Best Practices to Make the Pandemic Crisis into a Workplace Opportunity

For most organizations, the period when they had to cope with the sudden need to work remotely is long over. The challenge for organizations now is to move from simply coping with changed circumstances to thriving in the new world. Organizations need to take advantage of the forced changes to implement improvements in working practices that should have happened a long time ago.
The scramble to change policies and processes, deliver equipment to people, get new collaboration platforms up and running and keep the business running is a distant memory. Medical necessity and government fiat accelerated adoption of new ways of working to an extent no one could have imagined before February 2020.
Now as vaccines promise to relieve some of the burdens the Coronavirus has brought, organizations can start to plan for the next phase. It would be foolish and impractical to simply count on returning to the way things were before. Changes in how we work and live are not going away, but neither will all the current practices imposed by the virus become permanent.

Several Analyst Syndicate analysts who focus on workplace issues have collected a set of targeted best practices you can implement immediately. These will help you start the transition from coping with crisis to taking advantage of the opportunities that COVID-19 has presented.

Assess changes adopted for lockdown and decide which ones should be adapted or continued

COVID-19 necessitated many changes in how organizations work and individual practices. Once they are not strictly necessary, the first reaction is to toss them all aside to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. However, many employees will have come to appreciate the flexibility and autonomy they gained from not having to go to an office to work.
Quite a few of these changes have delivered higher productivity, greater job satisfaction and better company results. Rather than assuming all changes can now be dropped, assess them to actively decide which ones should stay in place.

Ask employees about their preferences

Survey employees or schedule small scale meetings to ask about how they would like to work, irrespective of what their role demands. You can collect this information in the form of an online survey in individual or group discussions or both. Some people are anxious to get back to the office while others have resolved never to return if at all possible. Collecting information about what your employees want is the first step towards accommodating these preferences. Try to determine how deeply felt these preferences are. Does someone have a light preference for working from home or has it become a major determinant of what they look for from an employer?

Classify roles

For each role in the organization, proactively determine the level to which it can be performed remotely. Possible categories are:

  • Fully Flexible: Can be performed from anywhere, Examples include analysts, sales, content creators and finance.
  • Fixed Location: Work needs to be performed in a particular location. Examples include factory line workers, lab technicians, receptionists, and cleaners.
  • Hybrid: Requires some work to be performed on location with the rest possible remotely. Examples include management, field maintenance personnel, and administration.

Assess managers’ capability for managing hybrid teams

Few organizations will be purely fully flexible or purely fixed location. Many will need to create a hybrid work model that accommodates people working in an office sometimes and from another location at times.
This flexibility can pose a significant challenge for managers who lack training in how to create high-performance virtual teams. It may also make some managers resentful of employees who opt to remain working outside the office when they, themselves, may not have that option.
The single biggest obstacle to establishing successful hybrid work environments from a management point of view is fear – fear that because managers cannot see their employees, they don’t really know what they are doing. Conquering this irrational fear takes some doing. It starts with selecting work that is deliverables-based and setting clear expectations of how employees will relate work progress to their managers and their teammates.

Establish a workplace environment for any working mode

Technologies and equipment need to support all employees, regardless of their working classification. There are really two aspects of this:
  1. The office environment – what it looks like at home, in remote locations, and at corporate facilities.
  2. The Digital Workplace – what Richard Marshall. likes to call the “humanised digital workplace” that:
  • Focuses on the human experience
  • Uses modern cloud-native technology
  • Cultivates learning
  • Optimizes costs

No matter which working model an enterprise decides to take, the next phase of working practices address critical, human, technology, security, and governance issues. A comprehensive and sustainable workplace strategy factors in dimensions that have been lost to cubicle farms and foremen masked as managers.

Think about how employee development must change

New working styles will have an unexpected impact on the dynamics of how people develop and advance in the workplace. It is much harder to seek out or offer advice over formal video conferences than in face to face meetings. Junior personnel will probably find it more difficult to stand out or get new responsibilities without the informal contacts possible when everyone is in the office. Acknowledge these changes and take steps to ensure that employee development continues. Here are some examples:

  • Formalize mentor programs by pairing senior personnel with new employees. Encourage informal contacts even when working remotely.
  • Increase the number of informal check-ins by HR and management. Don’t wait for them to happen naturally, but make them a priority and schedule them.
  • Explore innovative tools like Mystery Coffee which encourage informal, serendipitous contacts between employees.
  • Ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak during remote meetings. Avoid going only to the people you know or are formally assigned to a particular project.
  • Use collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams to encourage wider participation in decision-making. It can take a great deal of bravery to speak up in a meeting where senior people are discussing an issue. An online comment has fewer barriers. Make sure those channels are heard as well.

Beware of “quick fixes” like automation and monitoring technology

Managers will bear the greatest disruption and largest burdens of this shift. They carry the brunt of driving engagement and cultural shifts. Leadership should look out for overwhelmed and burnt-out managers through the transition and out the other side.

The immediate fix might not be the best and ultimate fix. Automation can be extremely helpful as long as it makes employees more effective and doesn’t reduce them to working like bots. Likewise, monitoring technology can prove useful for understanding behavior but often has a nasty punch when it is applied to control behavior.

Keep asking employees how they are doing

Flexibility in working location and times can have significant benefits but there are downsides too. Working remotely requires more employee interaction to maintain context than in an office environment. Employees spend more time on email, collaboration channels, and live meetings when people work remotely.

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report studied people using products like Microsoft 365 and over 30,000 workers. They found some striking working changes between February 2020 and February 2021:

  • 66% increase in people working on documents
  • 62% of calls and meetings are ad hoc and unscheduled
  • Emails delivered are up 40.6B YTY
  • Time spent in Microsoft Teams has grown 2.5X globally
  • The average meeting is 10 minutes longer

More flexibility impacts the entire workforce. Management and leaders need to continually monitor changes in productivity but also in working activities.

Make the structural changes needed for the Future of Work

Everyday processes need to reflect the highly distributed workforce that has become commonplace. Look for practices that get in the way of working this way efficiently and fix them. Some examples:

  • Avoid making decisions with people who happen to be in the office on a particular day. People who are not in the office will feel left out and eventually tune out. It is difficult to control what people talk about, so ensure that these decisions are tentative until they are confirmed in a meeting where everyone who needs to be involved is present.
  • Provide an online component to every meeting, even if it looks like everyone will probably attend in person. If someone needs to participate from home, they should not feel like they are causing a problem.
  • Try to align schedules so that occasionally a large part of the team is in one place at a particular time.
  • Agree on the tools to use at the beginning of a project. It is very frustrating when half the team uses Google Drive, others use Microsoft OneDrive and someone else is walking around with a USB thumb drive.

Build company culture to meet the new collective

Proximity sustains company cultures, both the good and the bad ones. While the culture flows from the top – i.e., look at the company’s culture and you can tell what kind of person the CEO is – its perpetuation is fostered through bringing people closer together, such as in office spaces. Flexible working models disrupt the common identity that surroundings and collective attitudes. reinforce. Teams tend to create stronger bonds among fewer individuals in the virtual world, weakening the larger corporate identity.

To influence and drive corporate culture and ideals, managers need to meet employees where they are. This requires a combination of tactical (bringing the corporate identity to the home office) and strategic (communications and awareness programs) activities. One significant drawback of remote work is less sense of belonging. Leadership, managers, HR and team leads are critical to propagating cultural ideals and norms.

Become more open when communicating to employees

One of the leading causes of worker burnout is management’s lack of understanding of workers’ roles in the business. Remote work can exacerbate a feeling of not belonging or being lost. Workers respond to this added stress by trying to fill the void through longer working hours, additional meetings, and increased indirect communication through email and collaborative apps. Over time, extra hours and frustration through not being certain of their place in an organization can lead to burnout and employee turnover.
Leadership and managers can mitigate this anxiety through more transparency with teams and individuals. Opening up about the purpose of their work, expectations of them, and how they contribute to advancing the goals of the firm are critical. This ethos must permeate the organization from the leadership down to associates. Employees most vulnerable to this stress are the very employees charged with carrying out this transparency: managers.
Disclosure

The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.