Tens of millions of individuals in the UK have now been vaccinated, lockdown restrictions have begun to ease and we are are hopeful to see the inside of our offices on a regular basis once again. Yet, if we skip ahead to a year’s or indeed 5 years’ time, the workplace isn’t likely to ever return to pre-pandemic conditions.
Only recently, I conducted a webinar in which 100% of respondents saw hybrid working, juggling an office base with remote options, as the future of work. When we consider that many of us will now move into hybrid working structures which may vary from day to day, week to week, this will undoubtedly require significant practical and cultural changes. Certainly, people managers will be coping with entirely new logistical challenges as we decide whether or when to insist on face-to-face being necessary.
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To prepare for yet another tremendous change, one of the best things we can do is to ask ourselves how we can leverage the lessons learned over the past twelve months and use those to navigate the best way forward.
Remote people management
At the beginning of this year, we carried out a survey that revealed that as many as 95% of managers considered that remote management during the pandemic had been ‘entirely or significantly different’ to face-to-face management. Of course, there’s no denying that having to quickly adjust to a virtual setting proved a difficult challenge. But in the long run, different doesn’t necessarily mean worse off.
In reality, most of us actually learnt many new skills as a result of intermittent lockdowns and the drastic lifestyle changes that came with them. This includes the likes of video collaboration, remote communication and overall resilience – not to mention banana bread baking and amateur hairdressing! Not only that, but the barriers caused by social distancing have actually ignited greater professional and personal bonds with colleagues to overcome this.
Therefore, as an accidental after-effect, workforces must place greater emphasis on inter-departmental working as opposed to simply just relying on being in the same location. Additionally there is an added sense of connection through seeing quite literally seeing into colleagues homes, encouraging alternative types of professional relationships to bloom.
When that face-to-face contact that we had taken for granted was removed, the social and more informal learning that would normally have taken place in the workplace has consequently been taken with it. Now, people have to make a special effort to ask for help or to book a time to speak with a colleague, rather than just asking the person on the next-door desk or watching how others do things in the background. This is especially true for new starters and graduates. People haven’t been able to learn by directly watching and this also means they have missed out on the belonging that comes from observing and sharing social norms.
However, this has triggered our teams to act in alternative ways, to go above and beyond their comfort zone to adapt, which is not such a bad thing within a constantly evolving workplace. Arguably, this has been for the better, as people managers have recognised the need to adopt a more empathetic management approach.
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Previously, knowing that someone has a passion for hiking or a new kitten may have seemed like an idle conversation. Within the transactional style of the office, we certainly all found it easier to separate personal and work-life conversational topics. What remote working has taught us, is that we must replace the loss of direct visibility by remaining connected in other ways, by approaching our employees in a more holistic management style.
With many now adopting this behaviour, it explains why, when I asked what people management practises were more important within a remote environment, in contrast to office-based interactions, 82% said providing frequent check-ins and one-to-ones was significantly more important now. With employees separated, making the effort to have these interactions is now crucial in building a positive work culture.
Besides, if people feel valued, they will be more likely to go the extra mile for the company they work for. In fact, 58% of respondents of the same survey rated providing recognition and praise as more important within the current landscape, as was taking a personal interest in an individual, at 57%. With office-based interactions removed, it’s clear that setting clear goals, adopting a more empathetic approach and recognising achievements are the most powerful tools we can offer in this time of continued change to ensure our workforce remains motivated and engaged.
Our people have dealt with uncertainty both at home and at work and this triggered a call to action for our employers. Despite the endless challenges and complexities that the pandemic has thrown our way, at least we have learnt that adopting a human-centric approach is a defining trait for successful remote management.
Yet if human-centricity is the key ingredient to a successful company culture, why restrict this to the remote world? Even if the COVID-19 does finally come to an end, some – if not most – of the global instability and drastic changes that have appeared as a result of it, are likely to remain.
If this is the case, and if employees are most engaged when managers take on a more holistic, empathetic approach, it would surely seem that the lessons learned from lockdown regarding people-centricity should continue in the post-pandemic world.
At the end of the day, why revert back to the transactional style we once practised in the office if it is not welcomed by our peers? It’s time to embrace human connections and put our people first in order to build back better and shape the workforce of tomorrow.
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