What happens when your team switches to remote working overnight? Do you plan a return to the office, or develop a new way forward? In the first of five articles about opportunities arising from the coronavirus crisis, we explore how work could evolve.
When Peter Richardson recalls how he felt in the early days of March, his concerns about the future were real.
As the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the UK, cases were multiplying by the week. The UK country manager of Protiviti was faced with the prospect of asking his team to stop commuting, leave their offices, and work from home.
Hundreds of people who spent their time with clients and colleagues were suddenly isolated behind screens. With video calls as their only companion, and in some cases young children, remote working was rapidly accelerated.
“We constantly talk about the fact our business is based on relationships, trust and face-to-face interaction,” says Peter.
“But at the beginning of March, when we were most concerned, we were worried about falling off a cliff. We talk a lot about operational resilience in our work, but this was about human resilience.”
Looking back, Peter is one of many business leaders who believes his team has adapted well, during the crisis. As barriers to change have been removed, companies have shifted the way they operate in a matter of days and weeks.
Organisations that have never worked in this way before, have acted quickly to protect staff, close offices, and operate country wide. Controls have been relaxed, technology deployed, and a trend that has been bubbling for years is now commonplace.
Will the revolution stay at home?
Research from the Great Place to Work Institute confirms that the number of companies in their rankings offering flexible working patterns has increased significantly.
The proportion allowing colleagues to work from home increased from 72 per cent to 97 per cent between 2015 and 2020. Flexible working patterns increased from 54 per cent to 87 per cent in the same period.
During the pandemic, some chief executives have talked about ditching the office and allowing people to work from home permanently. Others haven’t been so quick to write off their space, but this period has certainly allowed everyone to consider a different future.
“There is a lot of talk about getting ‘back to the office’,” says Peter, “but given everything we have discovered, I think that would be a retrograde step.
“We have seen far more creativity, innovation and collaboration; and more top-of-the-pipeline business development activity. I’ve also seen more inclusivity in the video chat and the ideas being proposed.”
Neil Usher, chief partnerships officer at GoSpace AI and author of the Elemental Workplace, says we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “We have to pick up these ideas and make them happen,” he said on a recent webinar, hosted by workplace consultancy, TSK.
“The social workplace is an interweave between physical and digital space. There has been an incredible lurching of the narrative, between calling for the return of the office, to everyone being based at home.
“It’s not going to be either of those, because it never is when it comes to workplace thinking. But we have to explore the extremes before the pendulum swings back into balance.”
For Peter and his team, this exploration has been vital. If they have a unique chance to reimagine the workplace, then taking time to consider the implications for Protiviti’s people across the UK, is important.
“Of course, I recognise that people need social contact,” he says.
“We are social animals and we need to engage with each other. I don’t envisage a world where we don’t do that, but I do envisage a world where we do that in different ways.”
The office will change
Peter is beginning to paint a picture of Protiviti’s future. He’s imagining the offices as places where people come together, but also as spaces to host clients and showcase work or new technology.
While the team are used to visiting the businesses they work with, there is also an opportunity to do less travel and provide more value. Video technology will help, and fewer train journeys and flights, allows more time for projects.
He is also thinking of turning the company’s agile working policy on its head. In the past, people would agree to work at home by arrangement. Now he’s considering asking his colleagues to agree to come to the office. This is part of a wider move to help the organisation be inclusive for everyone’s needs, he says.
There are early signs that outcomes for clients have already improved. They are being offered structured sessions online and agreeing times when key consultants will be ‘on call’. The days of needing four people’s diaries to coincide for a physical meeting might be numbered.
But, unsurprisingly, there are still challenges to navigate.
Working from home, even with the prospect of an office, can be isolating. Signs of collaboration and inclusion have so far been positive for Protiviti, but there is research to show that companies need to remain aware.
According to a recent article from Alliance Manchester Business School, nearly half of people report working longer and harder at home. The potential conflict with family life, and the blurring of boundaries between the two, is ever present.
‘Zoom fatigue’ is widely talked about and being out of sight means leaders have to work harder to make sure people in their teams don’t fall out of mind.
“The biggest challenge is how you engage with people, so you still get those serendipity moments – those chance meetings and ideas that only happen when you are together,” says Peter.
Each week, two of Protiviti’s ‘all hands’ meetings are unstructured, to see where the conversation goes. They have also set up ‘watercooler chats’ on video for groups of four people who don’t know each other.
“Making that happen will be critical in future, and at the same time you have to recognise that personal circumstances, childcare and overcrowded apartments mean we can’t carry on like this forever,” he adds.
“When people ask me how I’m doing; I say that physically, I am fine; but mentally I am not so sure. I’m nodding to the fact that this is a very different and challenging world.”
Towards a ‘social workplace’
This tension, between a central workplace and working at home, is something that leaders will have to navigate together as they embrace Neil Usher’s ‘social workplace’ vision.
Giving people choice in how they work and keeping them safe will sit alongside the need for an operational structure that works for the business. All of this should be attractive, as people realise the value of more family time, too.
“You have to have that view of the future now, before people start going back,” says Richardson. “Otherwise, you will just get back to normal and get stuck there.
“I would encourage people to develop a rich picture; something that demonstrates what it looks like and feels like – with your intent, reason and rationale for heading in that direction.”
For many businesses, the journey from where they are now to where we want to be, won’t be a straight line. Neil Usher talks about a workplace in ‘perpetual beta’, allowing it to constantly evolve.
It’s likely the solution will sit somewhere between central offices or a fully remote setup. Either way, developing a physical and digital space that is empathetic to a wide group of people, will be important.
“We’ve been shocked into much of this; and then kept with it,” says Peter. “I hear from, hear about and observe far more about our people than I did when we were all in the same office.
“There is a lot of value in that, for them, as well as the business.
“I am also very keen to test all of these principals and theory with our clients. I want to see the extent to which they would receive more value and connectivity working with us this way, rather than sleep walking back to the past.”
In part two of this series, we will explore in more detail how to increase collaboration, innovation, and inclusion in this new world.
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