The great ‘work from home’ experiment of 2020… but are we ready for what comes next?

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After 15 months out of our offices, organisations are now starting to think about what the future of work looks like. Whilst many want their old lives back, the overwhelming advice appears to be for us to embrace what we’ve learnt, not just return to our pre-pandemic ways.

So, what does the “New Normal” look like?

The overwhelming belief is that flexible, or hybrid working is here to stay. Recent research from Microsoft appears to confirm that there isn’t a “one size fits all”, with 70% of employees saying they want flexible working to continue. The flipside is that 65% of employees are also craving more genuine face to face time, rather than over a screen.

What is clear is that there needs to be a model that works for all.

Numerous organisations have stated their intentions that “work is something you do, not a place you go” and moving forward, offices will be a place to collaborate and meet colleagues and clients face to face, and adopt a flexible pattern.  Equally, I have heard of organisations who are moving to a much more virtual operating model, with more people working from home. For some it will be seen as a way of saving money through reduced property costs, however this route will undoubtedly create a whole host of other challenges around remote management, mental health and ambient learning.

What are the challenges ahead?

There is no doubt that it will be imperative for organisations to discuss this with their entire workforce. From what we have observed during the pandemic, decision makers at a more senior level are often less affected by the challenges than those further down the organisation who may not have separate office space at home or share space with others.

Another challenge created by remote working, is the lack of opportunity for ambient learning, where employees learn just by soaking up conversations when surrounded by more experienced colleagues. The 70:20:10 model for learning is well known, where 70 percent comes through job related experiences, 20 percent through interactions with others, and only 10 percent through formal training and demonstrates this should not be overlooked. For many organisations with a higher graduate and early careers population, this has become a bigger problem – stunting the development of those concerned. How this can be rectified, is still a challenge perplexing many organisations.

There is no doubt that there will be those with a stronger preference for being at home, and some wanting to spend more time in the office. Another related concern is one of “presence bias” and the potential for employees to have greater chances of internal advancement, even subconsciously, than employees who are predominantly working from home if they are seen more regularly by colleagues and managers. It will therefore be important that managers ensure time is spent equally with those in the office and at home. HR Consultant and Employment Lawyer, Amanda Lennon agrees:  “Employers should take care to ensure that any decisions about their employees are made using fair and objective processes, for instance promotions and other changes to terms and conditions of employment, to avoid the suggestion of bias against those working from home. Otherwise, employers risk having to deal with grievances, and even potential claims for matters such as discrimination, if they don’t act fairly.”

Tips for a successful transition to a new “Business as Usual”

Whilst we have had some time to think about what the future may look like, it’s interesting that research from McKinsey suggests that 68% of organisations currently have no detailed plan for the return to office, although 90% expect to be operating a hybrid model. Here are some tips to help in the transition to any new working model:

  • Communicate – It’s clear that many staff are feeling vulnerable about the changing model. Whilst many organisations have benefited from the productivity bounce through covid, its important that many will feel anxious during this period and this may in turn lead to a level of burnout or disengagement.
  • Learn from others – whilst we’re all going through this at the same time in the UK, many parts of the world have already started this process and there are many organisations who have shared their experiences – Gartner’s lessons from returning to work in Asia is a very interesting read.
  • Rewrite how roles are measured – the days of sitting at a desk and being measured by the hours you put in will have changed. It’s important now to think about outputs of roles and how these are measured in a remote environment.
  • Hybrid meetings have their own challenges – whilst we’ve all adapted to working virtually and 10 people on a screen, as we transition back to the office, we will have meetings where people will join “in person” groups who may be together in an office. This always brings challenging dynamics of people talking with each other in the group and isolating those remotely. It is important to have strong meeting facilitation to ensure those joining online still feel valued within the conversation.
  • Make your employees mental health a priority – not only does this period of uncertainty cause anxiety, the lack of personal connection, chats whilst making a coffee and those water cooler moments will affect people in different ways. Focus on engagement programmes to keep morale high and look after their wellbeing. One of the hardest things for many has been that every meeting has had a purpose and there have been less chats just to check colleagues are OK.

Whilst some roles struggle to be delivered remotely, for many this has been the biggest switch in working practices in a lifetime. More needs to be done to truly embrace flexible working and not just “lift and shift” our office to home. There is a fantastic opportunity for organisations to take the best of office life and home-working to create a hybrid model that has a positive impact on shaping company cultures moving forward.

Your strategy will be as important for your current employees, as it is to attract new talent to the organisation and in many cases, it is becoming a differentiator for candidates looking to move.