New Ways of Working – an Interview with Emily Cox MBE, Deputy Chair of the CBI NE

New Ways of Working – an Interview with Emily Cox MBE, Deputy Chair of the CBI NE

The coronavirus pandemic has all but eradicated the traditional definitions of working that dictated our lives. With many of us taking zoom calls in our slippers, pausing meetings to accept grocery deliveries, and trying to juggle working commitments with homeschooling, the way we work has adapted to fit around the rest of our lives. But why hasn’t this always been the case? 

Like the many people involved with the creation of Northern Power Women’s Levelling up by Powering on report, Emily has used this period to think about what the future world of work might look like after the pandemic entitled, “Future ways of working”. Emily’s section of the report lists the spectrum of working styles that could be available to us, ranging from 100% office based roles, all the way to remote working, spending less than 10% of working time in a traditional office space. I was able to speak to Emily about her section of the report, asking her about how we can best learn from our collective experiences of working from home, and what changes are needed in society to simultaneously protect the freedoms that remote working has afforded us, as well as move away from unsustainable methods of working. 

It is undeniable that the pandemic laid down the gauntlet for us to take charge of the changes happening around us. As Emily says, what the covid-19 pandemic achieved was “to turbocharge different ways of working”, describing the pandemic as “a burning platform for change”, since homeworking has enabled many businesses to keep going in really difficult circumstances. Emily is thoughtful about how the relationship between employer and employee – and the mutual trust and respect that is required to support it – has changed. While many employers would have previously maintained that productivity cannot be sustained outside of an office environment, and that people were not trusted to work from home, the pandemic has left leaders with no choice but to trust the diligence and motivation of their people to work at home.  

Emily believes that the global pandemic has changed attitudes towards presenteeism and productivity: “just because people are in the office doesn’t necessarily mean that they are being productive. I can think of many instances when my colleagues left their jackets on the back of their chairs and their computers on, but were really in the gym. Yet many parents – often the mums – felts guilty about diving out of the door as soon as the work day was over because they had to collect kids from school or nursery”. Over the last year Covid has changed all of this. 

The Covid crisis has revealed to all of us the importance of mutual trust between those at the top and those that work for them. As Emily summarized, “the pandemic in general is forcing a level of trust both ways, but equally forcing a level of empathy and kindness”. Emily said, “there is nothing more corrosive than employees feeling they cannot be trusted and the employer monitoring their every move. With greater trust comes engagement, flexibility and innovation. It’s a culture we all want to be part of”. 

In Emily’s view working from home during a national lockdown has meant that the boundaries between work and private life have become blurred, and she thinks that it is important for everyone to role model the right behaviours.  

Emily believes that we should think about what we can do and not what we can’t. And equally we have to be kind to one another. So many of us have allowed work into our homes and our private spaces are on display. This also means you can see when people are struggling too. Emily said, “if I spot it in my team, yes I will step in and make sure that they feel like they’ve got the permission to take the time off, but equally there is a responsibility on people to think about what they can do and then to set some boundaries. I know that when I worked part-time people were respectful of that and didn’t contact me. But as soon as I replied to something when I was on a non-working day, people would assume I was in and then bombard me. I learnt that I had to help by being clear, setting expectations and not blurring lines.”  

Establishing boundaries has always been important, but in a world where the walls between work and life have broken down, these barriers are a vital element to the sustainability of more flexible working styles. As Emily explained, “what we haven’t thought through are the consequences of how work and private life are becoming blended in a way that it hasn’t been seen before”. We have to think this through and consider whether our contracts, policies and practices are fit for purpose in the future. 

Despite the dangers of blurred work-life boundaries, many of us have enjoyed the benefits that this more integrated and flexible way of working has offered. Particularly when it comes to childcare, the increased freedom to plan our working day around the lives we lead allows us to dedicate the time to those moments during the day that the constraints of strict working timetables and commutes have traditionally made difficult. As Emily summarised“the ability to be able to pop out and pick my daughter up from school […] is priceless”. Emily also noted how these new ways of working may work to address the historic imbalance of care-giving roles across the genders, saying that “I think it gives dads and sons more permission to be involved in caring responsibilities”. 

Of the post-coronavirus world, Emily foresees that “the big move will be towards work places as a place that you go to connect, innovate, collaborate, and won’t just be a place where you turn up to do emails and phone calls”. With this evolution will come the realisation that “geography should become increasingly unimportant as we connect in better ways”. The benefits of this are within the interests of the organisations we work for. The fact that we have been able to successfully work from home, as a society, for nearly a year, demonstrates how viable these new ways of working are, and as Emily mentioned, “for the first time, all employers will have the data that shows this productivity”. If we are able to remove location as a determining factor for work, Emily argues that businesses will be able to “comb across the UK for the best and the brightest talent and not worry about relocation costs”. 

As Emily said, “my great hope for this flexibility agenda is that it means location becomes irrelevant”. Particularly within areas such as the North East, where there has always been a concern about the drift of qualified and talented employees towards London and the South. Flexibility of working from home has shown that “it’s perfectly possible to have good and better jobs up here even if big companies do not have significant bases”. In a working world, “the significant reduction in fixed costs could allow employers to rethink what they need property for and how it’s used […] it means that employees can realise the benefits of having a great job while living in a good part of the country with access to affordable housing, you don’t have to live in big cities where the carbon emissions are high”. 

Evidently, there is no one size fits all solution for how to approach working life after coronavirus. This is the beauty of Emily Cox’s proposed methods of working. “I think that this way of working benefits everybody. It benefits men and it benefits women. It benefits anybody that is trying to balance work and how we live”. Emily also believes that this flexibility should be available at different points throughout a career, when priorities and demands dictate it: “it may be at a point in time, perhaps as they are entering the job market or as they are joining new companies, where you might want to spend a bit more time in the office, but as and when things progress you want the flexibility to be able to change and to do more working from home”. She described the ideal working culture we should strive to reach as being “a place where actually, you can probably get something which is highly personalised, where everybody is choosing the right blend that works for them, and I think in that scenario there are no losers. Everybody’s a winner”. 

Emily also spoke of the society wide changes she hopes to see reflected in a world after coronavirus. Despite the promising commitments being made to maintain the changes we have benefited from over the last year, Emily felt the need to sustain this. “Like any revolution, it takes a lot of time and energy to move away from old ideals, and it takes much longer to embed what that means”. Hopefully the momentum means, “we’ve come too far for us to go back to pre-pandemic ways of working”. Emily hopes that “as a society we’re leaning more towards being purpose led and feeling a deeper connection to something”.  

With the 3rd covid vaccine having recently been announced, we might even become tempted to think about returning to “normal” life within the next year. But how much of this normality do we actually want back? Looking over the multiple benefits of flexible working that Emily has described, it is vital that we don’t forget that this way of life is very much within our grasp. It is our responsibility to march forward into the post-covid world with open eyes, as we watch the changes begin to happen around us. 

  

By Georgina Buckle 

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