October 2020

We are by nature social beings and for many who live alone the novelty of working from home is undoubtedly wearing a tad thin. Many are missing the day to day social contact that going to work brings as well as the camaraderie and buzz of a lively office environment. It isn’t just those who live alone, many families are now living on top of each other with older working or recently graduated unemployed children sometimes back at home too.

As managers we have a duty of care to our colleagues, whether it’s a chat over coffee, or something more formal. In many companies all that listening, being a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, seems to have gone out of the window. The ability to establish a network of industry contacts is also much more challenging, fortunately for me over the years many of these contacts have become friends, but it really isn’t the same via video.

The other big thing that many are missing is the informal, on-the-job training that we often don't even realise is happening. Learning about the corporate culture, bouncing ideas off colleagues and generally absorbing what’s going on around you – the all-important corporate osmosis. It’s not obvious but we all, whatever stage we are at in our careers, learn from those around us. We absorb what’s going on and how things are, and perhaps most importantly are not done, this is not quite the same from a formal on-line training programme.

Without this social interaction and contact it is easy to feel somewhat robotic, especially when our colleagues now see us as blurry images often with unreliable Wi-fi connections. I wonder if anyone has done any research on how long it might be, before what we are all currently doing at home might in the not too distant future be able to be done by a robot...a terrifying thought.

When I started my City career many decades ago, I did ask my boss if I should I go on this course or that course and was told categorically that "frankly you will learn more by asking lots of questions, watching what’s going on around you and just getting on and doing the job". Pity those poor grads starting in the workplace now, just ploughing through stuff without the face-to-face guidance or sounding board and the facial expressions of your colleagues that speak a thousand words! It must in truth be pretty thankless, not the best introduction to working life.

It will be interesting to see if there is a greater fall-out rate from intern and graduate schemes in the next couple of years as a result of all this. Of course, the big shiny corporates will have their HR departments and on-line training modules but what of the smaller businesses who are too busy with the day-to-day, many struggling to keep their businesses going, they simply don’t have the time to mentor or train new hires as they might have done B.C. (before Covid).

We spend a lot of time working, so it’s much better to make it fun, an environment where people enjoy what they do and being in the office. Given the constant changes to the state pension age, currently 67, today's new starters, will be working until they are well into their 70’s, are they really going to be working from home for fifty years? A chilling prospect. In recent days, several people have said to me that they greatly miss not only seeing colleagues but also people within the sectors in which they work, chatting through issues, challenges and of course successes.

Genuine friendships, long-term relationships and even marriages are made in the office and cohesive working business units often mean strong bonds are formed with colleagues who share common experiences on a daily basis.

We may or may not go back to full-time in the office but hopefully a quality and healthy balance can be struck between the two. As the redoubtable Sir John Timpson, he of Timpson shoe repairers who has written a book about mental health at work, wisely said in a Telegraph column: "Away days and face-to-face visits are vital to make the new normal work. I know from personal experience that suffers of stress and depression get a huge benefit from the support and sympathy of friends and work colleagues.”

He is right, office life and all that it entails is so much more than the 9 to 5. We absolutely mustn’t forget that so, as we hurtle towards the season of ‘goodwill to all men’, let’s make sure we look out for each other and make time for a virtual coffee or an after-working-from-home glass or two.