How can you plan for the new normal?
Remote working, flexible working and virtual meetings have become the major feature of working in lockdown for most businesses and organisations – not through choice but driven by necessity.
The loss of face-to-face interactions has been difficult, and there was little time to plan, but it’s not an entirely negative situation. Many parents have relished the chance to spend more time with their children and be involved with home schooling. Time and money has been saved through not commuting and some people report that they are enjoying a better work-life balance.
But for others, work feels like an unwelcome intrusion in to their homes. Some people were being asked to change the habits of a lifetime by working from home and meeting online and that can be difficult and uncomfortable.
However, it’s highly likely that as lockdown eases and the Government encourages more business to reopen, remote working – along with flexible hours and online meetings – is likely to become the new normal.
So how can we guide ourselves and our teams through these unchartered waters? What new policies, systems and procedures will we need?
In this article, I want to suggest some of the areas that business owners and board directors need to start exploring and considering so that they can decide on acceptable boundaries for everyone. This will enable the organisation to maximise the opportunities that exist for future success and keep employees safe, happy and motivated.
When workplaces re-open they are going to look very different from pre-lockdown. New layouts for desks, kitchens and meeting rooms are going to be needed as social distancing rules will still apply.
Some businesses will look at shift work and staggered start times as well as using some remote working and virtual meetings.
This means that a lot of businesses will be re-thinking the space they occupy. Could they save a lot of money and run their whole operation through remote working and virtual meetings? Alternatively, could they reduce the space they occupy by having more people working from home?
Organisations that are returning to their premises will have to comply with different regulations depending on the size of the business and its sector.
Some employees will have lost loved ones in the pandemic. Anxiety and depression may have taken its toll. Open, honest two-way communication and a supportive culture is what they will need.
For people who are working from home, we need to recognise that work will encroach on their personal space. We need to agree clear boundaries so that people can work safely. For example, if people are desk-bound for a lot of the day, the suitability of their chair needs to be considered. Have they got a fully-adjustable office chair to avoid upper limb and back strain?
Risk assessments will need to be carried out for staff members working from your premises and home workers.
Your team members can help you by letting you know what’s working for them and what challenges they face. Listen to their concerns and let them have a genuine say in what the new way of working looks like. People will only be motivated and loyal if they feel safe and happy about how and where they work.
As well as ensuring that people have the training, tools, knowledge and equipment to do their jobs remotely, we need to think about data protection, confidentiality and security. Do employees have devices that are used exclusively for work data and kept secure with approved anti-virus software?
We still need ways of keeping in touch with each other. Low morale and low productivity will be the result if people feel abandoned. How are you going to communicate? Is a daily email bulletin appropriate? Could you use WhatsApp, private groups on social media, a secure, remotely-accessed intranet or online video conferencing? Communication is more important than ever if staff members are working remotely or split over different sites.
Work-life balance is important and we should respect that people working from home may have to juggle responsibilities. Can you introduce flexible working times? Maybe there should be a shift from time-based working to task-based working? Instead of a traditional 9 to 5 working day, maybe we focus on the tasks that we need completing in a particular timeframe and give the employees the choice of when they do the work? However, do think about which team members need to be in contact with each other to avoid frustrations and delays if they struggle to contact each other when needed.
I’ve noticed an interesting disconnect in recent weeks with many employees saying they love working from home and are more productive, while some bosses say the people working from home are LESS productive. How can we bridge any perception gaps and ensure that the new ways of working work for everyone?
In a previous blog about purpose, vision, strategy and culture – https://www.karlgeorge.com/pvs-c – I talked about Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler who introduced a radical form of industrial democracy at Semco Partners, one of the fastest-growing Latin American companies. He let his employees decide their working hours and even what they do. He believed that if workers had a deep understanding of the organisation’s objectives they could be trusted to use their common sense to decide what they should do on any particular day in order to meet those goals.
Talk to your teams to get a common understanding of what is considered a reasonable time to hold a virtual meeting. You may be an early riser who is keen to get started at 7am – but that might not work for all your team. Agreeing in advance how long a virtual meeting will last can help everyone manage their time and their day more effectively.
People who didn’t know what Zoom was at the start of March may now be holding meetings on it regularly, both professionally and personally. There are other platforms that I have been using too. Maybe you have used Blue Jeans, Microsoft Teams and Go meetings? This technology is here to stay and will continue to advance. Many people have done a great job of teaching themselves new technologies in a hurry. Can you now give them a boost with official, quality training and guidance?
Have you found that virtual meetings can feel more tiring than face-to-face meetings? One of the reasons for this is that when we only see someone’s head and shoulders we miss a lot of non-verbal cues and communication. This means we have to concentrate much harder on the words being said and also on maintaining eye contact. If we can see ourselves on the screen during a meeting, it can stressful and distracting. Worrying about being interrupted by children, animals or deliveries at the door can also disturb our train of thought.
Do you need to have a dress code, or guidelines on ‘appropriate’ dress, for meetings with clients and other staff members?
During lockdown, many organisations have made allowances for young children who might be seen and heard in the background. How will you handle this going forwards? Can you introduce guidelines to minimise disruption?
Anxiety and the novelty of working from home may be factors in people ‘multi-tasking’ or flitting unproductively between tasks. You may want to ask people not to multi-task during virtual meetings but to give their full attention. In return you should avoid falling into the trap of having unnecessary meetings; keep them focused, stick to an agenda and agree an end time.
Have you considered how much easier virtual meetings make it to get busy people together? I do governance diagnostics and that means that I need to speak to senior individuals at the same time. In lockdown I have been able to get the Chair, CEO and Company Secretary of one organisation together for three separate virtual meetings in one month! This would not have been possible if we’d all had to find the time to travel to the same location in person.
The New Normal
Out of every crisis come opportunities and innovation. Many businesses and organisations have already diversified, opened new revenue streams and changed the way they work. Others are looking at what the ‘new normal’ means for them. They are reacting to the evolving situation by deciding that in the future they will stop doing certain work and do more of other things, perhaps in a different way.
I ran a virtual two-day course recently and people attended from all over the Midlands, London and the South East as well as from Dubai, Jordan and Oman. This would not have happened if it had been held in a bricks and mortar location.
Don’t let things just ‘happen’ to you and your business. Be proactive and embrace the exciting new possibilities. Take this opportunity to look at your culture, your values and re-set for the future.
Can you make efficiencies and cost savings by travelling less and using flexible working patterns?
We need to accept that some future meetings will always be done virtually. But, human contact is still important. Consider how you can safely re-introduce face to face meetings and training when the Government guidance permits.
In the future, I believe it will be more important than ever for leaders to take more personal responsibility for performance and for staying in touch with colleagues and showing genuine care and concern for their physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing.
We have to accept that things will never be as they were before the virus – but that’s not something to fear. The human spirit of innovation and creativity means that technology WILL deliver solutions to the challenges we face, including difficulties and needs we don’t even know about yet!
The Government’s aim is for businesses to reduce risk to the lowest, reasonably-practical level. That means that remote working, flexible working and virtual meetings are going to continue to be a regular feature of our working lives.
We should all be prepared and eager to learn new skills and adopt new ways of working. Our interpretation of issues such as social distancing and the experience of ‘going for a coffee’ are all going to change as the weeks and months pass.
There are benefits to be achieved, but it is important for us to involve all stakeholders in how we create and implement guidelines using a ‘bottom-up’ as well as a ‘top-down’ engagement model.
A culture where people feel safe to raise concerns will be vital. This is also a time where your team members may be inspired to show their creativity and resourcefulness. Listen to their ideas and opinions.
The future is exciting and I am optimistic that remote working, new styles of workplace relationships and bringing people and teams with diverse ideas together will be so rewarding.