mental health imposed by the complex nature of the hybrid workplace.
Most employers do their best to support staff well-being by giving days off, stress management breaks, and counselling, among other wellness initiatives. Nevertheless, amid such intense and sustained pressure, questions persist around what else employers can do to improve the well-being, quality of work-life and minimise stress triggers of their employees.
Although the pandemic seems to be under control, uncertainty still persists across industries signalling that things may never be the same again as many have started to redefine what has long been referred to as the new normal.
The ambiguity and uncertainty imposed by the hybrid workplace has redefined the quality of work and well-being of employees.
Several organisations have called the employees back to the offices, and this has unsettled the so-called "new normal" creating anxiety, stress and new daily routines. It seems we have the energy, but feel somewhat joyless and aimless, especially when faced with the dilemma of unlearning lockdown routines and adjusting to the hybrid models introduced by most organisations.
Recent research has indicated that, in addition to the anxiety induced by health fears and the uncertainty and disruption caused by the pandemic, the newly adopted hybrid workplaces can also increase the risk of mental health problems due to their complexity and interruption of the new normal.
Employees are being exposed to intense pressure, which threatens the quality of work that they do. There is evidence that several companies experienced most of their productive period ever while working remotely. Two and a half years on from the start of the COVID-19 crisis, employees are being called back to the office and are starting to reflect on what they really want out of work and out of life. They are reassessing and, in some cases, inverting ideas around what they are worth, what job security means, how much the employer values their health and well-being and how far they are prepared to go if the environment feels unsafe. They are defining their own quality of life and well-being, whether through a sense of empowerment, disillusionment or simply as a natural consequence of the changes that have been imposed on them.
Employees are signalling strongly that they need and expect a new paradigm in their working relationships with employers – a paradigm where their well-being and needs are made a priority and one with flexible workspaces, better support, increased recognition and reasonable pay.
Expecting people at the office every day is now considered a practice of the pre-digital age and is unnecessary. The era of working in the office is slowly fading, and holding on to it is like refusing to evolve.
Flexibility and remote working
Getting rid of the physical office boundaries resulted in some employees flourishing during the pandemic. This has challenged the previously held assumption that the remote work environment impedes productivity and cannot produce as much results as office work. I think that for somebody whose job is predominantly on a laptop, well-being and quality of life will be experienced if they are allowed flexibility and remote working.
For such individuals, the office has to provide something a home can't, such as brainstorming spaces. Most likely, if employees are coerced to go to the office, employers must remain vigilant about a possible morale crisis and unintended feelings of languishing among employees. Some individuals may have managed themselves out of the anxiety but for most, a sense of stagnation and emptiness is still and probably a dominant emotion as they muddle through the working week, looking at life through a misty windshield.
For those companies that feel a compromise is necessary and a hybrid model can be adopted, they should note the flaws associated with the common hybrid work model of having employees work from the office three days a week. Hybrid office requires enhanced functionality, including conference screens for seamless communication with remote partners, and strong WiFi and connectivity.
For companies based in older buildings, this type of transformation can pose logistical challenges on who should be in the office and when. Ensuring quality of work-life and well-being in the new hybrid workspace is still hazy, but I think employers must invest in remodelling their existing office spaces to meet the needs of flexible employees and establish support structures that are accessible remotely and physically.
This means providing staff with ICT services, a variety of areas to do their best work, such as common break areas, quiet focus areas, and customised meeting rooms that can be quickly replaced by activity-based work and acquire proper tools to promote remote working.
Herbert Kanengoni is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria. This article first appeared on News24 on 1 June 2022.