Will St Benedict become the patron saint of office workers in a post-Covid world?
Work is an integral part of the rhythm of Benedictine monastic daily life. Monks and nuns work to earn a living and serve the community – a little like you and me in a sense. However, they don’t choose the work they do. Their superiors judge what is needed and divvy out the assignments.
I suspect St Benedict would have been better suited to office design. If you have had the pleasure of staying in a monastery and working like a monk or a nun, you will probably have spent time at a carrel. I had a carrel when I went to school. Mind you, I went to a monastic school. Carrels can be found in libraries and offices. A carrel is a desk with no drawers. A desk space with a border shielding it from other carrel desks. The height of the border varies. The border on my highly personalised carrel was about two metres in height. I was encouraged by my peers to put a drape, invariably of tie-dye fabric, over the top of the carrel, effectively creating a roof for it to muffle any noise around me.
In some monasteries of more enclosed orders, carrels give way to cells, or in the case of office design, private offices. In these more cloistered orders, monks and nuns alike live a much more austere existence. They will spend hours alone, working, praying and eating at their desks – dare I say it a little like you and I over the last 18 months or so.
Gone are the soft fabrics and gentle colours. ‘Covid resistant’ offices will need hard, easy to clean surfaces. Gone are the open-plan prairies of interactivity, replaced instead by carrels – cubes and cells. Is there any need to interact face to face in a Post Covid world in which you have Teams and Zoom sessions rotating on the jukebox of your working day?
A new order to occupy these monastic palaces of work will be created – the ‘hybrid order’. We will naturally arrive in our hybrid cars at work for some of the days of a working week. There is of course no consistent definition of what hybrid working is. Suffice to say that if the hybrid working arrangements are not flexible enough, then it risks increasing employee turnover, reducing employee engagement and limiting employers’ ability to attract new talent. A new McKinsey study found that 26% of workers in the US are already looking for new employment opportunities as the worst ravages of the pandemic recede.
Having spoken to a number of business owners, there seems to be a set of best practices emerging which describe variants of ‘hybridism’ in new policy definitions and ensuring effective team building and cohesion in ‘hybridised’ teams. Policy statements will set out who is eligible for hybrid working and how to request it.
Policies will clarify roles and responsibilities for hybrid workers and delineate how these intersect with other forms of flexible working. In essence, hybrid work is a form of flexible working but offers less flexibility than fully flexible working. Flexible working may take on the form of working when you want, how you want and with whom you choose. Hybrid working is somewhat less flexible in that you can either work from the office or from some other working space, most usually your home office or kitchen table.
As the spatial distribution of workers increases in a hybrid working world, unsurprisingly, there are legal implications that need consideration. HR departments and lawyers are gearing up for a feeding frenzy of employment contract redrafting and ‘cave syndrome’ claims. Marketing departments are being re-purposed to focus more on internal comms. Managers are being re-skilled in effective communication, relationship building and collaboration skills. Softer pastoral skills are being acquired to support work-life balance and wellbeing. Truly we are becoming more monastic in our post pandemic world.
I would like to see the workplace take on a few more monastic-like attributes. One of my first jobs was developing a CRM system for the Leprosy Mission back in the mid-1980s. I used to work from its office in Portman Place, London. At 10:00 everyone would stop working and prayers would be said.
I am not proposing that office work should stop for religious activity, after all it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! However, I do like the practice of stopping for a group tea break. This has been a long-standing tradition at Dunstan Thomas. It does however need policing as the tea break can merge into luncheon and then into afternoon tea. I think that takes flexible working a little too far. In any event, the post Covid office world of flexible hybrid working is here to stay as a new conundrum for business leaders to consider and craft policies for.
Chris Read is group CEO at Dunstan Thomas