Future Work: Is it time to re-imagine our working world?

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Arundhati Roy

Welcome to The Future Work blog series! In each piece, I will explore a theme from my research report, Future Work, about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on workers and employers.

Today, we will talk about the opportunity in front of us to reimagine the UK workplace.

What’s next for the workplace after ‘Freedom Day’

Let the last 18 months of enormous personal and professional challenge not be in vain.

The UK’s ‘Freedom Day’ (19th July 2021) has now passed, and we all need to consider how we want to live and work in the longer term. Nobody can predict the future path of COVID-19, or the extent of any future restrictions, but we can all reflect on our extraordinary collective experience and plot our way forward from this point. This is especially important in the context of how we structure our workplaces.

A seismic shift

Let’s recap how we got here.

Back in early 2020, the world plunged into the first global pandemic in a century. Organisations were forced to respond, and fast. In a matter of days, working from home became the norm for over half the UK workforce: a rapid acceleration from the tiny minority of 1.5%-5% that had slowly embraced home working over the last three decades.

This unprecedented transformation in how we work was of course mirrored by a completely alien way of living the rest of our lives. Most of us in the UK are, very fortunately, used to living in a democratic society with a high degree of personal freedom. We were forced to adapt very quickly to life in lockdown, at significant cost to our collective mental health and wellbeing[1].

Now, post ‘Freedom Day’, our personal autonomy has been restored, and life seems to be getting back to normal … but what of our working habits? We no longer have to work from home, but should we, can we, and do we even want to? What does a truly forward-looking organisation look like, especially in an ongoing global crisis?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, so we need to start by taking pause and learning what lessons we can from the last 18 months.

Personal reflection

It’s clear that the pandemic has been a seismic shock to the system, a shock that has forced us to reflect on the most personal level. Many of us have sought to free ourselves from unhelpful habits, and reconsider our priorities. Through this process, we have learned more about ourselves.

For example, I have learned that I am more adaptable than I thought, and when the pandemic started to get me down in February 2021, I learned that I could help myself by doing stuff: self-generating a project (i.e. this report!) to give me focus and purpose; indulging in my passion for creating art; exercising; savouring a fine Single Malt, and so on.

In my coaching work, too, I am observing clients in reflective mode:

  • They are, on the whole, not rushing forward to the next big thing; instead, they are stopping, pausing, considering the implications of life and work post Covid-19.

  • They are asking themselves good questions about their own learning, and what they want to hold onto and cherish as we head back into some form of ‘normality’, whatever that means.

I doubt this reflectiveness is the result of greater spaciousness in their lives: as my research confirms, many, whilst working primarily from home, have been working longer and harder than they were before the pandemic, for a myriad of reasons. People are, by and large, exhausted. However, they are also keenly aware that there is an opportunity in front of them to create a new, different, and better way of working.

Organisational reflection

It’s not just employees who are taking stock. Employers have told me that they have observed some remarkable things at the organisational level during this time:

  • Incredible innovation and creativity

  • Inspirational leadership

  • True agility in decision making and the ability to pivot delivery models and transform how business is done

  • Extraordinary levels of support, care, and understanding for colleagues.

Employees have shown themselves to be resilient in a time of crisis; to pull together for the greater good, and to keep a firm eye on delivering for the client, even when juggling home-schooling and all the other challenges the pandemic threw at them. People have worked long and hard to get the job done.

Productivity hasn't suffered: by and large, it's improved. Employees have generally felt trusted and supported by their leaders during the most challenging of times.

Tough times

It's not all been rosy, of course. There have been significant hurdles:

  • Individuals have turned their homes into their offices, blurring the boundary between 'work' and 'life'.

  • Many have not had a quiet place or suitable set-up to work effectively.

  • Social isolation from colleagues was compound by social isolation from everyone; combined with anxiety about the pandemic and job security we saw many experiencing mental health issues for the first time, or a deepening of existing issues.

  • Organisations varied in how well they responded to the mental health challenge.

Clearly, we want to avoid carrying these aspects of homeworking into the future.

An opportunity to transform our workplace

“In the rush to return to normal, let’s use the time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to."

David Hollis

Let's think about how this pandemic can be truly transformative so that we create a better workplace. We need to root out the good and figure out how to retain it, whilst identifying and fixing the parts that didn’t work so well.

9 important questions to ask

Here are some key questions to ask at the individual and organisational level to encourage reflective thinking:

  1. What can you take from the experience? What did you notice – about your organisation’s ability to respond, to be agile in the face of a crisis?

  2. What worked and what do you want to honour? What enabled that?

  3. What didn’t work – and why? What got in the way?

  4. What do you want to take forward into the future?

  5. How well did you support staff? What are you most proud of? What would you do differently?

  6. How well did staff support each other? To what extent did your organisation hold onto, or generate, a sense of community?

  7. What does this tell you about your ways of working, culture, focus, and priorities?

  8. What new paradigm of how you work would best suit your employees, and key stakeholders while maintaining business performance?

  9. What assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes challenge or potentially get in the way of you embracing a new workplace paradigm?


What assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes challenge or potentially get in the way of you embracing a new workplace paradigm?

Rather than rushing or even simply drifting back to normal, my plea is to really learn from this time. Why not reflect at the individual, team, and organisational level? It's only by asking good reflective questions, such as the 9 I’ve suggested above, that we will learn from the last 18 months and create an imaginative and sustainable future workplace.

Future Work: The Report

What does the future hold for the workplace, post pandemic?

Our research, conducted in 2021, looks at the experience of working from home, and examines the evidence regarding productivity, mental health, and employee engagement. We consider the pros and the cons of embracing a new workplace paradigm.

Download the Future Work report

[1]Fancourt, D., Bu, F., Hei Wan Mak, Paul E., Steptoe, A (2021). Understanding Covid-19 Social Study. Results

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