By Professor Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation

Uncertain and anxious; hopeful and excited; or indifferent? However employers and employees are feeling about the next few months, there can be no escaping the conversations that will need to be had.

Whether you support ‘back to normal’ and ‘back to the office’, or are keen to find ‘a new normal’, we are embarking on yet another period of change, uncertainty and possibility. The conversations employers will be having over the coming weeks and months about ‘flexible working’ will be nothing like the conversations they may have had on that topic before.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to re-evaluate our lives and our working arrangements. Discussions around remote working, virtual offices and hybrid models – whereby people work part of their week from an office and part from home – are taking place up and down the country.

As with any time of change, there is much that employers will need to consider. Here, we offer seven tips for organisations beginning to look past the pandemic to the world of work in the second half of 2021 and beyond.

#1 One size does not fit all

Prior to coronavirus, the majority of people worked from an office or some other kind of workplace. During the pandemic, we all had to work from home if we could. Nobody party to the employment relationship – not HR, not line managers, not company bosses, not employees themselves – initiated the idea of remote working.

Now that we are moving into a time when more options are available to us all, it will be important for employers to give their employees some say in their working arrangements where possible.

Companies that want to get everyone back to the office are likely to experience some backlash if they try to tell people who have worked remotely for over a year now that they now cannot do it at all. Likewise, those considering reducing their office space by moving wholesale to remote working, or intending to initiate a hybrid model, would do well to guard against adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Our research at Cranfield suggests that employees who want to work remotely and who are enabled to do so reward their employers with increased loyalty, engagement and productivity, but an employer who requires someone to work at home that cannot or does not want to – whether they live alone, lack a suitable workspace, or simply prefer to work in the office – may find the opposite effect to be true.

#2 Don’t make any quick decisions

This is a crucial moment for employers, and one in which it will be important not to misstep. There are some big decisions to be made, and the complexity of the changes that may be required to establish and maintain successful hybrid and remote working models should not be underestimated.

Many of us have experienced remote working now – but it has been at a time when most, if not all, of our colleagues, clients, customers and stakeholders were also working remotely. Most people will not have experience of hybrid working at scale, and of the subsequent challenges of co-ordinating diaries and organising meetings and events around people’s individual working patterns.

There is a lot to work out. As well as the logistics of how many days each employee will be in the office and working remotely, there will inevitably be technology gaps that will need to be plugged, communication protocols that must be re-visited, trust issues that may need to be worked on. All this takes time and consultation, so employers would be advised to not make any quick decisions.

Which brings us to…

#3 Be prepared to revisit any decisions you do make

It’s important to recognise that this is a transitional time. While many employees may be expressing preferences about how they work in future, their real-life experiences of those new working arrangements may change their minds. New advantages and disadvantages may arise which shape different views over time.

For example, it may become apparent that – despite both sides wanting to enable remote working – it isn’t actually compatible, post-pandemic, with the way in which a particular job needs to be carried out. Alternatively, with more people working in similar ways, both employee and employer may find office presence is less required than they had previously imagined.

So, whatever employers and their employees come to agree on in the weeks and months to come, they will need to be willing to review it and potentially change it down the line. Employers should plan to revisit any agreements they make with individuals regarding their working patterns. In terms of the individual and their line manager, these conversations could be had around three months into any new arrangement but, organisationally, more learning will be required before policies, frameworks or guidelines can be put in place, including allowing for seasonal fluctuations in demand, staffing and workload.

#4 Think differently

Now, more than ever before, is the time to do things differently. The organisations that get this right will be the ones that consider not job roles or team functions, but the actual nature of the work that people are doing within their business.

Many teams are not genuinely interdependent; individual members do not rely on each other in order to make progress. So what elements of work genuinely need collaboration, and for which of those will that collaboration work better face-to-face? Conversely, what types of work can be done anytime, and anywhere?

An example of thinking differently may be to consider if you need to have the same working pattern all year round. If you are in a seasonal business, could you look at annual hours contracts, or have different arrangements for different times of the year? Likewise, must all meetings begin on the hour or half-hour? Must they all last for a set period of time as dictated by digital calendars? Or could starting at quarter-past the hour and ending on the hour allow people to have the natural breaks they would get by physically travelling between meeting rooms in the workplace.

#5 Technology for enablement, not control

As we have seen during the past year, technology is a great enabler – and it will continue to be so as we move forwards. Use it to keep teams connected, to offer equivalent service delivery while better enabling a different way of working for your employees – and ensure remote workers are adequately resourced to do the work they need to do.

Trust will become of increasing importance in the employee-employer relationship, so use the technological resources at your disposal as a force for good, not to control and coerce. By its nature, software can impose conditions on the way in which we work, by monitoring our activity and presence.

Organisations should remember that, for a significant time now, they have not been able to actually see their employees working, and resist the temptation to exploit the technology at their disposal to monitor or control their employees. Many will have effectively experimented with remote working during the pandemic, and their businesses have not fallen apart. Their employees have presumably gone through performance appraisals and are still on board, so their performance will have been judged as satisfactory.

It will be important for companies to develop protocols around the technology they use to allow for a degree of availability without employees feeling that they are being watched or judged.

#6 Support line managers

Much of what is to come will pose challenges for line managers in keeping their teams connected and communicating, so it will be vital for companies to support their line managers as they seek to find new ways of co-ordinating and collaborating when some people are in the workplace and others are working remotely.

Companies should recognise that this is a time for line managers to experiment and learn – to try different things – and support them in doing so. Rather than requiring them to deliver on short-term performance targets – which reduces the likelihood of change – KPIs should focus on knowing and understanding their staff. With Microsoft Teams and Zoom we have seen more of our colleagues’ lives than ever before – their homes, their children, their pets – and line managers should be encouraged to remember that their team members are individuals and have a life outside of work which may need to be accommodated in terms of how it interacts with their working life.

And, finally…

#7 Allow for a period of adjustment

We should not underestimate what we have all experienced in the past year. It has been difficult – at times very difficult. Life still feels a long way from ‘normal’.

With this in mind, on the occasions when we are in the office, will we all arrive and be able to work in the way we would have done previously? Will we pick up where we left off? Or are we far enough away from where we were in February 2020 that we might need some reintegration? Do we need to re-establish some of our relationships back in a face-to-face context – or even re-establish them full stop?

We cannot yet know the answer, and different people will differ in their ability to adjust to interacting with colleagues face-to-face once more. So, there will be a need to be kind, to allow for a period of adjustment as we all get used to the ‘new normal’.

In conclusion…

In the past, flexible workers were in the minority, and remote workers even more so. But now we have the benefit of having experimented with these ways of working – whether we wanted to or not – and having had to make it work. In many instances, what was deemed impossible has become possible.

This is an opportunity that we cannot and must not squander. Let’s get this right. Future generations of workers will thank us for it.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield has been a world leader in management education and research for over 50 years, helping individuals and organisations learn and succeed by transforming knowledge into action. We are dedicated to creating responsible management thinking, improving business performance and inspiring the next generation of business leaders. We work to change the lives of our students and executives by encouraging innovation and creative thinking, as well as the drive to succeed and make a real impact on their organisations.

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