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Returning to Work

As companies begin the return to the office after the pandemic what are the realities, stresses and strains that you may encounter as a business leader? Will there be a culture shift, changes in working patterns or salary expectations? Graham discusses some of these issues and how you can plan ahead to overcome them.



The interesting thing about the kind of work that we do is that you get to meet an awful lot of different people in different industries, different types of organisations, whether it's not for profit, whether it's commercial, whether it's professional services, industrial and so on.

You get to see quite an interesting cross-section of the working population and one of the topics that seem to be gaining quite a lot of momentum for executives, and bringing concerns or uncertainties too, is the issue around the return to work now that we're through the COVID restrictions (hopefully) and are looking forward to perhaps a more historically ‘normal’ way of working.

Executives that I'm working with are finding that there is a reluctance to come back to work in exactly the way that the pre-pandemic work routine was established. That caught them out in many ways because there are competing priorities around how they should work with their staff in that situation.

It's really quite startlingly different if you are the kind of organisation that regardless of the pandemic continued to work throughout - say you were a factory or a warehouse - none of this is a concern. But where offices or operations have been completely closed and staff have worked predominantly, if not totally from home, there is now a major problem in working out what the right way forward maybe - both immediately, short term and ultimately in the long-term.

There are a wide variety of considerations that people are being presented with. First of all, people who have, for the last two years or so, found the need to work from home; they rebuilt their lives around the fact that they don't commute, whether it's dropping the kids off on the school run in the morning or picking them up in the afternoon, whether it's the reduced cost of childcare, whether it is just simply the pleasure of not having to commute, whatever that time is, both ways each day.

In many ways, for the people that have the space at home and the facilities at home, it's jolly convenient in general to work from home; then you’re ready in the evening to do whatever your hobbies are, pretty much immediately. You can have a longer lie-in without interrupting your working day.

Basically, the first point is that people have rebuilt their lives around the absence of a commute. So how do you persuade people - if that is what you're looking to do - that they need to reprioritise, reschedule, and rebuild their working life to look a bit more like it was pre-pandemic?

Another consideration is that a number of people really can't work from home – not on an ongoing basis - because they don't have the space, or there are too many housemates competing for the workspace that is available. Or, socially; they really just don't like being outside of the team. One of the aspects of all of that is that if they come back and others don't then what's right? What's wrong? What's fair? What's unfair? Do the rates of pay stay the same for people working at home versus people with all the additional costs of coming back to work? What's the relationship going to be? What's the interpersonal situation between those at work and those at home?

So, there are a number of stresses and strains that business leaders are beginning to find a reality - not just a theoretical problem, a true problem - that their staff are reluctant to come back or want to come back. There's a big difference.

Another aspect of consideration for the business leaders ultimately, if people never meet, if they're never in a workplace together, they never have shared experiences; What's that going to actually due to the culture of the organisation? Will there be a culture? Will there be an organization? Is it just a series of self-employed people who happened to be paid through payroll? By working from home, they're not really part of anything - they're just doing a day's work for a day's pay.

How do you harness creativity in that situation? How do you get people firing off each other in a way that was perfectly normal, previously pre-pandemic, but now can only be done through digital communications and whether that's zoom or through the written word on email? It's clearly not as good as tripping over each other by the coffee machine or having a brainstorming session face to face with lots of people in a room.

Another aspect is that there was a major issue around customer service, the work from home may be technologically possible, but what is it actually doing for the customer experience? What are your customers finding when they ring or they want to contact the organisation? Are they being rerouted to people who are working from home? What's that doing? Is it really seamless? Are they really getting the service that they used to get, more importantly? Are they really getting the service that they expect? And is the excuse ‘please excuse us - we're all working from home now because of Covid’ completely blown out of the water and doesn't wash?

Another aspect – and one you can't get away from - is that there is a huge attraction to not operating big offices; there's clearly a financial attraction, but there's also a distraction attraction to managing big facilities, big offices are a management distraction. It's not something you want to do. You don't worry about the repairs to the roof. You don't worry about filling up the coffee machine if you can avoid it.

So, there are a number of fairly complicated uncertainties and decisions to be made that we're being confronted with within our coaching programs with our various clients.

Now, I don't want you to think that I'm sitting here and I'm about to tell you what the answer is because I don't know what the answer is, but what I do know is that as a coach, I can help you weigh up the various options, the various facets, the balance between what's most important and what matters not so that you can come to a considered opinion and plot a way forward for you in an entirely appropriate way for your organisation.

Now, it's best not to be too dogmatic. It's best to be very flexible. Keep your powder very, very dry as a business leader, don't say ‘right, this is over. This is what we're going to do’ because there may be people who won't go with you. In other words, they'll leave. And in today's job market, that's not helpful.

Equally, being dogmatic whilst giving leadership might, may well be painting yourself into a corner or driving yourself into a cul-de-sac. If you can honestly and openly share with your staff and say ‘I don't really know what the best thing is, but let's try this. Let's see if this is the best compromise for everybody, then we'll review again in X months, weeks' time, and then we'll adapt again if we need to’. So, that's the first piece of advice. Sensible managers are not looking to be too dictatorial at this point, but they are looking to persuade and they are looking to get some form of cohesion around the way that the organisation returns to whatever the new normal is going to be.

Another aspect is that there are going to be people whose relationship with you now has changed. It's been bent right out of shape, and you may find that they are no longer going to be suitable for your organisation. They know they no longer work. To give you - in terms of the psychological contract between employer and employee - the things that you were previously taking for granted, and you may have to bite some bullets on letting people go or making it clear to them what it is that you do expect regardless of what they are prepared to give.

These are difficult decisions. These are losing talent decisions. You would prefer not to have to make, but I do think the culture, I do think the need for some form of buy-in long-term to the organisation is critical both for the employee and the employer.

Moving on from there, and looking to the longer-term; clearly, we all know that digital communications are going to form part a bigger part of our lives than we perhaps two years ago and certainly, sooner than we thought two years ago. So, what are the rules around this? What is going to be the natural engagements around this? What will be acceptable with customers, whereas previously you'd get in a car, on a train and go and see them - will the relationship really be maintained if you only do that on zoom, or is it going to be a 50:50 mix or what's going to happen?

Likewise, internally, when you used to have management meetings or team meetings or team briefings, they would invariably be face-to-face or in person. What is now the right way to get the right communications and the right motivations going forward? It'll include an element digital for sure, but what is it? Is it 70:30, 50:50? What's the smart way?

Another consideration is what does the office actually look like now? Perhaps previously people did have their own workspace, their own desk with their own family photos on it, or keepsakes; their own tools and so on in their place of work. But because you're going to downsize, this may lead to a hot-desking environment, and clearly, that can alienate people, that can make people feel they have no roots in the office. How do you make that work in a way where they choose to come to the office if they want to, and so they value their workspace and take care of that workspace?

As I move on from there; the actual roles that people play may also change. You may now find that people that used to be leaders in the office used to be the ring-leaders or cheerleaders, the epicentre of the way in which the social side of the office used to work, may no longer be relevant. They may simply not be something that helps the social side function in the way that the team used to function. So how are you going to replace that? What's that going to look like? Is it something you're going to do artificially or you're going to look for a spontaneous development, something that's going to naturally evolve as the new working arrangements become real?

As I say, the beauty of what we do is we get to talk to an awful lot of people in an awful lot of different situations and they come up with different answers. Some of them have unique, individual questions. A number of creative businesses we work with must prioritise the community piece where their people collaborate collectively because that's where their creativity is maximized. Some customer service organisations (where people are working from home and the phones are redirected) find less of an argument for bringing people back to the office. All of this is unique and different, but the issues are pretty much universal.


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