Before Covid-19 forced business to move to remote working, one of the big issues with working from home centred on trust and productivity: would staff really put in the hours? Could the work really be up to standard?
"It’s proved to be a non-issue,” says Lynn Walters of recruitment specialists Pure. “Most people are giving more than is expected. The companies we work with are seeing productivity and efficiency rising.”
Those facing the greatest challenge tend to be those with caring responsibilities – principally parents trying to combine a day’s work with homeschooling or (potentially more demanding) looking after pre-school children. This has produced a genuinely flexible approach to when people work, with some taking time out in the middle of the day but making it up in the evenings or weekends.
“The difficulty with that is there is little time for them to look after themselves because they’re always on the go,” Lynn cautions. “It’s vital that people take time out and not just work through or it simply won’t be sustainable.”
So far, though, many businesses are reporting that quality of work is as high as it was when everyone was in the office, with remote-working staff seeming highly motivated. This isn’t a surprise for Ian White of Beckett Investment Management. “If everyone is absolutely clear about what their role is and what’s required, has the right training, the right skills and the right technology, then motivation should be strong,” he says. “But leaders need to pay attention as often a lack of motivation comes from not knowing what’s expected.”
Rise of the video call
The biggest initial challenge was the technical one: making sure staff had the equipment needed to work from home – and knew how to use it. By now any teething problems should have been resolved, with companies settling on the systems that work for them.
“At the beginning, we were playing Zoom and Teams bingo, the same as everyone else,” says Sharon Allen of the Arthur Rank Hospice in Cambridge. “The difference video conferencing is making is huge. Before this, staff might have driven for two hours for a one-hour meeting, then two hours back – now it’s a Zoom call.”
Ian White agrees: “We were aware of the technology but had never really used it. Now we’ve had to adopt it overnight, we’ve embraced it – it's almost as if we were waiting for the excuse to embrace it.”
Like most businesses, he’s found that video meetings are more focused – even sales ones. "We’ve found that many of our consultants can be just as effective without getting in the car,” Ian adds.
Video calls don’t just save travel time but also organisational time. “One of our consultants had to arrange a four-way meeting with the client, his lawyer and his accountant,” Ian explains. “It took them half an hour to schedule a Zoom meeting. That lasted an hour and it all took place on the same day. If he’d been trying to find a day when everyone could travel to one location for a meeting, it could have been a month before they met.”
There are limitations to the technology, though. “We’re a very people-focused organisation so we give a lot of thought to the way it affects our staff,” says Sharon. “It’s important for the team leaders to do a lot of listening. We need to be sensitive to people’s moods and very responsive.”
The wellbeing surge
“Suddenly everyone is talking about wellbeing,” notes Beckett’s Ian White, who is chairman of mental health charity Suffolk Mind. “Businesses are embracing the need to look after the team - remote working seems to have highlighted that.”
Staff wellbeing has always underpinned the work of the Best Employers Eastern Region, set up by psychometrics experts Eras and people specialists Pure. “For a manager, it can really help if you know the personality types of your team – this was always true but it’s even more helpful with remote working,” says Lynn Walters of Pure.
“Extraverts may need more attention and it’s important to do video calls to give them that sense of human contact,” she explains. “Introverts may be happier to be head-down, getting on with the job at hand, so can get by without so much contact, but it’s still important to check in regularly.”
One of the surprising benefits of the shift to remote working seems to be an increase in both the regularity and quality of communications within most firms – certainly at the businesses managing the transition well. The core principles of openness and transparency seem to be well understood for broader messages, with most companies sending weekly and even daily updates.
The big difference for individual isolated workers can come from the smaller communications – both within teams and one-to-one calls with managers. “Are you having a genuine conversation about the individual, not just about their role in the organisation? Talking about themselves makes people feel better,” says Ian. “If you trust an individual to do the job, you need to let them do it and make sure they are emotionally well.”
“The danger of remote working is getting too task-focused – with managers concentrating on the job and forgetting to prioritise the people,” says Lynn. "Communication needs to be timely and it needs to be personal so employees feel valued. It’s difficult to do that with big calls where there are lots of people on a team, so it’s important to follow up.”
It’s also important to appreciate and promote the importance of the team. “There’s strong allegiance within our teams with people supporting each other. They’re all caring people – that’s why they choose to work for the hospice,” says Sharon Allen. “A lot of our teams now have virtual coffee breaks or lunches together. People wobble in different ways so need the team to help support them.”
Ian agrees: “Everyone has good days and bad days. Not everyone is a counsellor but everyone needs to have those supportive conversations - not only managers but also other members of the team. We need to support each other and if we’re having a good day, help someone having a bad day.”
Ready to return?
There appears to be a consensus that the forced shift to remote working is likely to see a long-term change in the way work is done in Britain - and video calls and online meetings are certainly here to stay. “We’re trying to prepare for when lockdown eases. We’re not going back to having lots of people driving a long way for meetings,” says Sharon.
We conducted a poll on attitudes to returning to the old way of doing business. Of the 657 respondents, the largest proportion (39pc) said they’d like to work from home for half the time... but almost as many (35pc) said they would prefer to continue working from home 100pc of the time. A relatively small 16pc wanted to return to full-time office-based operation, with just 10pc opting to be mostly office-based but working from home for a quarter of their time.
“When this started a lot of people were pretty disciplined about taking care of themselves – doing the work but taking their exercise breaks, getting away from the screen,” says Lynn. “As it progresses, some people are finding it harder to do that – there are more distractions, or they’re just working more.”
In either case, it means the challenge facing businesses is to focus on the wellbeing of the employees – particularly if they continue to work remotely for most or part of their week.
"This crisis emphasises the need to be a good employer. If a firm isn’t already a Best Employer, this should kick-start their journey,” concludes Ian White of Becketts Investment Management. “If an organisation is struggling, it will need stronger leadership. Strong leadership comes from caring for your employees.”
Action points for managing remote working
Companies doing communication well are transparent. They deliver regular updates, they’re honest about the positives and the challenges, and they communicate hope about what can be done while keeping things realistic.
It’s really important for managers to check in regularly with their people and be appreciative. It really makes them feel valued and motivated. Conversations need to be about the individual as well as the work. Knowing the personality types of the staff helps tailor the level of contact – extroverts may need more regular contact than introverts.
Clarity of mission
Make sure everyone knows what’s expected – at all times. It removes stress and promotes motivation. Ensure they understand it includes taking the time for self-care.
By now everyone should be up to speed with their technology. If anyone is still struggling, establish why and remedy with appropriate training or upgraded equipment.
Celebrate the team
Take time to get the team together regularly, even when working remotely. Foster an atmosphere of mutual support and community, so communication isn’t solely focused on work.
For more information about Best Employers visit www.best-employers.co.uk