For HR leaders, 2020 felt like a marathon and a sprint all at the same time. At the start of the first lockdown, the race was on to stay productive and ensure that remote teams were able to keep working at as close to normal levels as possible. But as the year wore on, the focus has turned to managing workloads and energy levels to get across the finish line.
Except it’s not really a finish line at all: remote working has fundamentally changed the game. For HR, that means the rules will need to change too.
One of the more positive things we can say about this past year is that it has fast-tracked our learning about team behaviour and individual performance. From my recent discussions with HR, recruitment and human resources leaders, I have found that the general consensus is that 2020 has been a year of peaks and troughs. At the start of the first lockdown, many people poured themselves into their work and productivity went up. Then it seems to have hit a plateau later, and some of those initial gains were lost.
There are many potential possible reasons for this slow down: stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout are some obvious and understandable factors. Some people miss the office environment and the human contact, some have also found that their home environment isn’t conducive to working productively.
The last year has taught us many lessons and HR leaders will need to draw these lessons, as remote work isn’t just a short-term fix to get through a pandemic but a model that will endure into the future.
Exactly what that future looks like will vary from one company to the next, but it has become clear that the ideal situation is to establish a flexible working environment which allows for multiple options for employees. Many people have expressed a desire to get back to the office. Some employees miss the social aspect of a busy working environment and the creativity that comes from team collaboration. In my opinion, nothing beats sitting around a table to work out a thorny problem and tap into everyone’s creative side. Flexible working also helps those that find themselves juggling other priorities such as childcare or caring for elderly relatives.
Whatever the makeup of the workforce or the structure of work that develops, HR teams will be tasked with the responsibility of ensuring communication is open and that performance is maintained.
Here are six key elements I believe will become essential to the new HR environment: policy, communication, flexibility, trust, empathy, and listening.
Establishing a clear strategy will ensure your flexible/hybrid work policy is not vague and unfocused. Organisations that have been successful in their implementation of remote working have communicated clearly what they expect, and have taken into account the "new normal". Policies should take into consideration every day distractions, such as school runs, and a "working from anywhere" approach, such as taking work calls while in the car or out for a walk. A successful flexible working policy will also include a strategy around working hours, for example, employees that are tasked with a project may be given permission to work outside the nine to five working day to allow the employee to shape their work around their day.
Clear language and structure within the policy will remove any ambiguity and set clear expectations on all sides. Senior management should define the boundaries of flexible working policies to ensure that employees don't feel the need to make unnecessary requests.
Communication is critical in the new working world – and by that, I don’t mean yet another Zoom call! Video meetings may be necessary when in-person collaboration is not possible. But that isn’t the same as saying video should be the default option for every interaction.
While we’re on the subject of conference calls, it’s important to acknowledge that people respond to them in different ways. Some people get frustrated with chit chats at the start, and they’re keen to just get down to business. Others get frustrated where a meeting is too agenda-driven and it’s missing a social aspect that would have happened in an office. Neither type is wrong, so it’s best to allow room for both – and vary the approach according to who will be attending. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that adaptability is a precious skill.
One of the big lessons from the mass adoption of remote work has been the need to manage by outcomes, not hours worked. It’s a lot easier for managers when they can walk around the office and see people at their desks. But if the employee is producing work to a good standard, should it matter where they are doing it? Provided the outcomes are set and measurable then location should be no barrier to getting good results.
I have observed that hybrid working is most effective in companies where there are high levels of trust. At the start of the first lockdown, some companies approached remote working by micromanaging their people, others went as far as using an app for staff to clock on and clock off. Those heavy-handed approaches cause serious trust issues and can damage staff morale over time.
As I alluded to earlier, people have many different circumstances for their home office. Some might find it ideal to work from home, but others may be struggling. For remote working, HR leaders need to be more switched on to their employees’ state of mind. That’s where soft skills really come into play: empathy, flexibility, and understanding. My advice, manage for the personality and the environment, not just the role. Sometimes all it takes is an acknowledgement that someone has been finding it tough. If this happens, encouraging them to take a little time off and stay in touch can make all the difference.
Some managers may have a gift for picking up on little cues about their people’s wellbeing, but the signals aren’t always obvious when there’s no face-to-face contact. So, remove any doubt by asking questions. Surveys are a great way to gather employees’ concerns, and it lets teams know that someone is listening. Instead of developing HR policies in isolation, finding out what staff want through two-way communication helps to build and reinforce trust.
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