Workforce – remote ways of working

Home working is now the defining feature of New Normal.  Most of us have figured out how to work from home and still be productive. We have discovered Teams and Zoom and a way of operating with interruptions from dogs, cats and children.

Most of us got used to this new way of working at amazing speed – especially as it had taken organisations so long to get this far. Many have said they achieved in two weeks what they had struggled with for two years. That was the easy bit. Now we are able to open up the offices we face a new challenge.

So what happens now and what will be the longer term legacy?

1. Working from home

While the effort and pace involved were genuinely staggering – it was relatively straightforward to make the shift because the crisis dictated the response. There is an unanswered question – is it sustainable? The majority seem to be happy to continue working at home, but to do so they may require more kit, comfortable chairs and a decent desk and the flexibility to work with the routines of home life with partners and children. What will be more challenging is how to keep staff connected to their teams and the wider organisation and to maintain their wellbeing when the novelty wears off and the pace of the crisis eases up.

2. Going back to work

While it was a relatively straightforward change to manage getting people working from home – frankly there was little choice – going the other way will be more interesting. There will be a real mix of people with different expectations about where they work, coupled with different management styles shaping how teams are expected to work. There will also be the prospect of organisations shutting down buildings and massively constraining the amount of space retained. All being navigated in the context of government social distancing guidance. This could be a very tricky change management challenge and could easily be mishandled. Engagement and a clear vision of a hybrid working model will be essential. There will need to be a plan for the density and working patterns desired for the organisation. Otherwise there is a real risk that staff will drift back to the office and old ways of working while there is still plenty of space.

3. Wider organisational implications

The shift to home working has not only unfrozen working patterns. It also represents an opportunity to unfreeze organisational structures, roles and cultures. Because the way we work is so deeply entwined with where we work we now have the opportunity to reassess both. Working digitally at home might suggest that digital pervades everything we do. Working and collaborating more flexibly at home might mean that our roles become more flexible and that stiff organisational boundaries are softened – or eliminated. And culture is deep rooted in the processes, stories and myths that shape the “way we work around here”. Given what has happened we have the opportunity to replace the old stories, acknowledge that some myths just got completely shattered and that we have no choice but to put in place completely new ways of managing performance and activity. If we rush to go back into the office we may miss the opportunity to reflect on the wider implications. There will be many others, eg we may have just taken a huge leap toward meeting the objectives previously set for reducing carbon emissions.

4. Management style

Some managers will have struggled with the management of performance while people were at home. There will in some quarters have been an element of presenteeism and the need to see people to believe they were doing something productive – not a completely logical indicator of productivity in any case. In a remote working environment there are two key methods for managing people’s productivity. Firstly, by reference to outcomes. In this case people need clarity of purpose and the manager’s role is to maintain that clarity – helping resolve issues as necessary – and to support and enable individuals and teams to focus on outcomes, collaborate and perform. Secondly, by having automated processes and workflow that gives relevant management information about workflows and outputs. If this is in place and staff are well trained and empowered then the manager’s role is to support smooth workflow and help resolve issues. It should not matter where people are located and the logical conclusion is that the organisation can operate with flatter structures and fewer managers.

5. The buildings

Organisations will be sitting in large office buildings, often with old – even listed – layouts at a time when nobody will want excess office space. The challenge is to be creative about new usage and opportunities to repurpose buildings (or the space on which they sit) to support the development of a revitalised place, local economy and community. Buildings could be used in multi-purpose developments with housing, business and community space. Depending on location and the wider development plans the buildings may be a genuine anchor for town centre and high street development. In other settings they may be a real millstone.

The challenge

Organisations have demonstrated that they can change at pace when they really need to.  There may be a temptation to drift back to old ways of working when offices are reopened – however that is highly unlikely to happen. However, there is a real challenge to redefine in a comprehensive way the way an organisation wants to work which goes well beyond the narrow decision of where people work.  Working at home during lockdown will be the enduring memory that people carry with them for many years. We will all be able to relate to it and engage in the debate about how to work in the future. Looking at the broader opportunities may take some time but the investment will be worthwhile.