The relaxation of lockdown is under way and we can look forward to many aspects of life returning to something like ‘normal’ but we know that how we work and do business has changed, probably forever.
Trying to go back to how things used to be is simply not going to work for many employees and organisations; the genie is out of the bottle and we need to adapt to the new environment.
Making the most of the new normal will be predicated on a people-focussed workplace that is designed around a hybrid-remote office model with a flexible and innovative approach to people and workflow management.
Meet the challenge
Securing employee engagement, loyalty and commitment will mean factoring in some changes to attitude that will be the legacy of the Covid-crisis; expectations are changing:
- Employees want transparency, two-way and open communication that treats them as valued and trusted members of the team, not just cogs in the machine. If you want employees to see the bigger picture, you have to make them feel part of the overall game-plan and empower them to aim for the greater good!
- We want to see more kindness at work in people-centred strategies and processes. During the pandemic, many people have suffered loneliness, exacerbated by lack of shared information and communication and there has been a greater focus on mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress, overwork and burn out. One of the good things that happened in lockdown was the chance to slow down, take stock, reflect, and re-evaluate our working lives.
- Most employees want to retain the flexible working that has been the norm during lockdown – we have conclusively seen that it works, that most jobs can be done on this basis and the benefits of working from home outweigh the challenges. Apart from anything else, not having to commute has been a major positive as has the time saved by conducting virtual meetings rather than travelling between physical ones.
In short, we believe that making a work environment which is employee-centred, with a focus on flexibility, will give employees freedom with accountability while also enabling a strong focus on wellbeing. Everyone from chief executives, through traders, professionals and administrative staff have valued flexible working and we need to accommodate such preferences as we move forward.
The issue of flexible work really does need to be addressed – assess the benefit of returning to the office by asking why are people are coming in? Because it’s pointless if they are just in the office to reply to emails and do things that they could take care of from elsewhere. Making the case is part of attracting people back to work, if you fail to take their needs into account, some of them will make other choices.
Change is never easy and many managers cling to old attitudes and stereotypes; such managers may worry that if they can’t see the team, can they be trusted to be doing their jobs? This is old school thinking at its worst, and for organisations who are keen to get their employees back to the workplace, there is the very real matter of trust – an important component of the psychological contract is mutual trust and confidence.
It is significant that the CIPD point out that ‘high trust’ workplaces find it much easier to embrace organisational change – they can adapt faster and will achieve better levels of employee engagement at all levels.
This means that managers will need to empower employees and actively involve them in decision making and in return they will find that their teams are happier and more engaged, will perform better and go the extra mile because they see that their leaders believe in them.
Some questions to think about:
How to welcome employees back into the workplace? We should be thinking in terms of staged returns, a soft launch, and supporting working patterns which are tailored to meet employee needs and preferences while meeting organisational objectives, the proportion of time split between working from home and from the office will probably need to be negotiable and variable. Returners and new hires want to know what will be offered in terms of flexibility and you need a framework that sets out requirements and expectations clearly and fairly.
What can be adjusted in the workplace to reduce stress? Consider flexible working hours, regular check-ins with staff and negotiated downtime so those working remotely don’t feel they have to be available 24/7 and don’t forget that having time to socialise remains important. We’ve heard of firms that have introduced a Zoom free Friday policy; others have cut meeting times by having Outlook default to 25 minute meetings and 50 minute meetings (down from 30 mins and 1 hour)!
Which communication channels will help you engage in with employees? We need to ensure dispersed teams have the software and networking platforms that will facilitate innovation, collaboration, cohesive team-building and productivity; variety helps because employees will have different preferences.
How to understand individual employee needs? Aim for regular, open, and honest conversations to understand what your employees want, how they’re feeling and what skills they’d like to develop and their aspirations for their career and future with the organisation. Use surveys and online forums to gather information and opinions from stakeholders to establish what will work for your employees and where the challenges may be.
Look for opportunities too – for those who need to hire in new employees a factor to consider is that it may be cost-effective to draw on a global talent pool and outsource work to cheaper labour markets.
Several organisations have done a lot over the last year in terms of wellbeing and mental health to help those who have been feeling disconnected, on furlough or working from home. Flexible working means many have found they don’t need to be based in urban centres and have been able to move further afield; employers need to encourage these employees to reconnect and re-engage.
It sounds like an oxymoron but the new term coined for this way of working is “structured flexible”; those organisations which can embrace the right level of flexibility with structure around it, will be able to offer choice and guidance to employees at all levels to ensure productivity and collaboration are maintained.
The main priority for good employers is around how to help employees feel safe while articulating what the future of work will look like. This will be a process of evolution, taken step by step because we’re asking people to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and volatility.