Changing places and ways of working
To that end, while virtual meetings may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and they are far from real human interaction, there are undoubtedly benefits for leaders, both within and outside HR, to seize:
Most obviously perhaps, costs, both to employees and employers, of travel, office space, facilities, printing, cleaning, subsistence, etc can be dramatically reduced. Significant numbers of organisations are re-examining their property strategies with cost in mind. In a similar vein, location strategy is also important: if public transport must run below capacity and is perceived as ‘high risk’, will this accelerate an exodus out of cities – especially London – where office space and domestic real estate is both more affordable and (more safely) accessible?
Secondly, operating a more virtual workforce means that talent pools can expand, both domestically and internationally, with less reliance on physical presence. This in turn could create more diverse employee populations and bring undoubted benefits in terms of future capability and skills. I am hearing much discussion about potential and performance, and whether businesses do indeed have the right metrics in place to measure either of these. Should crisis response, communication, the ability to make decisions at extreme pace, virtual/remote leadership form part of our behavioural models moving forward – or are they short term requirements after all? Should we rip up the practices that went before and redesign them for a new post-Covid world?
Thirdly, organisations have had to learn to pivot – to switch direction unexpectedly, to turn to new business lines, automate service and create e-commerce solutions in order to survive in the near term. For some, it has enabled them to explore opportunities deemed too risky pre-Covid, but in a boom or bust scenario, often worth the leap of faith. Many executive teams have found themselves freer in their decision making, driven by the urgency and reality of dramatic revenue reductions. The role of the HR partner as coach and change agent will be critical as these same teams are now trying to work out how to retain some of this pace and greater appetite for risk as they move forward.
Community has also become a common thread for discussion: what role does the organisation really play in its local community, and what role do I play in mine? Am I willing to go back to being simply a ‘regular overnight guest’? As national lockdown eases and local ones become a reality, we must surely also consider our supply chains. Could Covid reinvigorate the UK’s manufacturing sector, bring previously offshored roles back onshore, and encourage people and businesses to buy local, even if that costs us more financially?
And what about the other behavioural benefits: in a virtual meeting we are less likely to be late (no traffic or waiting for a lift!), to have a side conversation, or to shift our focus away from the screen/speaker. We are allowing colleagues into our homes and virtually into our lives (although in my experience, it’s not kids, but cats, that interrupt the most) and it’s this intimacy, I suspect, that is leading to increased levels of engagement being reported, even in heavily impacted industries and amongst furloughed staff.