Right now, most businesses will be thinking about what post-Covid working might look like. To get some answers, we asked a panel of experts: Esther O’Callaghan OBE, Principal Co-Founder, Hundo Careers, John Frith, Chief People Officer, Checkatrade and David Thomas, Partner, Vail Williams, to debate how they believe we should work now and in the future, to create a positive, employee-centric workplace. Felix Wetzel, CRO of Pocket Recruiter, moderated the discussion.
Though it may seem premature to think about this topic given we’re still living with the pandemic, it’s important to look past it and instead use it as a catalyst for change. Here are five key points which were raised during the event:
It’s not the office vs home working
It appears that there’s been a gear change from the first lockdown to the second with regard to perception of the office. At first, many companies found themselves believing they didn’t need an office anymore, operating a blanket work-from-home policy. Yet over time, it’s become clear that some people need to work in the office.
A good example is Checkatrade, which recently moved into a newly-designed workplace and suddenly found its 450-strong team working from home. Did the office become a metaphorical millstone? John says not. “As soon as we came out of the first lockdown, we had in excess of 150 people back in the office, because they missed the camaraderie.” There’s an appreciation that some roles work better in the office and some people simply don’t have a suitable home-working set-up. That said, post-Covid, sympathetic changes will need to be made.
“It’s not like the office is dead,” says Esther, “I think it’s opened up a discussion for people on what works best for them.” And that is one of the biggest issues - the belief that many office spaces are no longer fit for purpose. Esther even likened some to Victorian factories. “Creating more ‘human-centred spaces’ that provide what people need to perform at their best will result in an uplift in productivity, she continues, and happier people.”
The reality is that we need to move away from the ‘one size fits all’ environment, where you have “banks and banks and banks of the same desks which don’t take account of the tasks,” says David. “The post-Covid change is with those banks of desks and a few meeting rooms, you haven’t got the environment where people can go and have the Zoom / Team calls which saved them commuting.” He firmly believes in reimagining environments to support tasks and allow for collaboration, innovation and the acceleration to drive ideas forward, without distractions.
“Office design needs to evolve very very quickly to make the environment attractive,” he adds, “to support the role so people can have a better experience within the office than they do at home.”
Young people don’t all want to work from home
There’s a huge concern over young people and how lockdown is preventing them finding jobs or enjoying a positive employee experience, when potentially working out of their bedroom. Many want to come into the office, despite guidance recommending the contrary.
Younger people, millennials especially, tend to choose employers for whom they share core values and are often willing to work anywhere, if the company is attractive enough. The good thing about connectivity is that it can allow young people to secure roles which are based in far flung places, which consequently opens up the employment pool.
That said, there is still a mixture of people who crave human interaction versus, says Esther, “a whole cohort of digital natives who are absolutely used to interacting online.”
The core issue, she believes, is that it’s impossible to have a generalised approach towards meeting young workers’ needs. Each business should look at how it operates and the opportunities are to change, so that it’s relevant for the workforce.
“It’ll be survival of the fittest,” she says, “Those businesses that are willing to adapt, and adapt fast, positively and proactively, stand to do really well out of this situation.”
New ways of working can boost company culture and diversity
Despite fears that home-working can disengage employees, our panel has enjoyed good experiences of these new ways of working. At Checkatrade, John says the office is even better equipped than before, which has benefited the culture, and while a hybrid model of part-home, part-office working has been a challenge, improvements in technology and communication actually drove their employee engagement scores up. The next step is how to ‘bake it into’ how they work.
David agrees that trust and shared values are vital for growing the culture under current circumstances; without it, businesses will struggle. This is especially so when we read headlines about sales of keystroke monitoring software, which goes back to the culture of trust. He firmly believes it should be about output, not sitting doing emails from 9-5.
There’s also a case for improving cultural diversity, mentioned by Felix, who argues that remote working can open us to really diverse work sets, if we want them. In theory, you could work from anywhere in the world for any company. “It’s an interesting concept which hopefully levels out some of the opportunities,” he says.
There’s a danger of digital presenteeism
Although working from home brings many benefits, it’s not without its disadvantages. Free of defined start and finish times, a huge proportion of home-workers find they don’t switch off and instead access emails at all hours. There is, as Felix puts it, “a bleeding from the work life into the home life,” which can cause significant mental health issues.
There’s been a conversation about office presenteeism for years, but now, says David: “We’re in danger of moving towards digital presenteeism.”
This is exacerbated, perhaps, by the uplift in productivity seen in the first lockdown, which has given over to the impression that individuals can continue to do more. Much of this was due to the fact that employees used their usual commuting time to work, and have now set the expectation for delivering more. David is adamant that commute times shouldn’t be gifted to the employer, but that the onus is also on the individual to take that time back.
So perhaps there’s an argument for challenging the way we define work; not as 9-5, but more outcome-based? Measuring on output, not hours, is obviously far more beneficial, and the companies which recognise this, offering trust and flexibility, are more likely to build their brand and employee engagement.
Post-Covid, we still need the personal touch
In the wider world, while we talk about ‘getting back to normal’ after Covid, it would be extremely shortsighted, says Esther, if companies didn’t take this chance to make improvements. However, there’s also a case for ‘going back to things that were simple,’ such as a one-to-one phone call rather than a video conference.
There’s a worry that total working-from-home strategies will prevent new generations from learning from others, leading to gaps in the succession pipeline. Though John concedes that using Zoom decreases time-to-hire at Checkatrade by 20%, the onboarding and training processes need to feature an element of the human (socially-distanced) touch. People want to learn key skills face-to-face. Otherwise, Esther continues, “How can we create an immersive environment which nurtures young people?”
“This won’t be the only pandemic we experience,” she adds, practically. “We should use this opportunity to be better placed for the future.”
To conclude this lively discussion, Felix asked our panellists for a bite-sized takeaway:
Esther: There’s a quote: “No one on their deathbed ever wished they’d spent an extra day in the office” and I guess if we could use that sentiment to drive forward a new way of working that’s part office, part home, part anywhere, then maybe we’d all be a bit happier.
David: “If you, as a business or employer, are not looking at some kind of ‘back-to-better’ programme, to both hold on to the things that have worked but also think about redesigning the environment to make it more productive than being at home, then that’s what I would suggest you begin to look at.”
John: “The most important thing to me is that one size doesn’t fit all, if I think about my team, some have loved working at home and some miss the office. The key is don’t do a blanket approach, as it won’t work.”