From offering full-time remote working, to giving employees the flexibility to work around their childcare needs, employers have been modifying their working strategies on the fly to match the abrupt changes we’ve all experienced due to coronavirus.
But what comes next? As the UK’s remaining lockdown restrictions begin to lift, employees and leaders are looking to HR for answers. The people profession has a large task ahead as it steers the workforce into whatever the ‘next normal’ phase will look like.
This HR Lunchtime Debate spoke to a panel of esteemed people professionals from the public and private sectors to find out how they plan to navigate their organisations through this murky water.
Speaking at the event, Alex Arundale, chief people officer at Advanced, said that when the pandemic first hit in March 2020, people professionals were overwhelmed by the idea of moving an entire workforce out of the office in only a matter of days.
“Stark lessons were learnt from the quick turnaround, but the HR team was impressed by how achievable the shift to remote working actually was,” she said.
Arundale said everyone had no choice but to be flexible, whether that was physically or mentally.
She explained: “Teams had to move desktops around at the drop of a hat, and employees had to be willing to work in their own home spaces even if they never had done before.”
Big-four employer PwC has, for example, implemented a new work strategy that will see its employees spend 40% of their time in the office and 60% at home.
“We’ve asked our people what they want going forward and we are designing new ways of working around that,” said Vicky Robinson, who leads PwC’s workforce strategy and culture.
This initial strategy, however, won’t be the end of the story when it comes to flexibility, she said.
“We need to continue to look at office occupancy and be able to consistently evolve and reiterate what we’re doing to ensure we make this successful.”
The next phase
Rupert McNeil, chief people officer for the Civil Service, said the country’s workforce is about to move into a noteworthy next phase.
He cautioned, however, that this will only be temporary. “What we’re about to witness won’t be how the world of work will look in the next 18 months’ time, 24 months’ time and so on,” he said.
McNeil made the point that, generally, people crave guidance, and while that needs to be acknowledged, conversations between employees and their line mangers about what they need to their working patterns to now be, are going to be vital.
“Making sure our line managers are confident enough to have important, one to one conversations with their people will be fundamental for navigating the next steps we all face.”
Marshah Dixon-Terry, career and leadership coach, organisational development consultant at MDT Career Coaching, said organisations need to continue to look at and understand what flexibility means.
“Flexibility is going to mean different things for different people,” she said. “For some it will mean simply working from home, and for others it will be how they work.”
People teams have been attending to the needs of individual employees throughout the pandemic, and that won’t change just because lockdown is over said Robinson.
“HR’s biggest challenge is now going to be designing as much flexibility as possible, whilst recognising one size doesn’t fit all and HR themselves have to be flexible,” she said.
All panellists agreed making hybrid work models fit for purpose will be one of HR’s biggest challenges post-pandemic.
It is inevitable that not every employee will want to work the same way, said Dixon-Terry. “It’s important that we listen to employees and that we keep on listening, to really get a sense of the lay of the land.
“Line managers will be a crucial part of this,” she said. “Having conversations around changes in an employee’s life that will require a change in their working pattern, is needed to navigate future working plans.”
HR will need to understand how employees think and feel to be able to design the best possible work models, which Arundale said will also present great opportunities to become more transparent with one another.
“Sometimes as leaders, talking about what we’ve learnt and how we want to work, builds confidence in others to speak out about how they feel.”
Employees who have spent the last year enjoying more time with their children won’t want to suddenly give that up, said Arundale, who stressed how much she herself had enjoyed that time.
“A self-made pressure of needing to be seen back in the office can hinder working parents’ ability to change their work patterns, but as leaders we need to let teams question what they’ve enjoyed over the past 12 months and take those with us post-pandemic,” she said.
HR professionals have a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of the impact the past year has had on our society, said McNeil. “How great would it be to be able to move people to work models that really work for them?” he asked.
If we asked ourselves what work should be in the 21st century, McNeil argued that sitting in an office nine-to-five “would not make the cut”.
He said: “Collaborating with colleagues to deliver good outcomes is what work should now mean for us all. It’s the outcome that matters, not when you do it, as long as it’s done by the time its needed and people aren’t being let down.”
Coaching, attention to wellbeing and structured collaboration times were all highlighted as requirements for producing good work.
With those in place, HR’s impact on future working models as the lockdown lifts, could have no bounds.
To hear more of this discussion, you can watch this webinar on demand here.
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