Could COVID-19 be the trigger to institutionalise flexible and remote work and be truly accepted in organisations where there has been an unwritten norm that penalised lawyers who used it?

Up until a few weeks ago, it was not uncommon for lawyers to understand the unwritten norm of being present in the office was required for good work performance and for career advancement.

Yet, we have been hearing regularly for the last decade about the benefits of flexible work. Indeed, the Society on Human Resource Management predicted “telecommuting was the way of the future” in their report, ‘Workplace Flexibility in the 21st Century, published in 2008’; and research from 30 years, ‘The Impact of Flexible Scheduling on Employee Attendance and Turnover’, ago also noted the benefits of flexible hours on employee attrition.

Despite the mandates of shutting down non-essential workplaces for weeks at a time, the current pandemic crisis has a small silver lining—the ability for millions of workers of all ages and backgrounds across the globe to experience the benefits of working flexibly and remotely. Many individuals will now get to experience multiple days in a row of working without commuting long distances, and the benefit of being close to home to look after family responsibilities. Moreover, now the proponents of the presentism mindset are experiencing the benefits of flexible and remote working—and live the experience of productivity staying high and the needs of the organisation being met.

Permanency of the ‘new normal’

Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 has shifted working patterns for millions of people, and many organisations are expecting it to transform how their employees work permanently.

In fact, some leaders have made big predictions. Paul Miller, the CEO and co-founder of the Digital Workplace Group, states that he thinks there is a “consensus that this a fundamental shift in how work gets done”. Describing it as the “new normal” versus “returning to normal”, Miller notes.

Workplace cultures put to the test

To succeed in the new normal, organisations will need to foster team collaboration and support. At the same time, the ability of executives and managers to adapt quickly probably has never been more critical at any time in the last decade. Certainly, there is a huge need for every worker to deploy all five senses of tuning in to our individual and collective humanity. More specifically, this could include:

Testing the resiliency of the organisational culture:

The potentially extended nature of this crisis will determine the strength of company culture. The need for empathy and understanding on a massive scale will indeed be required, along with the likely extended period of working remotely, dealing with feelings of isolation, family pressures, and the fear of contracting COVID-19. “The onus will be on leadership and people managers to take measures to support employees thrust into working in a way many wouldn’t choose”, say Miller.

Managers acting as catalysts for employee support:

With large swaths of workers dealing with a combination of the various situations for multiple weeks, managers and supervisors need to acknowledge that listening to these employees is a key component of the glue that can keep the company’s culture together.

Employees needing to stay connected to peers:

Individual contributors also need to proactively reach out and stay connected with peers and colleagues. The human side of remote work is more important than ever, and deeper understanding of what one another are going through enhances relationships.

When this crisis inevitably passes, the ‘new normal’ will be different in every organisation, but one thing that is very likely to remain for many is that some form of workplace flexibility will be normalised within organisational cultures.

About the author: 

Natalie Runyon | Thomson Reuters (Director of Enterprise Content)

Natalie Runyon has more than 20 years of experience working and volunteering for multinational corporations, non profits, and the US Government — Thomson Reuters, Goldman Sachs, and the Central Intelligence Agency.