Key Theme 1: The Transformed Workplace

On the Rebound

After several months of lockdown, we grapple with the implications and reflect on the only certainty – that things may settle, but they will not be the same!  As we head through the summer and toward 2021, we look at what we have learnt in supporting our clients and the insights gained from the broader market.

We have identified five key themes that are front of mind for all organisations as they focus on the changes that will prevail.

We will tackle each of these over the coming weeks, sharing our collective insights and vision. Today we begin with...

1. The Transformed Workplace

‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’ attributed to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Organisations have responded swiftly to the threat of the spread of COVID-19 introducing new ways of working from one day to the next. As people were sent home to work, necessity dictated the uptake of virtual working at an unprecedented rate. In 2019, the UK Office of National Statistics estimated that only 3% of the workforce regularly worked from home, and more than 60% of the workforce never worked from home.1 By June 2020 these figures had reversed with over 60% of the workforce working from home on a regular basis and 30% of the workforce working from home exclusively.2

For many organisations, working from home had not been on top of their transformation agenda prior to the early months of 2020. One of our clients was in the midst of a programme to implement IT upgrades necessary for virtual working, with a relaxed, 18-month delivery schedule.  Another had resisted putting large amounts of data on the cloud, citing reasons of cybersecurity risk, and effectively blocking their technical engineers from working from home; within three weeks in March they installed state-of-the-art cybersecurity protection, and had their engineers back up to capacity from their home offices with safe access to the large, technical, data-sets they needed. 

After only a few months, the 2020 workforce, is virtual-savvy, competent in communicating remotely, having upskilled in video chat apps, remote desktop support, cloud-based document sharing, onboarding new staff remotely, and a host of technologies and behaviours that are becoming part of the lexicon of the ordinary worker, cutting across sectors, services and demographic groups. 

Are we already working in ‘the reimagined workplace’?  Even for those of us who are not working remotely, our office environments have been changed by the exodus of our colleagues, and by the sanitary and social behaviours that have rapidly become norms.  In this article, we look at how our already-changed workforce will continue to remake the workplace of the future, transforming the way that offices look, function and are located; and we examine the reasons why organisations’ people strategy and policies might have a bit of catching up to do, to adapt to these rapid changes, and benefit fully from them, now and in the future.   

We  share our observations around 6 focus areas: the virtual office, productivity, diversity, culture, well-being, and the new office.  

The virtual office 

More than 50% of at-home workers have indicated a preference for continuing to work remotely once restrictions are lifted.3 However, in the rush to send employees home, some of us found ourselves trying to work with young children around, or in homes without suitable desks, chairs, and internet connections. As individuals, we have been improving our remote-working infrastructure, learning to use a slew of apps, and refining our behaviours to make home-working effective. However, at the organisational level, expediency resulted in the flexing, or even outright abandoning, of policies, and an ad hoc response to issues that had never been raised before, from who, employer or employee, pays for the needed new desk chair or bandwidth increase, to more rudimentary questions about data security.

There are fundamental issues that organisations now need to face in order to effectively embrace remote working, and its advantages, for the long-term.  Remote working raises issues of policy and practice that touch on every aspect of organisational governance and quality management. We encourage organisations to start from their quality and risk management systems, and to review and update policies and practices, from human resources to corporate security, to address remote working head-on and ensure it can continue in a safe and productive way. 

Productivity

There is a pervasive view that, contrary to expectation, individuals working remotely have increased their personal productivity, having quickly adapted to new norms for effective collaboration and teamwork on-line.  The productivity increase is attributed to an overall increase in hours worked; quiet focus and concentration; the ease of meeting virtually with colleagues; and worktime flexibility optimised around peak energy periods, personal schedules, and client and collaborator time zones.  

As organisations look ahead, there is work to be done to institutionalise and customise these advantages to become part of an organisation’s toolkit for high performance, competitive power, or USP.  For one of our clients, a large multi-national engineering services firm, their USP for many years had been about customer intimacy, matching local staff with local clients. They had resisted the move to provide lower-cost solutions by offshoring their delivery, assuming that they’d be sacrificing quality for price.  However, with everyone working remotely, multi-national staff started meeting to discuss delivery by proposition rather than by locality.  It was quickly recognised that the individuals best placed to provide technical solutions and expertise to customers were located around the world – and cash-strapped customers were appreciative of the lower-cost, technical solutions that multi-national delivery teams could provide.  

Accessing long-term increases in productivity, will mean developing a people strategy that builds on our broadened view of ways of working, and has the agility to flex and support evolving ways of delivering products and services.  Whether an organisation has an ‘HR function’ or a ‘People & Talent team’, intimacy with the core business is more important than ever.  Flexible organisation structures will allow an organisation’s talent to be utilised in the most strategic way, drawing from the widest talent pool. We are working with our clients to update their HR systems and practices, to increase their agility, and to identify the unique value that they can draw from the increase in remote and flexible working.   

Diversity

 

McKinsey calls ‘the case for diversity stronger than ever’ based on 2019 research that demonstrates that as gender and ethnic diversity increase, so does the likelihood of financial out-performance.4

Where travel, commute, location, and the consecutive-8-hour workday have presented barriers for workers with home caring responsibilities or personal mobility limitations, this is an historically unique opportunity for organisations to bring these workers back into the fold. For organisations committed to remote and flexible ways of working for the long-term, the additional talent pool to draw from is vast. In 2019 in the UK, 14.9% of families were headed by a single parent5 and 19% of the working-age population reported that they had a disability. 6 The UK Industrial Strategy includes a Healthy Ageing Challenge with a mission to ensure that people plan their careers differently and continue to participate in work for longer, a valuable group of employees with high levels of experience and greater demands for flexibility. 7

Beyond the demographic view of diversity, author Matthew Syed points to ‘cognitive diversity’ as the most powerful tool for complex problem solving.8 As remote and flexible working expand our ability to cut across geographic and technical silos, and across nations and time zones, organisations have the power to form teams that harness the ‘power of perspective’, pooling collective brainpower to problem-solve and innovate. To seize the opportunity inherent in increased diversity, organisations need to demonstrate and broadcast their commitment to remote and flexible working, update and align recruitment and retention practices, and enable collaboration and interconnection throughout the organisation.

 Culture

According to a Glassdoor survey, 75% of adults pay close attention to a company’s culture before applying for a job, with 56% saying that culture is more important than salary.9  However, specifying exactly what gives people a sense of organisational culture has never been straightforward; it’s a fluid melange of shared values, traditions, beliefs, viewpoints, frames of reference, and experiences. There is no doubt that the movement of employees to remote working has changed aspects of organisational culture and that traditions are evolving.  In our own organisation, and that of many of our clients, we have seen the strength of organisational culture shine through, imprinting itself on new ways of working.  

Expressions of organisation culture seem to exist as a miscellany of small things, for example, using chat apps (Teams, Zoom) for everything from randomly generated, one-to-one, virtual coffee-chats, (the ‘new’ corridor chat), to enormous (hundreds of participants) company meetings that are video-recorded for flexible, on-demand access to an even greater audience. In line with a value around customer responsiveness, one of our clients instituted speed-selling webinars to support salespeople located around the globe. As best practices begin to emerge, we are gathering these together to continually improve as an organisation and help our clients.  

Validation and continuous improvement of these new expressions of company culture are necessary to ensure that organisational culture continues to be inclusive and cohesive, bringing office-based, operational and remote-working staff closer together, albeit virtually.  Organisational culture has evolved this year, and we have found that with commitment, care and attention, it can be strengthened.

Wellbeing

According to a survey undertaken by Statista, 34% of UK respondents are worried about their mental health because of the COVID-19 pandemic.10 Organisations have a legal and moral duty of care for the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees. But in the virtual workplace, wellbeing initiatives are taking on new forms. Health and wellbeing systems are already investing in expanding access to emotional support services for employees including confidential phone lines, virtual therapy provided online by mental health professionals, and peer support sessions to discuss concerns. Organisations are training voluntary health and wellbeing champions to respond to the needs of employees in a virtual context.  

Identifying and implementing the right wellbeing initiatives to fit new ways of working is important for every organisation, for reasons of compassion and productivity.  Aggregate data is emerging that can be used by leaders to understand trends in wellbeing management.  However, our experience in our organisation, and with our clients, is that good, old-fashioned employee engagement provides rich input for tailoring wellbeing initiatives to those that employees find most effective. 

The new office

With so much discussion about remote working, where does this leave the brick-and-mortar office?  We think that our offices are waiting for us to return, albeit with a little redesign taking place in the meanwhile.  Employees want to know that the offices that they go to are sanitary and that getting to them won’t put their health at risk.  Leaders want to know that space is well utilised and that they are not overpaying for office space that is no longer needed because employees are working remotely. 

Long-term continuation of remote and flexible working also brings with it implications for environmental sustainability, with opportunities to sustain the reductions in air pollution measured during the lockdown.11 Some organisations are exploring the possibility of providing e-mobility and micromobility options for employees to use, including the installation of charging and docking stations onsite and preferential parking for electric and shared vehicles. As organisations establish the new behavioural norms, the need for conference space, and the level of usage of hot-desks, it will be necessary to evaluate options to right-size or share space, in their own offices or in commercial co-working spaces. 

We recommend that each organisation create a target operating model (TOM) of their workplace of the future, created in alignment with the organisation’s strategic aims and vision for its workforce, and validated with its people. We are seeing the benefits of creating a blueprint for the optimisation of physical work spaces going forward; having an operating model instils confidence in employees and provides a tangible roadmap for achieving a cost-effective, sanitary, and sustainable workplace.   

25 years ago, 25 years into the future

In 1994, more than 25 years ago, 32,000 AT&T employees worked from home on an autumn day at the end of September. It wasn’t a mass walk-out or the response to an environmental disaster; it was a test involving everyone working for the telecommunications giant, from the CEO to the phone operators. They were testing the organisation’s ability to effectively work from home.12 The test was considered a success – in the days before laptops, internet connections, and video meeting apps, the organisation was able to demonstrate its adaptability, and AT&T became an early adopter of widespread hot-desking and home working.  The benefits of remote working identified back in ’94 included: cost reduction; increases in productivity, personal effectiveness and customer focus; the retention of experienced employees who benefited from the flexibility of working from home; and, a reduction in air pollution from the decrease in commuting.

So, why didn’t remote working become the norm 25 years ago? Despite its success, the project revealed an important caveat: for remote working to be successful for the long-term, organisations need to transform their people and performance management systems, update their systems for cultural reproduction, and improve their quality and risk management systems.  For the effort required, most organisations left the benefits on the table and widespread, multi-national adoption of remote working never took place – not until 25 years later in the first half of 2020.  

In 2020, the ‘experiment’ involved upwards of  30 million workers worldwide, and it’s hard to imagine that remote working won’t ‘stick’ this time around. The benefits identified 25 years ago still hold true today, with the added realisation of collaboration and teamwork made possible by technology improvements.  However, we have found that the caveats hold equally true.  In order to fully realise the significant benefits of remote and flexible working today and in the future, organisations will need to direct their transformation, and actively manage the change.

At Moorhouse, our People & Change service line optimises business performance by focussing on critical aspects of the people agenda. We help organisations attract, develop and retain the very best talent, by designing and implementing transformational people-based change that is agile and adapts to the evolving external landscape. We support organisations to prepare, enable and adopt the necessary changes to ensure the successful implementation of their transformation programmes. 

References: 

1. Office for National Statistics, UK Labour Market 2019
2. Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and Travel to Work June:2020
3. Chartered Management Institute, 15 May 2020
4. Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, McKinsey.com, 19 May 2020
5. Office for National Statistics, Families and Households in the UK 2019
6. House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number 7540, 3 January 2020, People with disabilities in employment
7.  UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Policy paper, The Grand Challenges, Updated 13 September 2019
8. Rebel Ideas (Syed), London 2020
9.  Glassdoor.com, Culture of Cash? Multi-Country Survey, 10 July 2013
10. Statista, State of Health, 31 May 2020
11. Ecologist.com, Pollution falls during lockdown, 24 April 2020
12. HBR, The Alternative Workplace: Changing Where and How People Work, May–June 1998  

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Authors

Kate Masters

Senior Consultant

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Kim Field

Manager

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Anna Rissen

Client Director

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People and Change

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