Here’s what to take back to the office

December 2020
By: Steve Simmance

 The observations and learning from our most recent Future of Work forum have been shared once again.

The topics of discussion this time were ‘Communication’ and ‘Performance’: Has the flow of information from top to bottom been clear and accessible during this pandemic period, and has the workforce adapted without affecting productivity?

What became clear very early on into discussions was that actually the ‘future’ of work, as we first considered it in July, is now our present. Anything we considered the ‘new normal’ in Summer has now passed, the working culture in companies has changed and adapted, and in fact, the novelty has worn off. There is nothing new about the working environment we find ourselves operating in 6 months later. If Government forecasts are accurate, and the workforce returns to the office in April, it will have been 12 months since we last sat around our desks, or indeed enjoyed a ‘water-cooler’ chat.

The value of those water-cooler moments is not to be underestimated, with 81% of participants saying that staff are missing the office and cannot wait to get back. It is the personal touch of a five-minute chat with a colleague; asking after their family, or what they’re watching on TV at the moment, that a group ‘Zoom’ call or a ‘Microsoft Teams’ meeting cannot capture nor deliver. Staff want to be listened to, valued, and treated as an individual, and feel like they are dealing with other people who understand them and empathise. The screens which now separate us make this all-the-more difficult to achieve, and thus all-the-more vital to address.

We have learned that communication needs to happen in a ‘human’ way, dealing with individual problems pragmatically is far more effective than writing broad policies in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way. Communication must be a blend to suit different types of workers. With personal touch comes vulnerability, and it is perfectly fine for leaders and Directors to admit “We don’t know”, or “We are in this together and we will work it out”. It is crucial that the workforce feels they are included in the thought process, and not met with silence as the solutions are being figured out.

The best way to avoid silence is frequent communication. Clear and consistent comms on a regular basis has been a vital tool in keeping staff in the loop in the last half a year and is something we should all take forward. The use of comms software such as ‘WebEx’, which might have been used every now and then to make a niggling complaint, has become a corporate WhatsApp, with employees always seeking clarification and reassurance, staving off nervousness and anxiety. Comms templates are equally effective at keeping staff in the loop. ‘Weekly Newsletters’ containing latest Government guidelines, links to helpful resources and repeated messages for clarity, are now a necessary part of communication, and we suggest it is something to be taken forward as we adapt back to the ‘old normal’.

Turning to the subject of Performance, this Pandemic period has also affirmed the paramount importance of mental well-being plays in the workplace. In a time of such social uncertainty, HR teams ‘checking-in’ that the employee population is happy is vital, after all, good mental health equates to increased productivity: 71% of the FOW forum’s participants believe their workforce is happier than ever, and 53% believe staff have been more productive during this period. In short, a happy company is a successful company, and swift communication is crucial in achieving these results.

The fact that performance has been bolstered in the WFH period is perhaps surprising. We feel confident that the days of nine-to-five, five days a week in the office, are over. The message is that “the needs of the business come first, achieve the results in whichever way you see fit”, it does not matter how we get from A-B, and being in the office is no longer a pre-requisite.

This is where leadership and team management play an important role. There is a natural anxiety that there might have been a degree of employees using WFH as a cloak to ‘loaf’, but the results suggest otherwise. Although, it is important to consider whilst you “can run a business from home, can you drive a business from home?” – our forum believes so, as long as staff are communicated with frequently, and given purpose.

There are various ways of monitoring performance. The use of metrics is an easy and accessible way for employers to track productivity and the use of applications such as ‘HOLD’ – which rewards staff for not using their phone – can ensure the workforce remains focused and engaged. Participants also commented on the importance of appraisals. Staff want to feel that they are moving forward in their job and that their Directors are invested in their progress.

The notion of ‘moving forward’ and progressing can be lost when not in an office environment, and constantly sat behind a screen in a make-shift office-cum-living room. We believe a change of scenery is effective, and a middle ground can be found between face-to-face meetings and social distancing. Why not take a business meeting in the form of a phone call, whilst going for a walk in the park? Or better still, why not simply have a socially distant meeting in the open air or on a park bench?

Our key takeouts from the November forum are overwhelmingly positive:

-   communication has improved

-   mental well-being is getting the attention it deserves

-   productivity has increased.

We also collected views via a poll: 

-    81% of people cannot wait to get back into the office,

-    only 56% feel adequately prepared to thrive after the pandemic, whenever this might be.

The task is now about bringing our new established working environment back to the office with us. If we enact what we have learnt about communication and productivity over the last half a year, we will be positioned to work better than ever before when we return to the office.

Steve Simmance, 10th December 2020


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