Many employees have realised that working remotely suits their lifestyles better.
Photograph: Bonninstudio/Stocksy United
“Nobody knows exactly what the workplace is going to look like after the pandemic,” says Margreet Brenkman, ServiceNow’s area vice president of employee experience, EMEA. “But we do see a hybrid future – and hybrid teams and distributed work are going to be a big part of the way we work.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has been described by some as the greatest experiment in remote working the world has ever known. In April 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics, almost 50% of people in employment in the UK were doing some work from home. In white-collar-heavy London, the figure was closer to 60%. Today, 29% of the UK workforce is working exclusively from home.
In the early days of the pandemic, companies quickly realised that jobs once seen as office-only could be done remotely – so long as the right digital workflows were in place. From then on, digital transformation has been barreling forward at breakneck speed.
There have been suggestions that Covid-19 compressed a decade’s worth of digital change into six months, fundamentally altering what we mean by being “at work”. In tandem with this, some people soon realised that working from home (WFH) suited their lifestyles better. Freed of an average commute of almost an hour, workers in the UK could spend more time with their families, exercising or relaxing.
Outside of national and regional lockdowns, many people will partly return to their offices. However, with Covid-19 cases rising, it seems likely that significant numbers of people will continue to work from home. For this reason, hybrid teams – those with a proportion of remote members – are likely to remain commonplace.
So, what does this mean for the teams and those who manage them? “It’s not so much returning to work as a new way of working,” says ServiceNow innovation evangelist Nerys Mutlow. “Particularly in knowledge-worker roles, people are becoming much more oriented around tasks and outcomes.” This is welcome news for those who advocate that performance – not presence – is the true measure of an employee’s value.
This may require a change of thinking. “Managers will have to shift their mindset from activity to value,” says Mutlow. “If I have a highly skilled consultant who is only hired out for half the year, but because their experience covers their costs plus 50%, then should I care that they have only been used for half of the year?” She adds: “If you look at a lot of large meetings, with 20-30 people, only five to 10 people usually contribute.” So perhaps you only invite active participants and make the meeting available digitally for other staff, which is now far easier.
Corinne Mills, joint managing director of the consultancy Personal Career Management, says that one of the key ingredients in making semi-dispersed teams work is trust. “Where you see WFH working very well tends to be where already strong relationships are in place.” However, she adds: “If you don’t have a good relationship, it is unlikely to be improved by working remotely.”
This can be particularly tough for new joiners. “Normally you’d start at a company and on your first day you’d arrive at the office and you’d see how things are done and start to absorb the culture,” says Mills. Integrating a new person into a team is much tougher if you’re rarely in the same office – which means that having proper remote onboarding processes in place has become even more important.
Working from home tends to work best when teams already have strong relationships. Photograph: fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphoto
In terms of managing day-to-day work, digital productivity tools can help, by providing team members and their bosses with everything from workflow management to visibility. “You also need to give people access to company resources such as HR systems,” says Brenkman. “You want to replicate the work experience as closely as possible at home.”
On the subject of having the right tools, managers obviously need to ensure that those working remotely have all the equipment they need – from the right tech to ergonomic aids such as proper chairs, a keyboard and a mouse. And of course, as well looking after employees’ physical wellbeing, managers need to prioritise looking after their mental wellbeing – and there are many tools and measures that can help with this.
Much more difficult is replicating the less formal stuff – the so-called watercooler conversations, which are a traditional component of knowledge work. In-person teams are likely to see each other around the office, bump into each other while getting coffee and spontaneously share gossip and snippets of intelligence. If you’re working from home, this type of serendipity is gone. “It does take longer to build those informal networks,” says Mutlow. “You have to identify somebody, reach out to them in the virtual world, make that connection.”
However, there are other forms of serendipity that employees working remotely have been able to tap – from feeling free to flick through a magazine for inspiration at their kitchen table, to solving complex problems during the solitude of a mid-day walk.
It’s important to recognise how remote working can unleash different kinds of productivity and then encourage teams to lean into that. By encouraging employees to play to the strengths of their own particular circumstances, managers can foster a powerful kind of agility that hadn’t really existed before.
This approach can also help managers to guard against the emergence of a two-tier workforce, where those working remotely find themselves at a disadvantage to those who work in the office, particularly when it comes to career progression. This is bad for morale and for teamwork.
Mutlow says one novel way to connect remote teams might lie in video games. “When my kids were in lockdown, they played a lot of Roblox, which is a kind of virtual world. They were always bumping into their friends there. Children do it really well.”
Another more formal way of maintaining contact among staff in hybrid teams is to ensure you have weekly meetings – perhaps, first thing on a Monday morning where everyone attends and is encouraged to participate and the agenda is open. Of course, this could turn into a two-tier event, with 20 people in a room and 20 people on video calls. One solution would be to have everyone join virtually.
Although the pandemic may feel like it’s dragging on forever, truly widespread hybrid teams are relatively new and we’re still on a steep learning curve. As more and more people, especially managers, work at least part of the time from home, it will get easier. And together we will figure out which tactics and tools work in the new normal of remote work.
However work works right now, you can do it confidently with the ServiceNow Safe Workplace suite. Learn more at servicenow.co.uk