With its cliches of working in pyjamas and daytime telly, remote working has been viewed with dim suspicion for many years, but since Covid-19 hit, it’s undergone an impressive image change, with Barclays’ chief executive, Jes Staley, saying that ‘the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building,’ is being consigned to history. Additionally, industry leader Gartner recently released its latest research which emphasised that companies are now prioritising resilience over efficiency, signalling a strong change in corporate direction. And with benefits that go both ways, from businesses cutting costs to employees being able to ditch the daily commute, it’s no wonder that a staggering 13m Brits are set to ask their employer for changes to their long-term working pattern post–pandemic. But while some work requires just a company laptop and a secure connection, for many organisations, decentralising your workforce successfully will be one of the toughest challenges you’ll ever face. So, just how do you best prepare and plan for the biggest workplace shift in a generation? Well, turning to the advice of experienced business change professionals, who specialise in turning overwhelming challenges into bite-sized pieces, can really help, and if you don’t have an inhouse team to cover that, we’re pleased to say that that’s exactly what we do! Read on to find out more.
Health & Safety
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), all employers are legally responsible for the health and safety of their employees, including those who work remotely. While the caveat ‘where ‘reasonably practicable,’ exists, this relates largely to expense, and being decentralised is no barrier to taking as good care as is possible of your people. And remember – people don’t even have to fall sick for you to fall foul of the law; indeed, allowing an individual to be ‘exposed’ to risk is also something you can be held liable for. Failure to follow the provisions of this legislation could lead to employees working in unsafe or unhealthy environments, issues which may show themselves in a variety of ways from disengagement to actual absenteeism, while the consequences from these outcomes could fall at the feet of either the company or, as section 37 of the act reads, ‘directors and senior managers…if it is found that an offence committed by the company was committed with their consent, their connivance or was attributable to their neglect.’ 
But, while very important, health and safety can be covered with the mantra of ‘remember to do it digitally.’ Assessing workstations can be done remotely, via a photograph or video of someone’s set-up, while encouraging them to flag up any issues of disturbance or comfort in their immediate surroundings, such as heavy traffic or barking dogs, which might impede work, gives you a heads-up on what sort of issues they might have to deal with during calls. Mental and emotional health is also a huge topic right now, so make sure that your door, however virtual, is still open. 121s can still be undertaken remotely, along with less formal check-ins, while wellbeing apps can help your staff self-report, providing you with clear, immediate feedback as to the question, ‘how are you?’
While we’re all used to screen time of one sort or another, not everyone is comfortable with connecting with their colleagues that way. Whether the issues relate to confidence, disability, accessibility or even online etiquette, not everyone feels able to contribute equally which can lead to demotivated, isolated colleagues who may retreat to an ‘in silo’ attitude, leading to communication breakdowns, lost ideas and presenteeism.
Online communication can be a minefield for many, so consider training to support your department managers to support their people in learning how to best use these remote tools, whether it’s the ‘raising a hand,’ tactic, using the messaging board, or creating fun, ‘time-out’ conversations over video to bring a social aspect to the proceedings. Additionally, they’ll need to keep an eye on online etiquette, such as ensuring that phones are off during meetings, meaning that nobody need fear about gaining the lost or drifting attention of their colleagues, while supporting your managers to keep a watchful eye on their more reserved members of staff will be key here; their contributions are still necessary, so whether they go back to the basics of personality types, or encourage them to communicate in a way most suited to them, now is the time to support them to maximise everyone’s individuality. As Bekka Prideaux, leadership coach and project manager says – ‘As leaders, we need to be open to the idea that people will surprise us with their reactions even when we know them well, and be ready to support them accordingly.’
With 76% of HR leaders reported to cite productivity of their remote teams as the top complaint from their managers in a survey by Gartner, it’s clear that challenges will be rife to both maintain and measure this key metric more accurately. While some roles may change, some may face becoming obsolete altogether, and with the infamous Parkinson’s Law stating that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion,’ it’ll be even more difficult to know if you’re getting the best from your people when they are no longer being managed directly. And the consequences? Wasted costs, a disengaged workforce, and a breakdown of trust between employees and management.
Measuring and maintaining productivity is perhaps one of the bigger challenges, as the very nature of remote working means that using output alone might triumph over the traditional measure of hours worked. In fact, redrawing contractual lines may be one of your best friends at this point, and could lead to a very real change in role profiles, redefining the new expectations that both employer and employee must meet. Connecting with other departments to assess productivity is another strategy, which will also boost inter-departmental relationships, while deciding on the most meaningful metrics for said productivity of working remotely will enable you to bring refreshed, relevant insight to the C-Suite. Meanwhile, employees could be encouraged to assess their own productivity by the use of various apps, such as Outlooks ‘MyAnalytics,’ or choose another desktop assistant that will help keep their focus on the job.
Unfortunately, remote working isn’t available to all, particularly for those who hold blue-collar jobs. A study from UK think-tank, the Resolution Foundation, found that less than 10% of those in the bottom half of earners were able to work from home, a division which could lead to very real resentment. To compound this, those with more direct contact with their bosses may fall more favourably under the eye of promotion or development opportunities, while finally, there may be understandable tension between those who were furloughed and those who had to remain in post.
Equality could be your enemy regarding policies and procedures, and the call of ‘it’s not fair,’ may be something you’ll have to contend with. But being able to prove that policies have been rolled out impartially, and applied to the role rather than the individual will help to settle disputes. Making sure that your assessments for each case are also standardised will help assuage peoples’ fears, too.
Business as usual
Of course, aside from the challenges that we’ve discussed, there are still areas where business as usual will predominate. Your policies and procedures, for example, will still apply, however decentralised your workforce, while letting your people know that they’re still part of something amazing, even when they’re literally out-of-office, can be easily done via team calls that celebrate success, or rolling out wellbeing initiatives to keep engagement and morale high.
- Take heart; as an experienced business leader or HR professional, you’ve probably solved these problems many times before, but only this time, you’re also dealing with a change of perspective and application.
- Nurture your in-house relationships; while you may introduce the policies, their successful implementation lies with department heads and managers, so having them onside really does make the delivery of the solutions a lot easier. So, make for mutual success by working with them to devise the most meaningful metrics that you can both use, while also offering ongoing assistance to any people-related problems that they might be facing. And whether you need to work closely with IT to roll out remote clocking in and logging on, or addressing contractual issues with your company’s legal team becomes a clear priority, rolling out permanent remote working will draw deeply upon your cross-business relationships so use the opportunity to network and nurture these vital connections.
- Remember that while we can plan and implement in broad brushstrokes, people will always have different motivations, whether they’re individual PDR goals or a team bonus. So, what will work for one may not necessarily work for another, meaning that even if you’re happy to trade productivity for the resilience of remote working, it’s key to understand what drives each and every employee.
Lastly, if we could only say one thing, we’d say this – empower your people to assert themselves. While they might not be able to reach you in the flesh as they once did, they can – and should – be able to speak their minds, share their worries and bring their concerns to you whatever the distance. Because it’s only through empowering your people will they show up, fully engaged, motivated and self-confident, to help your business to function with flexibility and resilience.
Find A Flexible Friend
Finally, if you want a trusted and experienced hand to help with such a complex and all-encompassing challenge, consider partnering with professionals who really understand the process of change. Whether you want to find a team to help uncover and establish the best new productivity metrics, or a larger initiative to help you fully implement and embed remote working into your organisation, business change professionals who specialise in HR will have the right skills, both soft and hard, to support you and your people to find their feet in this new, flexible world.
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