Back to the Future- is YOUR business ready? 

While channel hopping on the tv a few nights ago I came across a Sci Fi movie where the main protagonist was granted the choice of any super power as a gift for showing kindness to a stranger.

Source: Back to the Future- is YOUR business ready? – The Zimbabwean

This got me thinking -as you do when experiencing a global pandemic, rising unemployment and an uncomfortably low bank account-  what ‘super power’ would I choose in the same scenario? Of course all those childhood dreams of flight, power, indestructibility etc. came to mind briefly- I’m a guy after all! Then, on deeper reflection, it hit me- I would wish for the power of foresight.

As a sports coach, one of the greatest abilities you can develop over time is that of being able to “see” the entire playing field and having the ability to understand patterns, “predict” opposition tactics and see things unfolding before they happen. This is an advantage born of experience and knowledge of ‘the game’ – but what if this could be employed in other areas of one’s life? In business, interpersonal relationships, studies etc?

On the business front, many companies and leaders right now are grappling with the complexities of Work From Home (WFH) Vs Return To Work (RTW) and all the challenges both these factors bring. By exploring new ways of working, communicating and socialising, with the intention of creating a more strategically aligned, engaged  workforce with good Wellbeing outcomes. Ultimately, good businesses and their leaders/ managers are seeking out ways to transform their organisations and the people who work in them in a powerful, positive way going forward.

I know it’s de riguer right now in some leaders’ minds to assume that everyone is going to go back to the office, where they can be controlled and monitored; that we can’t all work on Zoom/ Skype/ Teams forever… It IS complicated! While some employees are really struggling to feel safe with RTW, there are those who are caught in between and loving the flexibility of WFH, while other employees have found WFH lonely, challenging (especially when the kids have been around!) frightening in terms of medium to long term job prospects, their efficiency and so on.

When WFH initially came in, people started off with mixed feelings- some terrified that this was the beginning of the end of their job, while others looked forward to a bit more autonomy- I would like to think I’m right in saying that almost ALL employed/ self employed people worked efficiently/ productively bearing in mind the stakes. As time has gone on and the novelty has worn off, some people’s productivity levels have tapered off for a myriad of reasons, while others are thriving beyond their own/ their line managers’ expectations.

While many of us have enjoyed the freedom from our daily commute, there are also plenty of us who have really struggled because that commute allowed us to gather our thoughts, put our ‘game face’ on before work, or decompress after work, before we got home to our significant other(s). Added to this mounting mental stress, are feelings of  isolation, loneliness or cabin fever brought on by the lengthy period of “social distancing” and the various levels of local restrictions. While individuals taking some level of personal responsibility for their own health and well-being is important, in this day and age and particularly at this time, employers should be taking up the mantle and supporting their human resources much more, in every way they can.

From an organisation’s perspective however, some challenges are beginning to emerge;

  • Onboarding new team members/ building or maintaining team cohesion is more difficult
  • Where businesses still see the value of investing in Training* (You’d be crazy not to!) the existing online platforms, while better than nothing, are not always ideal conduits
  • Speed of decision-making has been impacted, particularly in very formal/ hierarchical organisations
  • Ensuring ownership and accountability is more challenging for leaders, management AND colleagues
  • Coordinating projects/ teamwork is more difficult in remote environments
  • Distractions in the home can be difficult- children, the fridge(!) housework etc.
  • Bordedom! The drudgery of 24-7-365 living and working from home with no variety and change of pace can quickly induce mental fatigue
  • Communication problems- issues that were solved in a 1/2hr meeting around the coffee machine in the office can now take days in the virtual environment

*On Training, Learning & Development- bearing in mind the challenges of the coming recession, Training, L & D of staff will be crucial to enabling businesses to operate, survive and even thrive/ emerge stronger in the face of economic adversity. I’m reminded of this oft quoted example of the importance of developing your people; “What if we train our people and they leave?” “What if we don’t and they stay!?”

Many organisations have already begun to offer their people a hybrid model of WFH and office work- ‘hot desking’, 3 on 2 off, one week in office, one week WFH etc. The benefits have been wide ranging- from more flexibility for their staff, alongside reduced carbon footprints/ travel costs, to cost savings on rental space and office sundries. The reality is of course that the vast majority of us will go back to work as usual/ ‘normal’. Of course, many positives have emerged from the pandemic’s impact on the world of work, not least of all proving that people CAN be trusted to WFH and more importantly that efficiency/ productivity are dependent on the person, not the place. However, a small percentage of us will remain as remote workers for the foreseeable future, with all the advantages and challenges that this will bring.

Where there is flexibility, determining who among existing staff to choose to WFH/ remotely on a medium to long-term basis will require careful consideration around individual personalities; motivators/ motivation, self-discipline, confidence and having effective support in place to help everyone in the organisation to stay healthy (physically & mentally) perform their job effectively and overcome any challenges.

Both managers, as well as HR colleagues will need to ensure the appropriate tools and resources are in place to assist and support the operational requirements of a distributed workforce; knowing your people and factoring in as much as possible the individual’s personal/ home situation, aspirations and operational requirements will be critically important.

As leaders and managers in organisations where remote working/ some type of WFH model will become the norm, how can we help our people going forward? I believe having the confidence to listen to your people and try different ideas, along with the courage to ‘fail better’ will be key attributes- business leaders and HR professionals will need to change their mindsets and re-deploy resources to empower people and enable work to be done effectively.

Where in the ‘good old days’, the office was central in enabling employees a space, ‘cheek to jowl’ to work, socialise, share gripes, solve problems and learn together, organisations will now need to facilitate these important facets of work in a new way. Getting this right will be paramount to providing employees with confidence and a measure of stability in a constantly shifting socio-economic and politically unstable environment. Involving our people in both the generation of ideas/ solutions to technology challenges (what platforms to use to communicate/ do work remotely) as well as co-creating new working practices/ procedures and new ways to stay connected, engaged and empowered on both a professional and personal level will be a key focus. Some areas which leaders and managers can take the lead in initiating include the following:

  • Prioritise effective communication- more regular, informal and formal communication and the use of multiple channels where limited or no face to face meetings are possible (email, video calls, open mic forums, Zoom/ Skype/ Teams group chats, 1:1 check-ins etc)
  • Prioritise Wellbeing as an organisational and individual imperative- this can range from sharing good practice about effective/ helpful WFH strategies, to creating inhouse care groups to support staff
  • Build/ increase trust- with all the uncertainty around (Brexit, recession, cost savings/ redundancies, further Covid waves etc.) honest, open communication will go a long way to ensuring trust within the organisation particularly at this juncture
  • Empower individuals/ remote teams to make decisions- it’s hard enough getting approval/ decisions signed off when you are ‘at work’ and many hierarchical protocols and management processes limit the effectiveness and efficiency of remote teams/ workers
  • Consider financial support/ investment in WFH equipment, Professional Development and Wellbeing support- examples range from subsidised office equipment (the power of buying as a business Vs individuals) access to Ergonomics & Postural Enhancement advice, Wellbeing support and continued Learning and Development opportunities

Many organisations have been looking at this pandemic from a three tiered perspective- while the nomenclature and duration differs from place to place, they all distinguish three distinct periods:

  • the initial ‘heads down’ shelter-in-place stage
  • the confusing middle stage we’re currently in, where we’ve partially re-opened
  • the post pandemic phase, where we’ll return to a “new” normal

Regardless of where you’re at mentally and in reality, as determined by your business/ government, remember this- “This too shall pass”, this nightmare will end- but will you and your organisation be ready to make the most of this brave new world?

Will Mbanga