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Workplace return

Three steps for preparing for workplace return

from  December 27, 2022 | 6 min read

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. Organizations must change working methods and account for all of this in their return to office policy as they look to both continue in business and carry out their duty of care for employees, suppliers, partners and customers.

Employee first

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 of our return to office strategy was therefore 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 on workplace return 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. Moving back towards office working is not just about physical workspaces - we also have to think about HR responsibilities towards employees. Other considerations include:

  • Getting to grips with a variety of different workplace models (and redesigning your existing workspaces to accommodate them - including by reducing the size of your real estate portfolio)
  • Making more space for meetings and collaboration (in hybrid and remote working models, most “in-person” interaction is likely to be prioritizing the parts of the job we can only do together)
  • Placing more focus on amenities and support - with a new focus on social and collaborative connections, workplaces will require a greater level of attention paid to amenities that support this, along with physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.
  • Ensuring your people understand the changes you’re making and are fully on board with the new purpose and focus of your workspaces (while still giving them the choice of where and when they work.)
  • Assuming that your current workplace strategy will change as your needs change, and as you test and learn with new models.

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, though some may be resistant to organizational change at first, we have seen office environments become better suited to collaboration and communication. 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. Developing human resources protocol for 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 of face to face interaction, it has become clear that certain aspects of a virtual onboarding are essential. You can read more about this in our remote onboarding tips article.

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. Organizations 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.

And finally

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.

How Unit4 can help you with this problem

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