CAT MACDONALD, founder and MD of human resources specialists True HR.
On Tuesday March 23, 2020, the way we work changed forever. Overnight, millions of businesses in every corner of the UK closed their doors to all but essential staff and switched to remote working.
Our homes became our workplaces; kitchen tables were used as desks, shoe racks as filing cabinets and bedrooms became classrooms as we struggled to adjust to a working day that began and ended within our own four walls. Many also had to balance home schooling children with having a productive working day.
Colleagues who were used to spending almost 40 hours a week together were reduced to contact via email and video conferencing.
Employees and businesses alike have had to adapt how they work. Some have had to fracture their workforce with support staff working from home to protect essential employees on the shop floor in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and manufacturing. Elsewhere, entire teams were placed on furlough.
Every organisation’s lockdown story is unique; no two will have done exactly the same or found employees impacted in an identical way.
However, those with a strong company culture will have found maintaining contact throughout the long months of lockdown easier than those with little or no focus on culture.
The importance of company culture
Under normal circumstances, creating a meaningful company culture can take months, years even to create. Businesses with a ‘can do’ attitude that seek out flexible and adaptable people at the recruitment stage will have felt the benefit of teams working together to drive high standards long before the pandemic hit.
A strong, relevant culture helps to create a positive working environment where people understand what is expected of them and lead by example.
And when teams are suddenly removed from their normal environment and told to work remotely, a definitive culture can make the difference between nurturing engagement and feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction.
Video technology has become a vital way of keeping teams together. A call via Teams or Zoom is not going to replace the water cooler chat, but it is still a way of communicating face-to-face even if it is via a laptop or smart phone. Even if it’s just a 10-minute daily catch-up, that personal contact is important for communication and team cohesion.
How do I manage employees remotely?
One concern that has been raised regularly since last March is how to reinforce company culture through performance appraisals. These provide an opportunity for employees to rate themselves against the company values; to refresh what they are and to consider whether people live and breathe what your business stands for.
It’s especially important that everyone understands your culture and lives the values, from the CEO to the apprentice, when teams are working remotely. And it’s vital that the senior team in particular are seen to embody and embrace the company values.
For a company culture to work effectively, the values must remain meaningful and match your team’s own motivators.
A session on team coaching, covering areas such as motivation, will reveal a lot about your employees and what makes them tick. For example, if the company values are rooted in integrity and honesty but your team’s personality is all about achieving targets, your culture probably won’t resonate very deeply. When values match team motivators, employees in all areas become fully engaged.
Positives of remote working
As we take tentative steps towards returning to the workplace, there are some positives that have emerged from remote working. One is that it has removed the stigma of working from home, which in the past had been perceived as having an easy day – or even a day off.
Employees across the board now know themselves how intense a WFH day can be and how quite often, you end up working harder and for longer than you might in your regular workplace. In a recent survey by HR Magazine, almost a third (29 per cent) of workers said they were more productive at home than in the office, where they were distracted by chatting to colleagues, browsing the internet or taking time out to make a drink.
A further advantage is that the widespread use of technology such as Teams, Zoom or Google Meet has reduced the need for face-to-face meetings, reducing the associated travel time and costs and consequently a company’s carbon footprint. Jumping on a video call is also likely to replace the humble phone call – it’s often easier and cheaper than arranging complicated conference calls where there is less interaction.
Businesses looking to improve the diversity of their workforce have embraced remote working as a means of improving access to a more diverse talent pool. HR teams can use it as a chance to widen their net; no longer are they seeking candidates within a particular geographical area, they can broaden their horizons to the whole of the UK or, where appropriate, look on a global scale.
In terms of health, many have benefited from a more flexible day when they can enjoy a lunchtime walk or spend time with their pet. We’ve been able to eat better and had the chance to put more ‘life’ into our work / life balance – something that we may have struggled with while working 9-5 in an office.
Removing the daily commute also takes away the associated stress of being stuck in a traffic jam or from public transport running late.
Disadvantages of remote working
One of the most common complaints about working remotely is that people find it difficult to switch off at the end of the working day. When your kitchen table is covered in work papers and equipment, it’s hard to make a clean break when the emails continue to pour in. This blurring of the boundary between work and home life is a worrying aspect of the prolonged requirement to work remotely.
In the workplace, it’s normal to take regular breaks to make a drink, discuss matters with colleagues, or take a walk to the local sandwich shop to pick up lunch. At home you may not take the breaks you need, which in turn can lead to a feeling of burnout or being ‘always on’.
Feeling isolated from colleagues has been another issue. It’s easy to feel part of the bigger picture when you’re in the workplace and brainstorming every day; without regular communication, it’s not so easy when people are working remotely.
Some may feel that opportunities for promotion or development are fewer when they are not in the office regularly or that their relationships with co-workers suffer, particularly when teams are split between remote and on-site working.
While businesses have been able to save on the cost of office space, employees may have struggled with a lack of appropriate equipment. You may have been able to take your laptop home, but your kitchen table and chairs were probably not designed to be used for seven hours a day.
Training and development programmes have been interrupted and while some have been successfully moved online, the opportunity to develop members of staff, or to identify areas where more training is needed, have been reduced without face-to-face contact.
A shift in culture on flexible working
While legislation on flexible working existed before the pandemic, there has been a pronounced cultural shift since lockdown began.
If an employee wants to remain working from home, they can request flexible working – and employers need a business reason to refuse that request. Given that millions have worked successfully from home for the past 12 months, the end result is likely to involve a compromise. For instance, an employer can ask you to attend a client meeting in the office but working from home for a set number of days can be agreed.
But businesses need to consider the reasons why their employees don’t want to return. Perhaps they are still anxious about their health or have found that flexible working makes childcare far less problematic. It could be that if people’s fears are discussed and explored then there will be a way to resolve them.
Share why the business feels they need to work from the office, what the business rationale is. Communicate clearly, outline rationale, listen carefully to feedback and support your staff after what has been a terrible year for all.
Ultimately, companies could argue that it’s reasonable to expect people to return to the office. But the instruction to return must be considered, and perceived, to be a ‘reasonable’ instruction. My advice would be to tread carefully as times and expectations have moved on.
There are benefits and disadvantages to all ways of working, whether they be remote, workplace based or a hybrid mixture of the two. The key is to understand them all, consider their impact then work with your employees to address their concerns and to support them.