By Yakin Ouederni
It’s 8 am, and you’ve just woken up after hitting snooze repeatedly for the past hour. You rush to get ready — coffee in hand, shoes on halfway and frantically looking for your keys as you run through the door. You need to leave at 8:30 am at the latest to get to work on time. That morning commotion seems like a distant memory, right?
The mundane routine of work has changed little since the emergence of the traditional workday in the early 1800s. Since then, the concept of morning commutes and dedicating about eight hours of your day to nothing but work — at work — has been the norm for millions around the world. That is, of course, until 2020.
“I think we’re in kind of a historical transformation that’s probably going to stick with us for forever,” said Ayman Ismail ’95, ’97, the Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship, founding director of the AUC Venture Lab and associate professor of management.
The world of work witnessed at-home work stations pop up around the globe as businesses required their employees to work from home, and along with this came a rethinking of life priorities and day-to-day activities, including a major restructuring of the workplace.
“The idea that everybody needs to go to the office every single day from 9 to 5 is gone,” Ismail said.
Ahmed Tolba ’97, ’01, associate professor of marketing, agreed, saying that young, agile companies are likely to abandon the traditional work structure even after the pandemic is over, and some already have, even before COVID-19. “A lot of businesses will think about optimizing costs by reducing the workspace,” Tolba said. “Reducing commutes has also positively affected both employees and businesses in terms of saving time and money for travel.”
However, that doesn’t mean working from home will completely take over. While it does have its perks, the downsides can take a heavy toll on businesses and the personal lives of their employees.
“A lot of people are starting to realize that you actually cannot continuously work in a remote way because that creates a lot of challenges in maintaining cultural communication, building company identity, team formation and more,” Ismail noted. “So the idea that we can work virtually all the time is not going to survive for long.”
Moving forward from the pandemic, businesses will instead likely adopt a work culture centered around flexible arrangements — allowing people to meet and build team relations and maintain morale while also giving flexibility that would get people to commute less and do more things outside of work, Ismail explained.
Missing out on the extracurricular activities of work, like lunch breaks with friends and continuous chatter in the office can also have an effect on your overall productivity in the long term.
“I like to have coffee with people,” Tolba said. “We are human beings, and we need to see each other and interact to boost morale and productivity.”
The truth moving forward is that changing a business culture is no easy task. It takes time to reorganize and redevelop. “Will more traditional businesses go back to how things were once the pandemic is over? In my opinion, they will — not because of capability but because of mentality,” Tolba said.
For Ismail, many of these ‘traditional thinking’ businesses are going to struggle as they fail to adapt to changing needs. In fact, as the world moves forward past the pandemic, businesses will be left with more questions than solutions, even if they are able to strike a balance between working from home and going into the office. “Maintaining the cost of having a full-time office with reduced utilization is going to be questioned,” Ismail said.
With a million questions floating around, it all comes down to one thing: agility and whether or not businesses are not just able to — but willing to — rethink how they operate internally and with their employees.
“This pandmeic should not be treated as a black swan event,” Ismail said. “People will have to include this in their normal planning for everything.”
Rania Abdalla ’94 puts theory in action. She is the founder and managing director of Aspire HR Consultants, and for her, surviving a crisis like this one depends on innovation, taking risks, sensitivity to changing markets and empathy.
During the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, she conducted a study on the businesses that pulled through financially and emerged even stronger during a period of instability. She found that those who accepted diverse ideas and plans, switched into crisis mode and made drastic changes ended up being successful. One business cut its costs and changed marketing operations by going digital with online campaigns during the revolution. From this, the business rode out the unstable period and became even stronger.
“The lessons of 2011 help me keep this situation in perspective,” she said. Knowing how to navigate unstable times and learning how to think fast, and ahead, were key tools to operating her business this past year.
“We had to alter some of our services to cater to new market needs through appointing consultants with expertise to give us a head start,” she said. “The pandemic has helped us have a wider scope on market needs and talents out there. We were able to quickly form a strong virtual team that supported us with our new services.”
Abdalla shifted all client and office meetings online, giving more flexibility to her employees and ensuring efficiency, she said. “This helped me save on commuting time to allocate time for self-development, learning and working on setting the strategic direction for the company.”
She has an office-wide call with her team once a week to check in and keep morale and engagement high.
“Work from home is all about trust and creating a sense of ownership so that team members feel engaged in the company’s growth,” she said.
As for changes in her personal work routine, Abdalla said that she faced some challenges with finding a good balance between work and making use of this time with loved ones. “Putting systems in place helped a lot,” she said.
The energy she puts toward making time for those in her personal life is also geared toward her employees at Aspire. For her, the most important part about adapting to the changes brought by this pandemic is being a caring and empathetic leader.
“Business leaders must have a high level of emotional intelligence and empathy, be good listeners, ensure everyone’s voice is heard, provide an inclusive environment, be flexible, and be a coach and mentor,” she said.
And it’s about laying a strong groundwork for cooperation, communication and appraisal that helps companies emerge even more successful, she said. Communicating core decisions to the team and making them feel valued and informed is what sparks meaning into their jobs and can lead to both personal and professional change.
Abdalla has seen clients encourage their employees to work on self-development. “This period could lead to a long-term transformation of working culture, so it’s important that people think about how to build their skills and remain agile,” she added.
Echoing these same sentiments, Ismail and Tolba noted that business leaders who fail to put employer-employee relations at the forefront of structural change will struggle to adapt. “The issue of micromanaging can really slow down business productivity, as it places pressure on employees and demotivates them,” Tolba noted, adding that this is a result of lacking the right tools to measure performance. “Many businesses that are more traditional, that measure performance based on punctuality and attendance need to be thinking about how to measure productivity effectively,” he said.
“And it’s all based on trust,” Tolba asserted.
Retaining talent also stands out as a major issue businesses are likely to face in the coming years. As the trend to online work continues and flexibility becomes a focal point for successful businesses, employers need to think about the needs of young, incoming employees.
“Younger generations are more interested in a learning experience, jumping around and flexibility with things like taking time off, “Tolba said. “Traditional work relationships are actually becoming less appealing over time, so people will have to adapt now that COVID is giving a kind of shock that’s allowing people to experiment.”
And this all goes hand in hand with digital shifts that are increasing the scope of a company’s talent pool, changing the way we interact with one another and really putting the question of what we consider to the test.
As the pandemic has done across all other aspects of life, it leaves businesses and business owners with more questions than answers: questions that through trial, risks, an ushering of change — or the hesitation to do so — may only be answered with time.