Along with all the extraordinary challenges COVID-19 presents, it is also redrawing the workplace in quite a positive way. We have seen a significant acceleration in workplace flexibility, with organisations working in a radically different way out of necessity, often remotely and with greater flexibility.
A trusting culture has been built – managers have trusted their teams to do their job without needing to watch them perform it. COVID-19 has not discriminated and we have all experienced difficulties and anxieties, bringing a better connection and understanding to the workplace.
Caring for your people is now seen as progressive leadership, no longer old-fashioned paternalism. Wellbeing has become a critical mainstream corporate activity, through which mental health support must evolve and endure.
How we go about developing these changes for long-term advantage is key.
Developing employee trust:
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Over the past 18 months, leadership styles have evolved at pace. While the pressure to ‘know the answer’ as a leader has remained during the pandemic, it’s been appreciated the territory is uncharted.
Successful leaders have recognised this, adapting through asking more questions, and listening carefully to the answers before setting a course. Improved listening has certainly helped me understand better the present reality, and anticipate what’s coming, in order to take informed action.
Applying those listening skills allowed me to establish new ways of working at Bank of Ireland. One of the most controversial events in office life has always been office moves – it really matters who we work and sit with.
To get our approach right, we conducted numerous listening groups, plus organisation-wide and local surveys.
As a result, we are introducing flexibility wherever possible, with access opened to all our main offices (which are being redesigned to incorporate creative work spaces) and regional hubs to reduce reliance on city centre offices, plus a firm commitment to working from home.
The working week isn’t being prescribed – the only guide is to complete a ‘team charter’ to ensure individual preferences work within the wider team.
These new ways of working will require continuous learning and adjustment to get right. I’m confident it will work well, because colleagues understand why this approach is being taken – if it reflects their feedback, they will want to make it work. This happens when an organisational approach is created by colleagues, building a culture of transparency and trust.
Some companies that could make lasting changes are choosing not to, with CEOs sometimes being forthright with a return to the office message.
In a more transparent world – when considering Zoom has taken us into each other’s home – employees will want to better understand this approach to know it holds rationale beyond their CEO’s perceptions or preferences.
Having been trusted (and relied upon) to deliver remotely from the office for so long, they will struggle to understand why some flexibility no longer works.
Lockdown working was an extreme few wish to preserve. The vast majority want to connect, work with their colleagues in person at times, and possibly enjoy their ‘social work life’ again.
Simply turning back the clock to February 2020 will lack credibility for employees who have appreciated a break from the commute, seen their families more, enjoyed greater flexibility and have most likely at least maintained their performance. This presents a defining moment for an organisation’s relationship with its people.
Given the return to the office is a generic challenge, employees will compare notes on their organisation’s approach. They will see this isn’t just about the appetite for homeworking – it goes deeper.
It reveals the respect present in the employment relationship, the appetite for the organisation to listen and adapt to its people, and gets to the heart of company culture and whether employees are trusted.
As the economy recovers, the employment market will be competitive, people will have a choice. Companies that have learned through the pandemic to ask questions, listen and take informed action for their people will have created a meaningful competitive advantage.