The world has never been more uncertain. Never before has the entire country been more unsure about what life will be like at the end of the week, let alone a month. It's an unusual situation because everybody is in the same position at the same time.
During the 2008 financial crisis, it hit the financial services sector first, and then the crash rippled through to other sectors from there. Yet, Covid-19 is different. For starters, it's a health crisis and an economic crisis. Affecting everybody at the same time. And the level of uncertainty is the same everywhere you look in the UK as well as globally, due to the level of changes being forced upon us, with no sight of when it may end.
A force for change
Where it's possible, industries have had to adapt to working remotely. Others have been compelled to reduce their output. If you take the passport office as an example, they've reduced the number of people going into work at any given time dramatically (Coronavirus: Post Office Staff Told to go Back to Work article on BBC News Online
). They’ve introduced a two-metre radius in offices, dramatically decreasing capacity. But that level of office density is not economically sustainable longer-term. Especially for commercial businesses. For the private sector, many organisations have proven in the last almost three months that working from home is a viable option.
Before Covid-19 many organisations were supporting the working time directive and family-friendly policies, enabling parents to finish early and take advantage of flexible working practices. These directives powered a remote-friendly approach, which was also made possible in part due to the rise of broadband 15 years ago and the progressive digitisation of the work environment. But the pandemic has brought to the fore discussions about remote-first as an alternative. Remote-first is a very different approach which requires adaptive measures to support your staff day in and day out and allow them to do their job effectively despite the inevitable technical and social difficulties.
Many of us have seen the recent meme about who’s behind the digital transformation of your organisation? The options being your CEO, CTO or Covid-19. The pandemic is forcing traditional institutions such as governments and banks to radically rethink their business models and find new ways of working, after all, their competitors are certainly forging ahead regardless of whether they do. And the length of the lockdowns that have been enforced globally are acting as a dramatic force for change.
The realities of being remote
But what about the things that remote working doesn’t easily facilitate? Like those unplanned connections - bumping into people at the water cooler, etc. There's been a great deal of technology designed to fix this. But the problem is not the technology. It’s the people. It’s always the people. You don't go to the office water cooler, the breakout area or lunchroom, knowing who you're going to meet. If you did, that would be a meeting.
By their nature, it is the spontaneous conversations you have when we meet colleagues in unplanned situations that often unlock the most unexpected outcomes. Now collaboration platforms like Slack have become the breakout room. Yes, Slack often gets shouted down as being this noisy place. But, I would argue, no more than background chatter in an open office. It can be a positive distraction.
One of the things that we’re hearing from our employees is that they miss the background distractions. They work harder because they don’t have noise in the background. When you're at home it’s just you and your workload. You don't always have the light relief of having a five-minute side conversation about something, especially if you live on your own.
I know how important it is to have a mental break. When I’m working on a complex and challenging task, that needs my complete focus, my brain can start looking for a distraction. But, I’ve learned that rather than fight it, I'm glad to acknowledge and engage with it. So, I take a break. And, turn an anxious moment into an action that I’ve now got more control over. The pomodoro technique can help those who find sanctuary in a more regimented routine, yet still need to interact with their colleagues.
The Japanese have a wonderful word - Kuchisabishii - which means I'm eating not because I’m hungry, but because my mouth is lonely. By recognising why you are seeking a distraction, this puts you back in control and enables you to take more intentional action, e.g. go grab a drink or something to eat or have a quick break if you need to - or perhaps you need to persevere in order to complete your task. This awareness puts the decision about how you react to your instincts back into your hands.
Driving a Results-only Work Environment (ROWE) mentality
All this boils down to better practice when managing teams remotely. How do you make sure that if you optimise activity in one area, or at one point in the system that you don’t just break something that’s working somewhere else. It’s a bit like squeezing a balloon, you have to watch that you don’t just move the pressure on somewhere else.
Essentially, you need to know how effective your team is, not just how efficient they are. The effectiveness of your team is a litmus test or key performance indicator that tells you a bunch of things. Why someone isn't performing can be due to both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.
Unfortunately, in business, the focus is often around presenteeism. Are you sitting at your desk or can I see that you're typing at your keyboard? If you’re doing these things then I must assume you're doing work and in turn that work is getting done. It drives a false sense of work ethic and hardly fosters the trust that is necessary when working remotely. It’s also a flawed proxy for efficiency.
Could taking a Results-only Work Environment (ROWE) approach be the answer? ROWE is based on the amount of time an employee needs to input into a process and how much effort it should take them to be able to execute a task with a bracket of various variables based on complications. Within software development, we use ROWE style techniques all the time as we estimate our tasks during planning, and assess how we did during retrospectives, where we consult with our peers about what we could do to improve in the future. Ultimately, we are accountable for the results delivered against the level of effort applied.
While ROWE fits naturally within agile friendly organisations, it is an effective method in judging performance in a scenario where you’re unable to use more familiar methods such as presenteeism or timesheets.
To implement ROWE you need to identify what a reasonable outcome would be for the effort you expect from your team. And in order to understand what this is, it’s important to work with your employees, taking into consideration, for example, their strengths and unique circumstances, allowing them to manage their workload more effectively.
Success can be judged by how close you are to your estimated outcomes, and usually, a higher level of employee satisfaction is achieved. However, it’s crucial to include employees in the process of any changes to the way they work to encourage them to be supportive and get onboard with it, rather than reject the idea outright.
Industry disruption and innovation
Technology is now at the point, where we can run our entire education curriculum online. With Covid-19 schools as well as universities have had to adapt rapidly. These enforced changes have also brought exciting opportunities. You could have 100 skill-based sets of students, for example, and can group them in all sorts of different ways and have like-minded students working together in virtual classrooms across the UK e.g. working on specific subjects, or when needing specific support during revision/catchup sessions.
At the same time, the retail sector is actively looking at what a world beyond bricks and mortar could look like. Supermarkets have gone from having thousands of people in the supermarket to a controlled few. Thanks to social distancing, queues are commonplace and shopping in-store has involved trying to avoid people wherever possible. It’s like a game of Pac-Man where you’re trying to get your shopping while avoiding contact with the ghosts.
Unsurprisingly, demand for deliveries has surged but the problem right now is that you can't get a delivery slot. Supermarkets are looking at ways of meeting that demand. For example, retrofitting a certain number of superstores as delivery hubs to avoid any issues with having to socially distance.
The government has made clear that even as the lockdown ends, social distancing is going to stay for quite some time. Even once the requirements fade away, the fear of being in crowded spaces will likely remain and will bring long-lasting changes to consumer behaviour.
It's interesting how in some areas, like restaurants for example, who were mostly able to pivot their business models, with varying degrees of success, becoming grocery stores effectively selling ingredients as well as takeaway food. How it unfolds longer term as the lockdown eases, for restaurants, as well as the hospitality industry at large, is worth watching for lessons that we all could learn from.
This crisis is having a devastating effect on people’s lives and the world economy. But with adversity comes opportunity. A chance to adapt, innovate, and diversify your business in ways you may not have thought possible before. A chance to change the future of work for the better.
Dan Hardiker, CTO, Adaptavist