Why organizations can’t take a “wait-and-see” approach to flexible, remote working
Many businesses in 2020 elected to wait and see what the impact of the pandemic on the market would be before making any concrete changes to policies around flexible or remote working. This has led to gaps in organizational culture, collaboration and productivity — ultimately creating the potential for long-term challenges.
Now, as we enter the new year, it’s clear that uncertainty is the only certainty. Vaccine distribution and indications of economic recovery are driving more optimism, but this shouldn’t distract from the underlying challenges employers still face. Every organization — whether in energy, retail or finance — must define their future of work to unlock growth and avoid the pitfalls of waiting to see what the future holds.
Here are five considerations when planning out your future of work strategy:
1. Embrace remote work for the long term
The hope of any return to business as usual is long gone — remote work is here to stay in some form. While remote working may not be an option for every business, those that transitioned their workforce to a remote environment saw how quickly their people adapted and even preferred a more flexible or hybrid workforce model.
A survey by ADP Canada confirmed that many employees prefer a distributed way of working (i.e., a blend of home and in-office working). While remote work may not be the forever strategy, employers must address the growing expectation among their people to sustain talent engagement and a purposeful culture. However, enabling a hybrid way of working isn’t an easy undertaking. It’s a complex challenge that requires coordination across a wide range of stakeholders, with a strong focus on planning and balancing the needs of your business with those of your people.
2. Enable online collaboration in the absence of physical interaction
Employees are currently dealing with a multitude of change and challenges, both in the workplace and in their personal lives. Virtual fatigue is in full force and the result is many people opting out of remote engagement opportunities. And a decline in culture often leads to a decline in talent.
Now, more than ever, employees are looking to their employers to maintain a culture that supports and prioritizes both their physical and mental health — whether in person or online. Many organizations have increased their focus and spend on wellness activities to build resilience. The highest adoption rate is in organizations that have deployed these programs into existing teams to create the required trust and safe environment. While new waves of COVID-19, various lockdown measures and continued physical distancing create challenges for in-person collaboration, business leaders need to define long-term plans to keep employees engaged, connected and feeling supported. Delivering a flexible working strategy that enables employee engagement, culture and strong talent management will not only help fuel productivity, but enhance employee attraction and retention.
3. Create options for innovation
Innovation and creativity are the cornerstones of every successful organization. But too often companies depend on in-person connections to drive their innovation agenda forward. Many organizations have proven over the last several months that innovating in a remote environment is possible. Now it’s time for the rest to embrace that thinking and design flexible options for virtual and in-person collaboration.
Virtual meeting environments aren’t always enough. You should assess the tools available that are designed to facilitate collaboration and invest the time to determine which will be most effective for their workforce before implementing anything. Providing your teams with technology that’s specifically designed for team collaboration can help foster innovation. Traditional white-boarding, sticky note sessions and breakaway room sessions can now be done comfortably online with the explosion of virtual workshop rooms such as Mural, Think-Tank and MS Teams. These tools make it easy to access the right talent to engage in problem-solving and ideation.
It’s also important to consider that some of your employees may prefer the option to use physical office spaces to engage in team meetings and collaboration sessions when it is safe to do so. Having a safe physical space for teams to collaborate and brainstorm ideas and solutions provides your employees with options for how they choose to work together. Of course, those physical spaces must meet all health and safety standards and have the right technology and tools to accommodate team members who may not be able to join in live for in-person meetings. Companies that have a clear strategy, expectations and guidance for in-person and remote teaming can help secure a competitive advantage over companies that continue to wait and see what will transpire in the coming weeks and months.
4. Reinvent your physical footprint
While strategizing your return-to-work plan, consider how you’ll use your physical space amid a distributed workforce model. That starts by thinking through who comes into the office, and when and for what purpose. How your employees interact with physical office spaces shouldn’t be left to chance. The role the office plays as a service centre needs to be well thought through to ensure that the experience employees have in the office will be a productive and engaging one. And keep in mind that setting up your office for optimal collaboration can take significant time to renovate, shift and redesign spaces to meet the future needs of your business.
Once that work is done, many organizations may find opportunities to optimize real estate portfolios and lease agreements to improve cost savings. Those looking to reduce their real estate footprint must first have a plan and timeline for their employees’ return to the office in place to ensure a smooth transition to a new way of working or office design.
5. Don’t use new technology to enable old ways of working
The race to deploy software solutions to support remote working was among the first set of priorities for many organizations at the beginning of COVID-19. “You’re on mute” was easily the most familiar phrase of 2020 as virtual meetings took off. The missed opportunity is that many of these new technology platforms were used to drive old ways of working. The result was often an increase in meetings and longer working hours, largely influenced by an “always on” culture.
Many organizations established rules of engagement and parameters that allowed for a more balanced work-life engagement. Mandating no-meeting zones at certain times in the day allows for family, exercise or thinking time. A considerate organization may also incorporate email disclaimers that indicate that there are no expectations to respond to emails outside of the business’s working hours. In addition, many companies are adapting their policies to provide additional leave and time off to help reduce employee fatigue.
Companies that achieved greater engagement, attraction and retention scores introduced guidelines and policies for using new online meeting platforms. They maximized the benefits of new technology to help support collaboration and placed a higher emphasis on setting meetings with a “quality over quantity” mindset. Those that failed to do this forward thinking saw higher rates of fatigue and burnout among their people, leading to less engagement and a marked difference in workforce culture.
The time for a wait-and-see approach to workforce strategy is long gone now. Step up and clearly define and communicate your flexible work strategy to build and preserve a culture that enables growth, innovation and productivity. It won’t be easy, and you’ll face tough learnings along the way. But if you decide to lead the way on revolutionizing the future of work, you can increase employee engagement, enhance collaboration and attract and retain the right talent in what’s expected to be an increasingly competitive 2021 and beyond.