The initial days and weeks that followed Boris Johnson’s announcement of the UK-wide lockdown was one the most unusual times I have ever experienced in business. No sooner had Johnson uttered those fateful words on the 23rd March 2020 “You must stay at home,” every business owner and manager began frantically preparing for life under lockdown.
The mad rush to get Britain’s employees set up for home working will be one of the defining moments of the pandemic. But when you have fitness celebrities, weather presenters and even chat show hosts seamlessly shifting to a life on Zoom within just a few days, you not only see how adaptable people can be when the situation demands it, but also how easy homeworking is to set up. The fact that home working is so easy to setup is perhaps the least surprising part of the whole situation. The more surprising element for many employers has been the recurrence of this question – “how exactly do I manage a mobile workforce?”
No time for change management
While the rush to homeworking may not have been the change most companies wanted, it was the change they got. And they embraced it gladly in order to survive. Typically however, in “normal” circumstances, no business would embark on such a fundamental change to its operations without assessing, planning, and mapping out all of the knock-on effects of the change to the rest of the business. In other words, a business would not move to homeworking without developing a change management plan first.
A change management plan is necessary because every business change leads to a myriad of consequences – some expected, some hoped for, and many more totally unexpected. Some consequences are good, some are bad. Therefore, it is important to put a change management plan in place. It is necessary to dissect every business operation, interaction, and employee process in order to see how changing one part of it can affect the whole.
Any change management plan should consider the impact of change on the following four elements of the organisation prior to any changes being made:
- People & Culture
- Technology & Tools
In the case of Covid-19, there simply wasn’t time for any form of a change management plan, let alone time to evaluate the four main elements of change that would normally be considered. So where does that leave us? The only thing we can do is to look at what has changed and reflect on how to make the most of it. There isn’t time for a change management project, but there is certainly time to change how we manage.
Tech is only part of the change
For many employers, the fact that their workforce can work from home – and still be productive - has been a revelation. But the fact that home working works is hardly news to anyone by now. What is new is that these same firms are now starting to realise they need to change how they manage their people too. The old “office approach” to management – and the many expectations that comes with it (9-5 hours, the perceived notion to always be busy etc.) – no longer work if no one is working from the office.
For some firms, the solution to managing a mobile workforce enabled by technology is more technology to monitor their productivity. Yet technology is only one of the four components of a change management plan as mentioned above. The thinking that more technology will ensure better management of remote workers is the wrong approach, and is borne out of old fashioned, almost Dickensian thinking. i.e. it is based on the assumption that this now “invisible” workforce will start slacking off because it doesn’t have a boss physically standing over them. This approach simply takes the same 9-5 office mindset and attempts to apply it to homeworking. It will not work.
Embrace the cultural benefits of homeworking
One of the primary benefits of homeworking is its flexibility. Why should staff work 9-5 if they no longer have an office to travel to? This is where a shift in metrics is required. Too often we value human resources by the amount of time they contribute. We price a person’s time by the hour. But surely the most important metric for an employee is their productivity, not how much time they spend? So, if productivity can be maintained or even improved with “non-standard” hours and unconventional workwear, why wouldn’t you support it? Do not bring 19th century expectations into the 21st century workplace (especially considering the workplace is no longer a physical “place” anyway).
In summary, what needs to change?
- Management expectations: Don’t expect 9-5 from your employees. Focus on their productivity instead. Perceived activity is irrelevant.
- Employee mindsets: Employees should also be more mindful of changing their attitudes. They should think about when they are most productive and, where reasonably possible, align their work patterns to that.
- No one-size-fits-all: Homeworking is an opportunity to re-evaluate your preferred work environment and build one accordingly. While some people really thrive working in isolation (so are well suited to homeworking and really struggle in an open plan office), others need the stimulation of people around them to stay focused. Know what makes you tick and find virtual solutions which deliver it as best they can (while you can’t recreate the office environment virtually, those who need regular interactions with their colleagues can instigate more virtual meetings or even recreate their lunch break with colleagues over Zoom).
- Infrastructure: Provide employees with more options to communicate with each other, both formally and informally, so all the different social aspects of the office environment aren’t lost. What’s more, with the infrastructure now in place – and homeworking proving to work for many people – you should be prepared to support it in your culture after the lockdown.
- Don’t forget your data security obligations: Building on the infrastructure point, it is important to be mindful of the additional data security risks that remote working can introduce (i.e. working on non-corporate devices, reliance on VPNs, using home Wi-Fi networks, shadow IT etc.), which increase the likelihood of falling foul of GDPR and other data protection legislation. IT departments need to make sure their data policies are updated to reflect this change in work practices and that people are adequately trained to manage the potential data risks of remote working.
Covid-19 has provided a unique opportunity for everyone to take a moment and take stock of what is really important in life – our family, friends, and health. Many of the leading companies in the world already knew this, and have found that providing their employees with the right work/life balance, allowing them to spend more time with their family, providing breaks or facilities so they can focus on their health etc. yields better financial results. It is a true win: win. While it took a global pandemic for many other companies to realise this, I am confident that the cultural change we have seen towards more homeworking will continue once the lockdown is over. This truly has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect and change how we work for the better.
Romy Hughes, director, Brightman