Three steps for preparing for workplace return
The world is slowly emerging from the lockdowns that Governments imposed at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. As lockdown eases and employees return to their offices, businesses need to consider how they do this. Every country is coming back at a different pace, in different ways, with cultural nuances, and legislative differences
It is not just the regulations that are different; each employee will also have different circumstances. Employees may still have dependents at home, or they may be in a vulnerable category for coronavirus. Organisations must change working methods as they look to both continue in business and carry out their duty of care for employees, suppliers, partners and customers.
Unit4 has a people-centric ethos. Both for its solutions and also towards its employees. It has started an exercise to define what working at Unit4 will look like as things return, taking as many positives as possible to create a better way of flexible working in the future. Why is this important? We don’t want people stumbling back into the workplace unsure of the processes they need to follow or even if they need to return to the workplace. The aim is to define very clearly the Unit4 way of working, going forward.
First, it was really important that we understood what our employees wanted. We, therefore, asked our employees their views in a survey. We found that more than 50% of employees were not ready to return to the workplace yet. It has led to the phasing of re-entry plans over the next few months. Offices will reopen with a maximum 30% capacity. In some countries, we will open offices much later than others.
Even before the survey, we considered the basis for employees returning to the office. The key point for us was to base the return on the criticality of being in an office. The company-centric view was that if the work doesn’t require people to be in the office, we’re not asking them to attend. There is also an alternate employee-centric view. Where employees can’t work from home, the intent is to enable them to collaborate in a workspace that gives them the freedom to engage in different ways than before.
The changing workplace
Shutting down the offices was the easy part. There is a lot more effort to open them back up. Whilst it’s important to prepare the offices for the return of employees, it is not just about physical workspaces. Other considerations include:
- One way systems to comply with social distancing
- Reduction in desks, to comply with social distancing
- Provision of PPE, whose responsibility is it?
- A booking system to ensure that you can apply contact tracing
- Ensuring health and safety including mental wellbeing in the workplace
- Put processes in place that identify infected individuals before they enter the office.
- A work rota, to ensure that people can work in the office without compromising health and safety. Being able to scale these solutions carefully is also key; it is, therefore, essential that the return is phased. The health of employees and COVID-19 testing is another consideration. In the US, there are calls for the responsibility of worker testing to fall upon employers. This may also occur in other countries. Testing kits or temperature monitoring equipment needs sourcing and employees trained in its use.
HR Leaders also need to consider the evolving training requirements. Customer engagements are now virtual, requiring new skills sets for salespeople and consultants deploying the software. Softer skills such as writing instant messages and emails are critical as the reliance on electronic communication is even more important. Meeting etiquette and how to run Zoom meetings effectively and equitably is yet another.
Can we create a better normal?
The pandemic has accelerated our thinking around the workspace of the future. Moving to flexible working is a cultural change that has historically had mixed reactions. The pandemic was a black swan event that forced employees to work from home, almost overnight. That forced homeworking has proved to us that the better normal is a possibility and that the office environments become collaboration areas, not that’s my desk, my picture of my children is on that desk and only I can sit at it. While the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, it has achieved the first part of the required mindset change.
One myth that has been dispelled is that flexible working kills productivity. There are certain things that employees get from being in an office environment. However, it now appears that there are many people where the office distractions make them less productive.
Development teams are an example of success. While development teams have sometimes struggled with continual collaboration, especially those following agile methodologies, productivity is actually up. At Unit4, the development function has increased productivity by 12%. It is not the only company to experience that either. We need to ensure that this new productivity level is maintained but not at the expense of our agile processes.
Things will change
Remote working can also bring challenges. One of these is hiring. We have already started focusing on the characteristics of high performing hires. We had begun to change how we looked, how we interviewed and how we interacted. Added to that is now the complication of how to engage them and know that you’ve hired the right person when you can’t physically sit in front of them. Ultimately it means one has to have a robust process that all managers in all areas can follow for our end to end recruitment experiences.
Another challenge is onboarding. Perhaps ironically, our global head of workspaces joined the company during this period. Onboarding people in a virtual world became a key priority around making them feel a part of that journey and making them feel a part of a team. While one cannot replace the impact a face to face interaction has it has become clear that certain aspects of a virtual onboarding are essential.
The whole concept of connectivity, productivity, collaboration and enablement, and how it scales in harmony in a remote environment is really, really key. Most important is trust. Organisations need to trust that people are productive. That has to become the new default. However, remember that while some people can work remotely, for others, it is just not part of their DNA, yet. It is going to become the biggest challenge as we work towards our better normal.
Having gone into detail for some of these changes, there are three pieces of advice I would give.
- Keep it simple; don’t over-engineer it.
- Listen to your people,
- Adopt an iterative approach. If you consider a big bang approach, you won’t succeed
For any HR leader, the pandemic has taken us beyond any skill set we ever thought we had because no one has experience with all of this. A crisis can bring out the best in people.
Remember, the worst thing a company can do right now is just waiting for the government advice to reopen offices/ and then let employees stumble into a new normal. You have to have a model, so that you can say to people, here is how we engage moving forward.