When it comes to the world of work, we’ve been doing the same old same old for a long time. And it’s served us well.
But the pandemic has shown there is a different, perhaps better way of doing things; one where employees are just as productive, but are dare we say it, a little happier, with a better work/life balance.
Justin Kinnear, Head of Research at HPC says that while many employers have favoured an overall return to the office, a little more thought needs to go into a post pandemic way of working.
Working from home has often been seen as a thing that only managers and select employees do, until the last two years. Previously it has been an issue of trust – if the manager couldn’t see you, they couldn’t be sure what you were doing.
Recently I spoke to a person who leads a significant manufacturing site. Normally everyone is onsite, but at the start of the pandemic he had to instruct all non-production staff to work from home. He said, ‘if I can’t see them and I don’t know what they’re doing, I don’t trust them’. Since then, he’s discovered they’re working harder, and he’s had to accept the issue was with him. But even with this revelation, there’s still a worry we’re going to ditch all the benefits gained by working from home the first chance we get and relocate to the office. There’s a latent concern we’ll be back to the long commute and re-chained to a cubicle. Employers can put their foot down and demand that workers return, or subtly make it so that those who are physically closest to the workplace get the best opportunities, valued feedback or mentoring – creating a so-called proximity bias. But that would be a mistake.
Avoiding the bias
In order to avoid that, we need to redefine the role of the manager. First, let’s look at whether any of the changes to the manager’s role during the pandemic have been locked in. Managers are often inclined to manage in an ad hoc way and the danger is, when the manager’s role is not documented many managers have the flexibility to go with whatever way the mood takes them.
I think the first step is to formalise the revised role of the manager. Try to identify the processes and procedures that have worked best for managing people. They also need to find a more formal and equitable way to distribute opportunities or to mentor team members, and to share their feedback with the entire team in a way that goes beyond just seizing the opportunity to have a quick chat with ‘John’ in the corridor after a meeting. Managers need to find a more deliberate way of managing their people.
In the beginning of the pandemic it was about survival – companies parked the performance part because they wanted to mind their people. But late last year they were saying, ‘I suppose we’d better pick it up again’ – the reviews and appraisals. But how do they make sure they don’t just do it for the people they can see in person. We need to go back to the magic of lists – keeping track of check-in conversations with team members, to whom I gave feedback – codifying the interactions so nobody is overlooked and denied the manager’s time and attention.
On the flip side, there’s a fear from employees that maybe the person that does return fully to the office is perceived as more committed by making the commute to and from the office; that they are playing the game of work. Managers need to counterbalance that for those who can’t or won’t come in every day. If an employee finds out the same five people are in the office five days a week, that’s a worry. As a manager, if you say we work remotely but you as the leader come in five days a week, you’re saying one thing and doing another. People are much more guided by your actions than your words.
Likewise senior leaders likely have excellent working arrangements: a nice office, access to systems and facilities and equipment, and a manageable working week. The pandemic levelled the playing field; everyone was grappling with Zoom or Teams on a laptop from a small box room. Understandably, the office might be calling those senior people back. It’s very different to the person sitting in the cubicle. This is a blind spot for some leaders and needs to be considered carefully.
What’s my neighbour doing?
A very small minority of organisations have made an effort to signal what they think the world of work will look like from here but are trying to avoid being too prescriptive. Instead, many have adopted a perspective that is flexible and emergent, and are trying new working arrangements and processes for a period of time to see how it goes. Identifying what could work requires being inclusive, with a big focus on talking to employees to understand their experience and solicit their ideas. Where companies have put a line in the sand, they have done it with a very thin, moveable line. It’s very hard for companies to insist on ‘everyone back’ when people are still ill or close contacts. Most are not declaring any decisive position yet. We’re still on the journey and most organisations agree that the next evolution of work will feature some workers in the office and some at home.
Some people are keen to return fully to the office, longing to be around other people, missing the social aspect, and struggling to get work done at home. Anecdotally, most workers seem very happy with their pandemic adaption, working at home and coming as needed to collaborate via video or phone meetings.
To innovate means different things in different organisations. For one, it might mean making better use of the technologies they have. For others, it could be taking the learnings from what has happened over the last two years and building on that. Perhaps innovation also means doing less: can they find a way to trim back the things that aren’t serving them anymore?
It’s important to note, wellness and wellbeing are at risk if we rush back to old work models, so what is good for the business and good for the person are both important to keep in mind. In her book ‘Uncharted”, Margaret Heffernan notes that at times like these Leaders should focus less on identifying the answers and focus more on better questions. Often the answers are within your organisation, so ask your employees for their input.
Humans dislike change but we’re very good at it and we now have proof that we can flex. It all comes back to trust and it’s woven into the history of work. It’s time to wave goodbye to the old way of doing things and find the optimal balance instead. Let’s sit down as adults and find what works for organisations and their workers.
Justin Kinnear is Head of Research at HPC. His passion for people development and his ability to inspire makes him a key member of HPC’s facilitation and coaching teams.
As well as his extensive research and facilitation experience, he was formerly Head of L&D at IBM and Britvic.
His work with HPC focuses on the development of a high performance culture for our clients with a particular emphasis on accountability and feedback.