We hosted our second Leadership Webinar last week and this time the subject was hybrid working and how organisations were adapting. The event coincided with the launch of our first report into Workforce productivity and provided an opportunity to discuss some of the headline findings.
Host Rachel Burden, BBC 5 Live and BBC Breakfast presenter, talked to Alex Arundale, our Chief People Officer; Sam Fuller, Founder and CEO of The Wellbeing Project; Marshah Dixon-Terry, Career and Leadership Coach and Organisational Development Consultant at MDT Careers Coaching; and Victoria Robinson, Workforce Strategy and Culture Lead, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The panel shared their views on the way forward for flexible working, using technology as the enabler for lessons learned during an unprecedented year.
A new role for the office
Victoria Robinson says, “The office was a form of control. When it was removed, we didn’t fall off a cliff. It’s going to be very difficult to tell people they have to come back in now when they’ve demonstrated so ably that remote working is productive and it works for them. In some recent data we have collected, a third of employees say they will resign if they don’t get the same flexibility, going forward, that they’ve had over the past year.” Many older employees are appreciating the opportunity to work from home and avoid the commute, but many will also have a home office or organised workspace and a garden to take breaks in. It’s been a very different experience for people who are sharing a flat, with little private space and no outside area to escape to during lockdown.
Organisations now have the opportunity to revisit many aspects of their business, including an increased focus on the right tech solutions. Technology is the enabler for remote working and it will be critical for organisations to consider how they use it effectively to support flexible working in the future. Digital tools can be used to measure progress against set goals and make sure that is in line with business objectives.
There is a significant attrition risk for organisations that don’t offer flexibility, or get hybrid working wrong. Most are recognising that flexibility is key in attracting and retaining the best talent. There is also recognition of the link between employee and customer satisfaction. Studies have shown that when the employee experience improves, so equally does the customer experience.
PwC’s Future of the Office Survey shows 72 per cent of organisations are looking at reconfiguring their office space for new ways of using it, and there is some very creative reimaging and repurposing of space already going on. There is also a definite shift away from large London-based HQs towards smaller, regional offices on the high street and satellite offices around the UK, as the need to commute has been reduced.
When only the office will do
Some organisations have valid reasons for wanting things to go back to the way they were, pre-Covid. They may not have the right sort of technology to support remote working, or have concerns around the impact that a dispersed workforce will have on company culture or creativity. For these organisations, the office may still be the best place to get things done in the way they want to.
77 per cent of employees want some form of hybrid working now, but that leaves a significant number of people who don’t. They may not have a suitable workspace at home and some senior leaders are struggling with leading in the digital age. At the other end of the career ladder, 18-24 year-olds are missing out on the learning-by-osmosis experience and are finding it difficult to build workplace networks and really want to come back.
Our 2021 Workforce Trends Survey has revealed that 14 per cent of young people have been working from their bedroom, clearly not an ideal situation. Many have found working from home a negative experience. Being new to the workplace means they haven’t been able to watch the professional behaviours of colleagues and be part of social interactions in the office. Even for older, established employees and managers, working from the dining room or kitchen has presented its own challenges with additional distractions.
Preferences for more home or office-based working are highly individual. Victoria says: “We have some data that shows that introvert personality types are struggling more with home working than extroverts.” This presents a real conundrum for employers trying to offer the right balance to so many different people with different needs and preferences.
The pandemic has driven a positive impact on diversity and inclusion, allowing organisations to recruit from a much more diverse and geographically dispersed talent pool. There are interesting findings about some groups, and Sam Fuller references her organisation’s recent report into employee resilience, using data collected pre- and during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Females experienced a greater drop in resilience scores during the pandemic, with females experiencing a decline that’s 68% larger than males.” This may indicate that females have struggled with additional challenges around domestic responsibilities, home schooling and fitting the demands of their family in with their work. Not all employers are so understanding about those challenges.
Organisations that can offer additional support – things like counselling, yoga sessions and digital detox support, are demonstrating that they are understanding and supportive of employees during this immensely difficult year. Trust is also very empowering. Marshah Dixon-Terry says: “Research shows that offering more flexibility leads to greater productivity. When people feel trusted they will rise to it and deliver more for their organisations.”
One of the pitfalls for organisations managing remote and in-office teams and aiming to support greater diversity will be to ensure that opportunities are available to all, not just the few who may be present in the office.
A more human approach to management
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic has been an acceptance that everybody has lives and things happen. Alex Arundale says: “We have to be transparent and lead on this. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. If people want to use their lunch break time to collect their kids from school later, that’s fine. It’s ok to have a family and also work. For me, it’s all about output, not playing some sort of game, being seen, 9 to 5.”
The pandemic has created greater pressures for managers too, with the 2021 Workforce Trends Survey showing 48 per cent of managers have spent more time giving feedback and reassurance during the pandemic. Alex Arundale says she is proud of the way some managers have stepped up in this time. “Managers have experienced the pressures too and that has given them perspective around the duty of care they have to their team. I call it ‘Covid Kindness’, a recognition that everyone is human and it has had a very positive effect on the way they manage people. By slowing down a little, managers are in a position now to be more reflective and targeted in the way they manage teams, not just around their personal needs but around productivity too. Technology has enabled more useful conversations, that can be recorded and referred back to. Being a manager is about more than directing a piece of work, its about impacting people’s lives.”
Initiatives that focus on training and upskilling managers to be role models for healthy high performance are very effective. When employees see the way their line manager behaves and how it reflects the expectations on themselves, it’s much easier for them to adopt those behaviours. It’s also important that managers really get to know their teams in order to be able to spot early signs of stress and react accordingly.
Sam Fuller says: “One of the challenges for leaders is that they often try to fix things and help people resolve their problems. That isn’t their job. It’s about understanding and listening, being flexible to people’s individual needs and keeping an eye on them. By building psychological safety, a place where it is safe to talk about wellbeing, leaders can retain valuable talent.”
Technology can enable and empower people to do their jobs better than ever, but it also has the potential to hinder. Too many distracting apps and notifications can leave people feeling swamped and unable to focus. 32 per cent of employees who responded to the 2021 Workplace Trends Survey say there are too many distractions from notifications and messaging tools. And 17 per cent say their productivity is hindered by having too many business apps.
Supporting career progression
Not everyone wants the same career path, as Marshah Dixon-Terry says: “Some are looking for promotion, others for lateral moves that offer different experiences, or to use their skills in other departments or sectors. People can use platforms like LinkedIn to help them establish connections that may have an impact on their career. It provides opportunities to join groups and develop knowledge in different ways.”
Alex Arundale comments: “Technology really helps with internal mobility and career progression. Having the right solutions can support daily conversations about personal and professional development. It shouldn’t be a monthly or an annual thing, these conversations should be ongoing and using technology to record and review conversations is a great way to see how someone is progressing.” She highlights the need for refining internal communications strategies that ensure everyone is kept well-informed but is not overwhelmed.
Future steps for better wellbeing
Moving out of the pandemic it is important to recognise the immense stress and pressure that some employees, managers and business leaders have been under. Alex Arundale suggests that rather than reacting to an anticipated breakdown moment, when people are on the verge of burnout, it is more productive for leaders to take a proactive approach. They should introduce longer-term and more sustainable ways to encourage a healthy workforce by embedding initiatives in the company culture. The 2021 Workforce Trends Report shows that one in three employees would like their boss to trial a four-day week. We have introduced Summer Fridays, encouraging people to work hard during the week and take Friday afternoons off during July and August and the feedback from staff has been very positive. They have felt trusted and the incentive of additional time off has driven productivity.
Encouraging people to take regular breaks, with leaders modelling this behaviour, is highly effective. Sam Fuller describes how her organisation has stopped all emails and meetings between 1 and 2pm, to support healthy breaks. It provides a validated breathing space in the day to do something else, whether it be walking the dog or having a cuppa and a chat with other family members.