“Will you be heading back to the office?” would be the water cooler question of the quarter. If we were gathering round water coolers, that is – which kind of takes you back to the question about whether you’re going back to the office…
No one yet knows whether the 21 st June deadline the government originally set for the relaxing of lockdown rules will go ahead. But companies have had to start having realistic conversations about what the future of work will look like for their employees – be it office-based, hybrid working or remote working. Each brings with it its own set of challenges and its own opportunities. But it’s clear to us that the key to success will be how positively businesses bring their people on that journey with them.
So, what do employers need to consider when planning this next step?
- Have an honest conversation. This is the most important thing any business can be doing right now if they want to keep their employees loyal and engaged. For some industries having flex working will not be an option. Some people might have got a taste for home working, some might be desperate to return to the office, but probably most will want a mix of both. Companies need to set out what their aims are and ask people for input on how they’d prefer to work while meeting the business objectives. You won’t be able to please everyone, but there should be an authentic understandable reason why the final decision was made.
- Be careful what is going unsaid. If business needs demand that people are back in the office full time, you need to justify why. Telling people to get back in without good reason is likely to be read as you don't trust me unless you can see me - at which point good luck trying to retain your best people.
- What are the new perks? If people are going to be fully back in the office, think about the office environment, perks, company culture and proposition. You need to make people want to go to the office, otherwise they're more likely to consider their options.
- Home offices need to work. If WFH is a permanent solution, your team will need support to ensure they have a good/safe working environment. There needs to be the option/budget to book meeting rooms or visit coffee shops for in-person meetups when useful.
- Create an office that serves a purpose. If hybrid working is the way you’re going, think carefully about what the office will be used for. One of our clients has adopted a "hyper collaborative in the office/hyper productive at home" approach. If people are more likely to do focused work at home, then make the office a more fun, creative environment to facilitate conversation – such as comfy chairs, shared screens and so on.
- Consider those who can’t work from home. Some people may not be able to work from home, so is there an option for a full time space in the office or can they have credits for co-working spaces?
- A warm welcome back. If people are heading back into the office for the first time – perhaps some have been on furlough – you need to make it a positive experience and ensure they feel informed, secure, valued and ready to get back to it. We developed a ‘reboarding’ portal called Welcome Back, to help.
- Ensure no one is a second-class citizen. If some people are office-based and others home-based, the concern for the latter is that they become less ‘visible’. How will you ensure their contribution is as valuable as those you see face-to-face? Consider investing in good meeting room webcam/audio solutions, for example, so those logging on from home to join an in-person meeting don’t have a second-class experience.
- Cultivate common interests. Is there a way to reconnect your employees through shared interests? For example, a company walk in the countryside for a smaller business, or for bigger companies, forming internal employee networks where people with similar interests can connect.
- Thinking of you. If your workforce is remote, the occasional 'care package' sent out to employees can really give people a boost.
- Don’t forget mental health. Make sure there are regular check-ins with remote workers and those in the office to see how they're doing. Do you need to consider training and support for managers, or have the option of paid for subscriptions to appropriate services or apps?
Now, more than ever, leaders must have clarity around their business plan and priorities, and work with colleagues in HR to ensure there's a people plan that supports them. Communicating and engaging employees in that vision and those priorities is crucial – and that’s something we know how to help with. The availability of talent was already a key obstacle for business growth pre-pandemic, and the job market is heating up. It's likely that a simple revert to life as it was in January 2020 is not somewhere most of us are in a hurry to get back to!