Continuing on from last week’s blog post, Rose Bryant-Smith outlines the next 3 questions that can help to position your workplace to make the most of the disruption caused by COVID-19.
3. Should all employees’ changed expectations be accommodated? When can employers say ‘no’?
Twitter has said that some employees would be working from home ‘forever’. Facebook and Google employees will continue to work from home at least until the end of 2020. Does this mean everyone can? Does this mean every employee wants to do so?
A Gartner poll in April showed that 48% of workers are planning to work remotely more often in the future, compared with 30% before the pandemic.
Those employees who have avoided a long commute, or who benefit from proximity to school pick-ups, might prefer to work from home forever like Twitter employees. However, not everyone’s role can remain home-based. Employers will require some workers to return to the workplace, where the tasks, equipment or job role requires it, while other workers will have more freedom to choose how and when they return. Frustrations and inequities will surface: are you ready to handle them?
4. We’ve all learned new skills, new tech and new approaches: which do we want to keep using in future?
Many employees have adapted the very nature of their roles, when the company was forced to explore new products, new markets or new delivery mechanisms. One of my favourites is Stagekings, a theatrical set-building company based in New South Wales, which pivoted from building stage structures for events like Ninja Warrior to building flat-pack desks and other home-office furniture. Learning new skills out of necessity has been rewarding for many employees, who immediately lost any sense of stagnation or boredom!
On a smaller scale, social and collaboration tools like Slack, Basecamp and Trello have pushed us to get more comfortable with video-conferencing and instant messaging, and let us engage with colleagues all over the business.
Another benefit many people have enjoyed is the ability to create a personalised work environment – even in little ways, like choosing different Zoom backgrounds for online meetings, putting a pot plant in their home office, or eating lunch at 11am.
One thing that employees will never un-learn: how quickly employers were able to accommodate working from home, when it was essential to the business. Technology means that most employers have been able to accommodate remote working – at least for office-based roles – for decades, but traditional ideas and risk-aversion have hampered the uptake. In the space of a month in March 2020, managers were forced to let go of their outdated assumption that if they can’t see the employee doing work, the employee isn’t working. One of the flipsides of this sudden U-turn on flexibility? At Worklogic, we are already advising on complaints from employees who were previously denied flexible working arrangements that they had sought for carers’ reasons – arrangements that immediately materialised once it suited the employer.
5. Have our values, workplace culture and employment policies stood up to the test?
Working culture was never fixed to ‘place’ or driven primarily by how people interact in person. Culture is felt in all our interactions, how the company presents itself, the business decisions that are made, choices about what and who is supported and rewarded, and the fundamental values that underpin how we do everything we do.
Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, suggests that we must redefine the boundaries of work, from ‘place’ to ‘values’. Instead of a physical space and place boundary, what values hold us together and drive our achievement?
In our experience, organisations that had at their core, pre-COVID-19, a working culture founded on trust, mutual respect and generosity are faring strongly. Their employees are prepared to be more flexible in how, when and on what platform they work. These people are demonstrating resilience and staying the course, in the belief that their employer is doing the best it can to pull through the crisis. They feel a sense of shared purpose and resolve.
By contrast, where the workplace culture was tainted by mistrust and self-interest, COVID exacerbated fears. Conflict has surfaced, anger over perceived unfairness and irritation at managers’ perceived failures. Many employees in such organisations feel alone and unsupported, while afraid to speak up about their needs.
New pressures created by the pandemic have also put employment policies and procedures through their paces. The test of the quality of an employment policy is in its practical application; the devil in the detail. Provisions that had been rarely applied were suddenly being accessed by all, whether it be allowances for computer equipment, ergonomic assessments of home offices, or the ability to access different types of leave to teach children at home.
Be Mindful and Choose the ‘New Normal’
As organisations ponder the ‘new normal’, they should reflect on all the elements of their workplace culture and the values that underpin it. What interactions, cultural practices, rituals and processes make up the workplace culture? What has changed, and what has remained the same?
Is there anything you have lost that you need to recreate or for which you can identify an alternative? For example, sparks of innovation and moments of mentorship happen in an office spontaneously – can they continue in digital ways? Without these moments of spontaneity, organisations will need to work harder to create and sustain a healthy, productive and enriching culture for staff.
There are many more questions we should be asking ourselves, of course:
- What does teamwork look like, when no one is in the same place?
- How do we pre-empt and explore underlying employee grievances and discontent that may not be coming to the surface?
- How do we nurture employee wellbeing, keeping our employees physically, mentally and emotionally healthy?
- How do we upskill our managers and supervisors to manage during times of uncertainty, disruption and change?
“For both processes and cultural practices, it is all too tempting to revert to what was in place before the pandemic. To resist this temptation, organizations could start by assuming that processes will be reconstructed digitally and put the burden of proof on those who argue for a return to purely physical pre–COVID-19 legacy processes.”
This is a unique opportunity for employers to reset and recharge. It’s a time for curiosity, innovative thinking and brave decisions. A time for gratitude for what this pandemic has taught us, for recognition of our strengths, and for openness to new ways of working.
Whether we snap back or further evolve post-COVID, we can choose the workplace to which we want to transition, with clarity of purpose and principle.
Rose is passionate about building ethical and productive workplaces. She leads Worklogic’s consulting projects on organisational values, risk management, business ethics and corporate governance. Rose also creates digital products to build better teams and is an acclaimed speaker and author.