19 May Leading the Way Forward
By Sharon Mulligan
COVID-19 is going to be our noisy neighbour for a while – how do we get back to work and create our new norm?
As we wrestle with the challenges of everyday working and living, we are now adjusting to the fact that this situation will be our routine for some time to come and we are therefore settling into new habits and patterns to get through our days and weeks.
Organisations (whatever the size) have risen to the challenge of rapidly mobilising remote working for office-based companies. Other industries, such as manufacturing, have restructured shift patterns and safety measures while our essential services continue to function and support us despite the nationwide restrictions.
The challenge that Leaders are now facing is looking to what the future normality will become. Will it be a hybrid version of office and remote working? Will it be a full return to the office norms that existed pre-COVID-19?
Business leaders have the challenging dilemma of ensuring their businesses not only survive the economic downturn ahead but also navigate the new landscape of employee flexibility to allow for the situations currently outside of their employees control. Typically, these include situations such as having elderly parents to shop and care for to minimise their risk of infection and the continuation of home schooling that may be the reality until the new year.
Leaders also need to embrace the concept that some of their employees are functioning well and even excelling because they can focus with less distractions at work.
This crisis has catapulted our traditional office-based businesses forward in terms of its outlook and view on remote working and flexibility. Traditionally leaders thought that the only reliable way to assess performance, productivity pace and results was to have people within arms-length. This may have kept many leaders away from embracing the flexible/remote way of working.
Realistically, remote working has some factors that are simply harder to recreate consistently over the long term, such as, building natural working relationships through daily interactions, knowledge sharing through free flowing discussion; chance interactions that bring the impromptu creativity and ideas sharing and spontaneous camaraderie and banter.
As a result, many leaders are having to consider putting a hybrid plan in place for not only the next six to nine months but possibly adapting their organisational culture on a more permanent basis. This could be a successful option that drives staff engagement, retention, and loyalty without losing career opportunities or quality of life.
Leaders now have an unprecedented opportunity to embrace the change that has occurred and determine the benefits of introducing a permanent remote working concept as part of their modus operandi.
While this may all sound great, in practice, it is hard to implement and possibly even harder to manage. The following are some tips that may help you set up the new normal in a way that is realistic and achievable.
Make a Leadership decision –Reflect on what your organisation will look like in a year’s time. What do you actually want?
- The workforce back in place, all based in the office, more or less as it was before?
- An option for people to have flexibility, such as three days a week in the office and two days from home?
- An option for people to work remotely on a full-time basis and only attend the office for the occasional meetings and events?
Get a pulse check and de-brief – Talk with your managers, leaders, and key members of staff on what is working and what is not. This is a crucial step that typically gets missed. It may also be a good idea to roll out a short survey to get some anonymous feedback from your employees. Although Leaders and senior people may agree in principle, they rarely agree on the reality of the roll out of this type of decision. Get your decision makers and people managers aligned and onboard first. Time invested here will pay off tenfold as you roll out practices around work ethic, codes of conduct and dealing with the challenging performers or people that just find it hard to stay within company guidelines
Produce, re-write or amend your flexible working policies – Review, re-write your policies with positive intent and use a positive language style. A good tip here is to write or review the policy with your best member of staff in mind. What do they do, how do they act and behave? This will give it a fresh feel that demonstrates that you have faith in your people. This will prevent you from falling for the typical trap of writing a policy as if you are expecting it to fail and people to let you down. However, remember to include those clauses and paragraphs that cover the consequences of people not complying with the guidelines that the policies spell out.
Empower your senior people – Enable your managers, team leaders and supervisors to feel comfortable with having courageous conversations. Encourage them, through your own example, to tackle the few people that may not be performing, who may threaten the flexible working arrangements. Avoid penalising the whole workforce or the majority who demonstrate a good work ethic and conscientious behaviours.
Most of all….be brave – It is acceptable and normal to not have all the answers and it is healthy to show your human side and your vulnerability. This is a sign of a strong, resilient leader who can embrace change and encourage the workforce to adapt. Moreover, you can garner more cooperation and support by collaboration of ideas and trial and error of ways of working rather than through a dictatorial style. It is perfectly acceptable to put things in place that have a review date as not all changes need to be permanent or set in stone at the outset.
While effective leadership practices, policies and structures are essential for smooth and successful change measures to take place, tangible logistical changes can be easily put into place and may produce some quick wins. Here are some general tips on setting up the office space to create a safer working environment.
- Set up hot desks (that are cleaned thoroughly at the end of each day with a clean desk policy where each person brings their equipment to work on the hot desk (to follow safety precautions).
- Re plan the office layout. Put up partitions and create sufficient space between desks. Some may need to be removed so that the environment is safe against airborne germs from coughs and sneezes.
- Minimise standard equipment that sits on desks such as phones, stationery, etc. There are many online options for offices with calling facilities that no longer require those traditional handsets. Provide people with their own headsets or give them an allowance that goes toward purchasing one.
- Place additional water and coffee stations around the office so there is less traffic in the kitchen areas. Encourage people to have café style quick turnaround lunches to keep the kitchen areas to a minimum number of people at one time.
- Encourage meetings to be held online even when people are in the office. This will avoid proximity and allow for remote workers to be part of the discussions and communication protocols of a typical office environment.
- Set up rotas for your office staff – so people do 2 or 3 days in the office per week to enable a staggered system of employees in the office at any one time.
- Put in place health and wellbeing protocols such as any individual that does not feel well, simply stays away from the office.
This new reality brings with it both challenges and opportunities. Leaders need to redesign their organisational culture and set it up to embrace the new norm. We are continuously talking to organisational leaders, working with them, and supporting them with exploring and discovering the “what’s next” that best works for them.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but by tuning into your people’s needs and opinions and integrating these into your business strategy, your organisation will survive and even thrive during the coming months.
Sharon Mulligan is an executive coach and strategic advisor with over 25 years of international experience. She is the co-director and co-owner of PsyPotential Ltd. Sharon is a member of the Institute of Directors, Institute of Leadership Management. She has held key senior advisory and consultancy positions for large corporate organisations across multiple industries focussing on strategic and business change.