The global pandemic has caused millions of workers to transform into remote employees in the blink of an eye. With little warning, employees said goodbye to their comfortable desks and settled onto kitchen counters, coffee tables and garden furniture.
Frankly, if youíd asked me at the start of the year, I would have been very pessimistic about employersí ability to deal with such a dramatic change. But actually staff feel companies have navigated the many technological and cultural barriers effectively. In fact, recent research suggests three quarters employees (77 percent) who were not previously allowed to work remotely felt their employers did a good job of managing the transition.
While management should recognise and celebrate this achievement, there is a risk the success will be undone if companies sit on their laurels.
Restrictions on travel to workplaces for those unable to work from home may have started to lift but normality is a way off. Businesses need to use this time to plan carefully. Over this period, we have seen examples of businesses that have flourished with their workforces at home, whilst others have struggled. The c-suite now have to decide when and how they will bring employees back to the office space, if at all.
Some companies have already been clear about the path forward. Twitter have told UK employees they will be able to enjoy working from home permanently, whilst others such as Barclays are currently debating physical offices may become a thing of the past.
Understandably, others are taking a more cautious approach. Changing years of ingrained behaviour isnít easy and many employees are concerned that flexible home working may be halted - and worse, reversed. Nearly half of people working from home for the first time fully expect their employer to revert to their traditional, pre-Covid-19 office-based policies instead of sticking with encouraging staff to work from home.
When weighing up the pros and cons of making remote working permanent post Covoid-19, decision makers will need to weigh up all the options carefully, and consult the data available, if they are to make informed, insight-based decisions. I recommend a process which includes a synthesis and analysis of the most important data points so as to glean objective insights on individual, team and company performance.
The data should help answer a wide-range of questions. For instance, has productivity been affected by remote working? If so, for the better or worse and by how much? What has the impact been on employee engagement and satisfaction? How many staff would like a change in policy, and why? How can the company accommodate those that want to work remotely and those that either canít, or prefer not to? Each answer will no doubt lead to more questions, but it is vital business leaders donít shy away from asking the difficult questions, listen carefully to what people have to say and make informed decisions as a result. The data sources will vary from company to company. Some organisations will have digitised their transactional HR functions with tools like Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), and Human Resources Information System (HRIS), but others might just be less advanced.
A useful place to start is digital engagement surveys. These can quickly get to the heart of employee attitudes, perceived behaviours and feelings. The quantitative data gives a helpful snapshot of the current situation but, if conducted at regular intervals, it can show decision-makers changes over time. To gather richer information sets, HR leaders can also conduct feedback sessions with a random sample of workers. The sample should extend across departments, seniority and length of service. And, itís no good just collecting the data, as the exercise may back-fire if there is no action of further communication and employees feel ignored.
As we move from crisis-response to recovery, the landscape will continue to change. When dealing with this shift, success will depend on the decisions made about managing employees. Ensuring staff can return to firing on all cylinders has to be a priority and the way businesses treat their people now will determine the speed they are able to do so. The key will be finding, interpreting and delivering change based on data and clear communication.