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‘When Bristol’s staff return to the workplace, do not be preoccupied with productivity’

By harriet shortt, Friday Jul 24, 2020

During the pandemic I have been invited to talk to a number of different organisations about the various topics that have impacted many workers over this time, like working from home, managing work and non-work boundaries, creating and negotiating new work spaces, and what it might be like when we return to the office.

I think all these discussions have given organisations and leadership teams food for thought in terms what the human, lived experience of the pandemic has been like. During the pandemic we seem to have been preoccupied with productivity and as we return to work we seem focussed on the functional parts of the process, and often the human on the end of these things gets forgotten – we are thinking, feeling, emotional beings and this period of history we are living through has affected us all in different ways.

I hope my work has impacted organisation’s thinking and has helped shed light on the subjective experiences of workers during the pandemic so that we might maintain, create and inspire a more humane, understanding and empathetic workplace in the future.

The importance of ensuring the office remains a place that is comfortable and welcoming for staff and not too sterile, while being safe is certainly something Bristol organisations need to think about.

Of course, the safety of staff is paramount and should be at the top of the agenda, but do not forget that people will be returning to work with all sorts of emotions and feelings about what we’ve just been through.

Harriet Shortt’s research focuses on the workplace. Photo: OVO Energy

Everyone’s experience of this crisis will be different. I’ve been surprised at just how functional the approach to the return to the office has been – all the caution tape being used and the screens – these are all important but I’d urge organisations to also think about the sensory experience of the workplace; how it feels, how it smells and so on really does impact staff.

I would try and avoid making workplaces feel like hospitals and consider the ways in which you might create more thoughtful messages, signs, and symbols. Think about how new daily rituals that we might have to go through – like washing hands or socially distancing – could be made into moments of self-care or how workspaces or people could be distanced in a more aesthetically pleasing way.

Research shows that the more people are able to create their own workplace or have some sense of ownership over their workspace, the happier they are – there is a sense of identity and belonging.

So, although we should be conscious of sterility and cleanliness, think about the important role personal objects play in creating a sense of wellbeing for staff – sterile and clean does not have to mean depersonalised.

Harriet Shortt’s research focuses on the workplace. Photo: Harriet Shortt

You might ask staff about what they have enjoyed about working from home and consider what comforts of home can be taken back into the office to make the transition easier.

There needs to be some time for adjustment and a time for talking. When staff return to work, do not be preoccupied productivity and getting back to “normal” or “business as usual”. ‘

There is going to be a need for healing, adjustment, and reflection. When people go through what is essentially a traumatic event, and when they have lived in limbo for some time, it can change the way they see the world.

So, my advice to organisations would be allow time for talking – staff will want to reconnect (even if they have been working together on Zoom or kept in touch via social media). Allow people to come together to talk, chat, share stories, ask questions and encourage people to share their feelings about this period of readjustment in a safe and supportive manner.

And of course, that is just what this is – a period of readjustment. Going back to the office is not an event, it is not a “thing that will happen”, it should be treated as a gradual process, as a transition.

Harriet says that managers and leadership teams will need to support staff in their return to the office. Photo: Rockpool

It will be up to managers and leadership teams to support this transition, particularly with regards to those who have been alone or experienced extreme levels of isolation, and of course for those who have had an extraordinarily intense period of time with family.

For example, those working parents who have juggled home school and work might find it challenging to suddenly be back in the office and away from the family unit.

New patterns of behaviour will have formed over lockdown and people might have got used to, for example, eating with their families or shifting between work and non-work activities at multiple times throughout the day.

Some might find it hard to suddenly be apart from family. Photo: Bristol Energy

It is down to leadership teams to be sensitive to this as staff return to work, and put measures in place that help support them – they might think about introducing an internal mentoring or coaching programme, lunchtime events where stories can be shared, having more frequent one-to-one catch ups with staff, or create regular staff surveys to get a sense of how people are feeling.

My role at UWE Bristol predominantly involves research – exploring the impact of buildings, workspace and materiality on the everyday lives of workers. I use visual methods (like photography) to investigate organisational life. My work also includes business engagement and knowledge exchange, as well as teaching on our Executive Education programmes.

Credit InsideAsia / InsideJapan

Harriet Shortt says that businesses need to allow their employees time to readjust. Photo: InsideAsia/InsideJapan

The return to the office presents a unique opportunity to organisations – there is a real opportunity to do some research with staff. As a visual researcher, I ask people I work with to take photographs of experiences at work – I usually ask about workspace – but this visual approach can be used to explore people’s experiences of all sorts of things. This method helps to gain an insight into what people think and feel – and it gives them a voice.

So, for example, leadership teams could use this approach to understand how staff feel about working from home or how they feel about returning to the office. They could ask staff to bring in two photographs that say something about what lockdown was like for them or what working from home was like. Or they could ask staff to take three pictures that capture what they are worried about in terms of returning to the office, what they are most excited about, and what they have learnt about working from home.

Harriet says that this could be the perfect time to change the office. Photo: OVO Energy

This is a participatory, collaborative approach that raises the voices of staff that may not otherwise get heard.

It potentially offers great research data for an organisation – it could help them develop a much better understanding of new working practices, the challenges of working at home, shine a light on any gender inequalities that might have emerged as an outcome of lockdown, the complexities of meeting online, or workplace space preferences. It could be a way to make real change and have real impact in an organisation, led from the bottom up.

Alternatively, asking staff to share their pictures, perhaps as an exhibition, could simply be a great way of getting people together – in a socially distanced way or course! – to talk about their experiences and what learnings have come from it.

Dr Harriet Shortt is associate professor in organisation studies at Bristol Business School at UWE Bristol. Her research interests include organisational space, artefacts and the materiality of work, visual methodologies and participant-led photography.

Main photo: InsideAsia/InsideJapan

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