Remote working: A double edged sword

Mona AbouHana, Chief People Officer for EMEA and the Middle East, PwC. 

The past 18 months have caused a massive shift in the way we work and live. We all were faced with new challenges and had to adapt to a different environment as we made a rapid transition from the office to home. Suddenly, the lines were blurred between our professional and personal lives and we were forced to find a balance that worked for us. 

Organisations have been claiming flexible work models for years before the pandemic, but struggled with its implementation. I believe that this stemmed from a misunderstanding between Gen X, millennials and Gen Z; where millennials and Gen Z saw the increasing pressures of work and home and wanted to be able to lead a holistically healthy life, one where work was equally as important as the rest of their responsibilities. The struggle for Gen X came from the mentality that if I can’t see you working, you must not be. It signalled a lack of trust and created tension in the workplace. 

This last year has shown that not only can we work flexibly, but we are also able to work remotely, and this has brought about a significant amount of trust. Gen X, millennials and Gen Z were forced to put their differences aside and coexisted in a virtual workplace. But we quickly learnt that too much of anything is never good. Our social capital was depleted in lockdown and we all quickly felt serious ‘Zoom fatigue.’ We all had to overcompensate for being physically apart by booking meeting after meeting, and this took a lot out of us; 80% of communication is non-verbal (i.e. body language, facial expressions, tone etc.), so we were super focused on cues to better understand our colleagues on the other side of the screen. 

We made an active effort, at PwC Middle East, to focus on and support our people’s wellbeing through this and issued a remote working charter. The charter reminded us all that we still had to respect a division between work and life, that we need to be empathetic to one another when it comes to our colleagues’ living situations and recognised our need to stay constantly connected, checking in with one another frequently. 

We’re naturally social creatures and we thrive in social settings. Going to the office might have meant a longer commute than to our home offices, but it also enabled coffees, informal chats and catch ups. Being in the office meant that you were exposed to so much more than the work you were given, and were embedded in the culture of the firm. 

Our more junior colleagues have taken a massive hit as a result of the pandemic, and their learning curve has been stunted as a result. We learn and absorb a lot of information indirectly by overhearing our team members have discussions or deal with certain situations. For example, after a client meeting, the drive back typically provides immense value as you debrief with the team, get a feel for their thoughts and feelings. The onus falls on us as leaders to make the extra effort to connect with our teams, check in with them consistently and teach what they would otherwise have, had they started their careers in an office. 

All this doesn’t discount the value that flexibility has brought to us all. At PwC, we have a flexible working framework in place which allows us to find the right fit for ourselves and our teams. As we make our way through the ‘new normal’ we’re bringing that back. The future of work is flexible, agile, diverse and digital. We have to enable an outcome-based approach, which breaks away from the classic working hours that restrict you to a desk, but rather one that enables life and work to co-exist harmoniously. 

Our office spaces were built and designed with this in mind. For our clients and people, we created a collaborative environment meant to stimulate creativity and innovation. Unburdened by restrictive hours or seating, our offices are aligned with our flexibility framework and centre around our people experience. 

We recognise that there is no right answer to flexibility. What we know today far surpasses what we knew before the pandemic. As we give our people the freedom to work flexibly, we found that balance is key. We’ve recommended that our people spend a minimum of three days a week in the office, where government regulations allow, to ensure that they are able to stay connected with their colleagues, learn from one another and collaborate on innovative projects. Life goes on, even in a typical work day and we want to continue to empower our people to find the right balance for themselves beyond this.  

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