When BoJo announced that the UK would go into lockdown every UK based company (with the capacity to do so) scrambled a transition to remote working.
A defining moment shared across industries saw employees rush to set themselves up to work from home (WFH) and from speaking with old colleagues, the same issues were being felt regardless of sector or company size. However, I feel a number of companies may have been left a little red-faced when fitness instructors, yoga teachers and even football pundits were effortlessly transitioning to Instagram Stories and Zoom within a matter of days, while some corporate employees were waiting weeks for laptops to be sent out. From this we can see just how adaptable people are, but also how easy the transition to working from home can be. The surprise for managers however, came about afterwards; and turned out to be how do you manage a remote team?
No time for change management
Whilst going from relative normality to your entire workforce WFH, may not have been the change most companies wanted, it was the change most companies got. And faced with two options, adapt or flag, it was no surprise most companies — those with the infrastructure in place — took the former in order to ride out the situation. The interesting aspect for me however, is that under normal circumstances, no company would ever initiate such fundamental operational change without first assessing, planning, modelling and mapping out all possible outcomes and scenarios. I.e. you would be mad to even suggest shifting your entire workforces to home working without first having a change management plan in place.
Under normal circumstances, a change management plan is critical because all business change leads to seen and unforeseen consequences, regardless of how well planned the change is. Some outcomes are positive, others, less so; and as such it is critical to have a change management plan in place to dissect all possible interactions, operations and processes in order to fully understand dependencies and observe how changing one area can affect others.
Something I learnt in my early days as a consultant was that any change plan should consider the impact of and for change across the following areas:
The issue however, was that in this case because of Covid-19, there simply wasn’t enough time for any change plan to be implemented, let alone for any impact analysis to occur. Which leaves us to perform retrospective analysis on what change did occur, and how can we ensure BAU as a result of it.
Whilst there has been no time for change management, we can still change how we manage.
The role of tech and digitalisation
For the more digital and technologically advanced companies, WFH as a concept is not exactly new, but most employers are not digital and technologically advanced, at least not in terms of policies. It has been somewhat of a revelation to many management teams that they can in fact remain productive, even with the entire workforce operating remotely. The real revelation though, is that management styles have had to change too — as the traditional approach seen in offices the world over, and all the nuances and expectations that comes with — are no longer fit for purpose when there is nobody there to manage in that way.
For some firms, and I can think of a fair few — the solution to managing a tech-enabled remote workforce is of course more tech, mainly to monitor their productivity. Yet technology is only one of the five considerations of a typical change management plan as covered above. The school of thought that more technology will guarantee better management of remote workers is the complete wrong approach. Assuming that a remote and therefore, invisible workforce will begin to slack because they do not have managers is an out-dated assumption carried by fast-becoming outdated managers.
Embrace the cultural benefits of WFH
One of the key benefits of WFH, is the flexibility it brings. Why should employees stick to the typical 9–5 if they don’t have an office to go to? This shift though, requires a shift in the metrics we use to attribute value. Too often, we value human capital by the amount of time they contribute to something. We tend to attribute an employee’s value and therefore their price, by their daily rate, as opposed to their productivity. This does not happen in all cases, but it does in most. And this poses the question, if productivity can be maintained and even improved through the adoption of unorthodox working hours and informal work attire, why would you not support it? There is no longer merit continuing to drag 1950’s expectations into the current workplace — as we have found with many remnants of office etiquette from this time.
So, what needs to change?
Expectations of management:
- Productivity is key, activity is not, so measure wisely
- Be more mindful of changing patterns — Identify when they are most productive and if possible, align their work days accordingly
- WFH is an opportunity to re-evaluate your preferred work environment and build one that fits
- Know what works for you and find virtual solutions that deliver it as best they can, e.g. Zoom lunch breaks, socials and informal daily coffee breaks
- Give employees more ways to communicate and collaborate
- Ensure social aspects of co-working aren’t lost
- With the infrastructure and a proof of concept now in place, ensure this carries forward post crisis
Whilst the pandemic has been particularly punishing for a large number of businesses, it has provided a select number with a unique set of opportunities. Many leading companies have found that providing their employees with adequate levels of work/life balance, the flexibility to spend time with family and time to focus on their health and fitness yields better financial results. This type of opportunity comes but once in a lifetime and we should take the time to reflect, learn and change how we approach change in the future.