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Advice for leaders: Creating an engaged and productive culture in the future home based organisation

As organisations return to work and take stock of the past few weeks, the conversation is shifting from ‘how to work at home during lockdown’ to ‘what remote working will mean to the future remote based organisation’. It’s a far reaching strategic issue.

The fact that more and more large organisations are now saying they will move towards a significantly home based workforce (Facebook being one of the latest), suggests this shift is gaining momentum. The reality is that we’ve been moving to a more remote based way of working over time. The impact of COVID-19 has just dramatically accelerated it.

For many this time of home working or furloughing has been one of reflection. Some will have already formed new skill sets or life goals which, in turn, could mean those returning to the workforce, if not the actual workplace, do so with new found aspirations and a desire for greater flexibility. How will they be managed and engaged in a remote based culture?

Challenges facing leaders are:

Risk of a divided culture between home and office based workers

The new world of work between home and office risks division forming. In some organisations there’s already evidence of a ‘them and us’ culture thanks to furloughing. So, as objectives change as organisational life ramps up, think very carefully about the ‘why’ of any guidelines or policy from all perspectives. From the employee's perspective, from the organisation’s mission or purpose perspective, from a customer perspective (there maybe others). If you develop a clear ‘why’ socialise it and consult - it can help to bring people together.

Many organisations we are working with are considering more flexible working arrangements rather than having people based at either home or office (unless that makes sense for their role). Many people are missing their colleagues but not missing their commute (or having to juggle childcare issues or other life issues), so organisations are looking to take out some of the day to day tensions for people and create some flexibility instead, which will mitigate against divided cultures.

How to stay connected and socialise remotely

Lockdown has proved that while people can stay connected and socialise remotely, people have also missed physically seeing people. The office always was far more than a place to work, many friendships were formed by working together and socialising - something that is particularly important and attractive to younger workers. The future will likely become more of a mix but with a growing emphasis on the virtual. When people aren’t forced into connecting virtually for work, they may chose to do so more often than they would in the past to enable socialisation. We suggest organisations begin to capture now (before lockdown ends) what has been successful and what hasn’t so that the learning can be implemented into a longer term strategy.

How do you instill a sense of team and purpose?

A shared purpose or experience is a great unifier. There were good reasons why organisations latched onto versions of ‘We’re all in this together’ in marketing messages during the lockdown. So, connecting people to the ‘why’ (you will have to repeat ‘why’ messages more remotely as they are not available in peoples’ peripheral vision in offices, etc) and implementation of team building practices learned over lockdown can have a big impact.

Recognition plays a great part in bringing people together. Whether working through lockdown or experiencing the detachment of furloughing, every contribution or experience matters. Some organisations have been good at listening during this time which has encouraged employees to share their opinions and in some cases open up about their wellbeing. Given the time away, some employees will return with a new sense of purpose, others finding skills they didn’t know they had. How can this be embraced? Now isn’t the time to stop listening.

Some organisations are building a sense of team through ‘collaboration events’ or ‘onsites’ instead of ‘offsite’ so that people can get together and get the most out of this time but with a concrete purpose rather than just being in the office together.

Losing the creative energy/process that comes when people are together

We’ve all got used to Zoom (or Skype for that matter) but scheduled calls kill spontaneity - and spontaneity is so important to creativity.

What’s more, video calls are also draining and tiring when held too often. Remote workers could come together physically for team days or events to facilitate spontaneity. It is likely that facilitators of offsites and training events will have to update how they work to allow for the spontaneity to occur as highly orchestrated events will not enable this. There will need to be more time for exchanging ideas, talking through concepts, and generally mixing that a typical old style offsite or event may have had. 

What will increased remote working means for line managers and performance management processes?

The last few weeks will have tested many line managers, especially those that thrived on ‘command and control’ and presenteeism. On the other hand, those organisations that operated on a trust basis during lockdown will likely see a more engaged and productive workforce - just as long as they sustain this. Trust - and the respectful response to it - will be a big part of the remote based organisation. Line managing, in a remote world, will become a very refined skill. Trust development (on both sides) and communication skills will become even more highly prized than they are today.

Management will become more of an art than a process (it is already but some hide behind the reassurance of being physically present to be in charge). Managers will need to become highly skilled at developing goals and outcomes by which performance and output can be measured beyond just being physically present. It is though, high time organisations moved away from this inefficient and lazy way of assessing output.

How can organisations help their people cope with all this change?

Socialise and consult, remember that people will not always say what they really think, either through fear or they may not actually know. How many people dreamed of working from home until forced to do so and now can’t wait to get back together with their colleagues or vice versa? So pilot new ideas with a small group before scaling. Use external consultants who are experts in the field of change management (Monkey Puzzle can help with this) to help you map out options and navigate them, this doesn’t need to be an onerous process.

Remember that you will never be able to please everyone, at some point you will have to make a decision and stick with it for a while. Some things do not become apparent until some time has passed. Many organisations found that initially working from home was very productive but once people had got through their existing projects and planned work, it dropped off sharply as much of the planning and creative cycles need people to come together in some way.

In conclusion

The return to work is just the start of the re-start. It’s important for leaders to recognise that just as the organisation has faced huge challenges and changed as a result of COVID-19, the same may be true for many employees. They may bring new ideas to the table as a result and, at the very least, will want to be heard. Those organisations that acted with gratitude and understanding will already have a head start in building the engagement levels needed as the future workforce adjusts to remote and home working.

If we have anything to thank the virus for, it’s that mental health and wellbeing are no longer taboo topics. Conversations are being had, organisations have been listening - some of it relating to the isolation that can come with remote working. It will be those that sustain their empathy and operate with the authenticity and trust they’ve displayed over the past weeks that will be in the best place to recover - and take their people with them, wherever they are based.

For further information

If you have any questions about managing the issues around returning your employees to work, we are here to help.
We offer coaching and training for leaders to master communication, influence with integrity, and get a positive response from their people. Find out more about our Leadership Development programmes.

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If you’d like our support in making these ideas work for you and your business, please get in touch.

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