Every once in a while an evolutionary shock strikes our planet – from the meteorite that destroyed the dinosaurs to volcanic eruptions and natural disasters that obliterate cities and civilisations. This year has not been quite as dramatic as all of that, but it has shown again how adaptable we are as a species.
Covid-19 has forced us to change so much about the way we live our lives and the way we work. Some things have perhaps changed for the better, others not so. The question many in business are pondering is: should the world of work return to the way it was once we get on top of the pandemic?
My answer is no; based not only on what I've seen but on the data I've collected from hundreds of thousands of employees taking the WorkL.co workplace happiness test over the last 12 months.
Two things have become clear to me: firstly, that employees have become a top priority for organisations in a way they weren't before Covid, for health and well being and economic reasons. Secondly, the positive response from employees to how management has supported them through the pandemic makes reversing new workplace practices difficult and, I would argue, undesirable.
We were already becoming far more flexible in the way we were working before the pandemic. Pre-Covid there were 1.5m employees regularly working from home in the UK and this number was predicted to quadruple over the next 10 years. Fast forward to the end of this year and now 60 per cent of the UK adult population are working from home at least some of the time, more than 20m employees.
Management has tangibly demonstrated its care for its employees' health by implementing PPE, screens, hand gel and social distancing, and employees have recognised this and appreciate it. Pre-Covid employees scored their manager six out of 10 in caring for their well-being but this has jumped to more than seven out of 10. However, the number of people saying they feel anxious at work has risen from 58 per cent to 61 per cent.
Those employees who have moved to working from home are also happier. Before the pandemic the average workplace happiness score was 64 per cent and now it has increased to 72 per cent. This jump is down to dropping the commute, cost and time, and the flexibility to manage their own time and work in a comfortable space.
Home workers say they are now better rewarded, up from 62 per cent to 69 per cent, and they prefer their home working environment (up three percentage points to 66.56 per cent). Whether their new office is the kitchen table, or a shed in the garden, there has been a six percentage point increase in people content with where they work now compared to pre-Covid.
It is clear that management has put increased energy into communications as employees report they are being told more compared to earlier this year. So much so that questions around information sharing are the highest scoring in our research and have jumped six percentage points to 72 per cent. This is important, as the open and free sharing of information is the precursor to greater individual empowerment.
Given this positive result, it is not surprising that employees now feel more empowered and responsible, an outcome employers won't want to lose.
Furthermore, workers feel that they are recognised more when they do something well and that their views are listened to more. Trust has had to be given to home workers and they have responded by saying that they are more productive, up eight percentage points.
It has also led to a healthier relationship between managers and workers in many instances, with people saying that they have a good relationship with their line manager having gone up from 70 per cent to 76 per cent.
I'm not a fan of averages. If your head is in the oven and your feet in the fridge, you're an average temperature! An organisation knowing the average scores for employee engagement is all well and good but the real gold is in understanding the highs and lows. So below I've drawn out some of the key points for different groups.
Over the lockdown period we have seen men become increasingly happy at work. In a reversal of 2019, men have overtaken women slightly, with the latter group feeling least heard at work. Childcare responsibilities during lockdown fell usually to women who suddenly had to juggle caring and teaching children as well as working their usual 9pm-5pm job.
We have seen an improvement in happiness across all age groups this year, although 19-24-year-olds have beneﬁted the least over lockdown, mainly due to a lack of face-to-face direction from more senior team members and the absence of socialising.
Younger workers usually have a poorer work environment than their older colleagues, often sharing a home with flat mates, and their productivity is more likely to be affected. Younger workers are much keener to return to the office than older workers because older workers believe that they can be more efficient working from home.
There continues to be a worrying ethnicity gap, especially at work. Our data shows that black women are the least likely to feel empowered at work and black men are the least happy at work. The data also reveals a pay gap among ethnicities, with white men and women happier with their pay than all other groups.
Hospitality and retail rank poorly in the Happiest Industries Table, which isn't surprising considering the impact lockdown restrictions continue to have on both sectors. People working in technology are the happiest.
Looking forward, three-quarters of managers currently working from home want to keep doing so in some form post-pandemic. While management score more highly on having company-wide information, they score less well in having sufficient knowledge to do their jobs, meaning training is an issue.
Our research recognises there are things that work less well now than before: creativity, connection, training and career development. Not everyone has a comfortable home or conducive working conditions. So, after the revolution in working practices wrought by the pandemic, I think there needs to be a period of evolution in how we work.
It seems clear to me that we won't be going back to the way we were. Our research shows that just 18 per cent of employees want to return to how it was. Furthermore, there are benefits for employers too from a new more flexible and empowered workforce.
2021 will be the year when employers and employees decide what the new work normal will be; no doubt there needs to be further changes, but we're set for a bright new future at work, in or out of the office.