Reinventing the workplace: the new office normal

There is no question that COVID-19 has changed the way we work, but what will the long term impact be? In this session our panel of business leaders will discuss what happens next for office life and what are the implications for our workforce.

There is no question that COVID-19 has changed the way we work, but what will the long term impact be? We asked a panel of business leaders what they think is next for office life and what the implications are for our workforce.

Catch up on the full session below. 

 

Transcript

Good morning, everyone. Thanks so much, for answering the poll the poll. We'll leave those up for a few minutes to let people fill them in. I'm Emily Hill, CEO of Ghyston. And we put together this panel to discuss how the office has changed during lockdown, and what the long term implications are for how we work. And there's lots to discuss. But before we begin, it'd be great if the panel could introduce themselves, please and tell us your biggest lesson that you've learned during lockdown. Mark, would you mind kicking us off?

Mark Taylor, Managing Director Chorus IT

Sure. So, I am Mike Taylor, the managing director, of Chorus IT. Our biggest lesson I think it's just actually the resilience and the impressiveness of staff really, both individually and collectively. You know, the transition from office environment to just suddenly being at home was obviously always lined up with potential interesting challenges. But actually, it's not been as challenging as we thought it might be. So just I think the resilience of staff, individually and collectively has been very impressive.

 

Sharon Alred, Co-Founder, Signature Recruitment

Morning, I'm Sharon Alred, co founder of Signature recruitment and Director for the Bristol Office.

I have three big lessons that I've learned thus far. So the importance of communication and engagement from the leadership team and how far that can take a group of people that working from home is possible even in sectors and organisations that have been very resilient to that for a long time. And the third one is the opening debate around the importance of face to face communication.

 

Bridget Pairaudeau, Tech Director IOP  

Hi, I'm Bridget. I'm the tech director of IOP. Of course, it's about the people. It's about putting people first and making sure that you've got the right kinds of mechanisms for dealing with the kinds of issues that arise and that you've got the right conversations going with your staff to tackle those situations. The other thing that I certainly felt as a tech director is all eyes on tech for this period of time. And you know, that that certainly put a lot of pressure on myself on my team, but it also gave us a massive opportunity to shine. And that's been really rewarding, actually.

 

Chris May, Founder, Mayden   

It's all about the people. I was really really impressed by how our team adapted. But I think the biggest lesson I've learned is actually how much I miss physical human contact. And that's coming from an extreme introvert so I normally try to get away from people as much as possible. But, after two weeks, I was really missing people, I went into the office, and there were six other people there who all had to go in for different reasons, and it wasn't orchestrated. And the elation of being with other people was really palpable, and  I didn't really didn't expect and it did surprise me.

 

Emily Hill, Ghyston

Great. Thanks, Chris. And well, actually looking at the poll that everyone of filled in it seems like people generally think team morale has stayed about the same during lockdown. And I think when we were discussing the other day as a group, how this affects our culture, we sort of agreed that at the moment it is still strong. But Chris, I wonder, do you think we can keep our sort of morale and culture strong if people remain working from home

 

Chris May

Our team morale stayed the same. And obviously, Mayden has 90 employees and across the spectrum of 90 employees, this has affected people in different ways. There are those who are genuinely isolated and that comes with its own issues. There are those who have families and are trying to work at home with children and that has its own challenges. And so you can't really answer the question for a whole group of people who have got individual circumstances, but certainly, we've put a lot in place to keep morale up.

We have breakfast meetings, we have the meeting kitchen where you can hang out with anyone during the day, just have a chat with people as if it was around the coffee machine. And we have the Mayden pub after work so people can go in and all have a drink online together. We've put quizzes, etc. So we've really tried to kind of maintain your culture as much as you can online.

 

Emily Hill

Yeah. Thanks, Chris. We have done similar things at Ghyston, I wonder, Mark, do you think we can truly sort of replicate that water cooler chat digitally?

 

Mark Taylor

Yeah, I hope so but I think we'll have to see in the long term. I can certainly echo what Chris said and yourself. I think we've done all those things and tried to extend that culture into the circumstances we will find ourselves in. Culture as it sounds like for other panellists here today , is an important thing for us. So we recognise that was probably going to be one of the bigger challenges and it has been. We had an example of a fairly new member of staff who joined us just before locked down, who actually informed us fairly recently that he's expecting his first child later in the year. And I think, although it was possible to over analyse this situation, we did end up having a little bit of a conversation about how we discovered that, how would we have done that if we'd all been in the office? Would it have been any different?

 

Emily

Yeah, I think we will, going from a running start. As we all know each other. But when it comes to onboarding new staff what happens there? It seems from our pole around half the people do have a plan for remote onboarding. Sharon, what do you think about challenges that come with remote onboarding of staff as we start to take on new hires.

 

Sharon

Yeah. Lately, I think to move the recruitment process itself online people are fairly comfortable with and it's not particularly new and a lot of organisations already do interviews through a video, but onboarding for some has been incredibly challenging. And definitely out of their comfort zone.

I mean, there's key things to consider. Having a plan to start with is essential. And I would advise that, whether you're doing it remotely, or in the office, and that there should be a structured 12 week plan, and including things not just around learning the processes and the functionality of the job, but also having a structured plan to embed people into your company culture. So to have at least six touch points within the business aside from your line manager to and across the wider business who are able to have those water cooler conversations with you. So it's a bit more of a formal arrangement, but it's really important for not just the individual joining but also for the, company itself to maintain their culture as they add new people into the organisation.

 

Emily

That's great advice. Thanks, Sharon. And, Bridget, do you think, if we think about onboarding new staff and recruiting new staff, does the kind of new way of working, remote or hybrid working,  raise questions about what locality those people should be and maybe the structure of the business?

Bridget

Yeah. And it's something that we've opened our eyes to actually. And whilst we've been working with remote teams for quite a long time, I don't think we would have considered before locked down recruiting into different localities. But actually, now we are. In fact, we've just brought somebody new into our team who's based in China. And we have an office in China, but I don't think that would have been at the forefront of our minds as a sensible thing to do. And actually, it's a fantastic thing to do. Because it now means that we've got a footprint in one of our key markets, we've got a technical person that can help us with local issues. And actually, they're working on a level playing field with everybody else right now. And the onboarding process has been a bit more challenging. And we've had to think about more things. And I daresay for that individual, it's been an unusual experience. But it's everybody's experience right now. So why not take advantage of that?

Emily   

Yeah. And I wonder, Mark, are you seeing people investing more in different tools and technologies as they move out of panic mode of just get it all working and into more of a longer term view on remote working?

Mark

Yeah, I think obviously, the transition to cloud has been going on for a number of years now. So depending on individual organisation’s progression along that journey, the experience might have been a little bit different for us, and a number of our clients are slightly more advance. For some it was no difference at all.  I actually had a really good example of that yesterday because we had a major power cut here and Portishead yesterday and the office lost power for an extended time, which I knew because we had one member of staff and let me know by text nice and early in the morning that the power was out. But other than that, we actually had no impact whatsoever. Nobody noticed, phones, everything else was working 100% normally so I think, the technology unquestionably supports that ability to work remotely. That's not the question anymore. I think it's more a question of we're getting into these questions of refinement optimization, where the tweaks and the small improvements we can make to just make it more suitable for the kinds of things that as Bridget just highlighted, that are now available to us as opportunities, employing people in different countries etc, etc.

 

Emily

I suppose employing people, you know, having that wider kind that, you could employee someone anywhere must impact your role as a recruiter. Sharon. I don't know if you've seen anything there already, or?

 

Sharon

Yeah, absolutely. And as Mark said, that debate is definitely opening up. And as Bridget found it's possible when you're working remotely to hire from anywhere in the world. And there's definitely opportunities that as COVID distil down and this face to face debate continues, there may well be a rebound on that whereby people say actually, I do need people who are within commutable distance to the office, say a day a week, for example. So there still is some resilience to that. But it's going to be very interesting to see how different company cultures manage to cope with that and how they adjust

 

Emily

Chris, I think your team is most used to be mostly office based or maybe entirely office based. How do you see this hybrid model working for Mayden?

 

Chris

First of all, we're in the software industry. And we probably have more metrics to measure productivity than any other industry. But measuring productivity is actually very difficult. And it's something that we've struggled with for quite a long time. And so you kind of measure it by feel. And despite all of the metrics the general sense of opinion was that when we went on to homeworking, we dropped in productivity a bit and probably by around 10%. And that's kind of crept up. So if you asked our teams now where they thought productivity was that they would say it's probably equal to where it was in the office. And, that's good. I think the lesson we've got to from learn this, that the productivity is fine if everyone is in the office and fine if all working at home. But when you get this mixture of working at home and in the office, we don't think productivity will be as high. There is the kind of culture in the office of teams working together and the people at home are kind of left out. We have had quite a few people work in home for some time. And it's been clear that the ones at home have been slightly isolated. And what's happened during this period is it's put them all on an equal playing field with everybody else. So we're still learning lots of lessons about that. But we are really struggling with how we would make a hybrid model work and maintain the positivity we've got at the moment.

 

Emily

Yeah, it's a challenge, certainly that we're fighting against as well. So how do we how do we see that going into the future? What are the challenges Bridget, do you think the hybrid working model brings?

 

Bridget

I think the main things that are starting to emerge for us, apart from the productivity angle, which actually I will say something about because I think it is an issue for us in an organisation where we have different cultures for different parts of the organisation. Homeworking and this kind of situation suits some parts of the business really well, actually, their productivity has gone up. But I think tech working which is an intensely collaborative and social activity, we are finding parts of that quite difficult. Some of it's okay and the technology is amazing, but the cohesion of our unit is quite difficult to maintain. And I think what we're starting to realise is that as an organisation we have become very reliant on office interactions. So the casual conversation that makes you pick up on something that you didn't know about but triggers a conversation that then suddenly becomes quite important is starting to get lost. So how do you replace that? And that's not about watercooler conversations that's actually about really people really understanding their mission and their purpose and what they're there to do. And being able to autonomously take decisions in isolation from the mothership. And we realised that we're not cohesive enough, we don't have a strong enough culture to hold that up into the future. So we're going to have to start to do some things to repair some of that. And that's, that's a challenge actually, for organisations that's really thinking about your culture and empowering all individuals to be able to take decisions at the right levels, and then know that those decisions are the right things to do because they're in isolation of all of this other stuff that's going on. So that's I think that's our main challenge going forward.

 

 

Emily 

Once you've identified it you can put something in place to move forward and, make the change. And so you said that there were also some productivity challenges project. Did you want to touch on those?

 

Bridget

Yeah,  it's really difficult to put your finger on it. And it's absolutely right to say that we measure everything but productivity is very difficult to measure. One of the things that, I believe demonstrates not necessarily productivity, but it demonstrates that you have an effective organisation is the, I want to say happiness, but maybe happiness isn't quite the right word, but at least engagement of the people that are within that organisation.  If they are engaged then you're probably on the right lines for them to be really productive. And I think under the circumstances, happiness, in general is slipping away a little bit because this is hard. It's really hard on people. And it's hard to, to concentrate. And I think a lot of people are starting to show the stress of, you know, this level of having to concentrate really, really hard all of the time. And, deal with all of the other stuff that's going on in people's lives, which is incredibly stressful actually.

So with that, starting to slip away a little bit, we're just starting to see that those kind of high levels concentrations are required, which particularly in tech work can be quite difficult to sustain. Sustainability is, part of the game here, we know this is going to go on for a long time. So how we're going to get work to be sustainable for everybody? And I don't have a lot of answers about that. But I do believe that we're going to have to face that as a challenge and really think about whether or not we can make people work at the same pace that they did before under these circumstances.

 

Emily

Yeah, it definitely feels like people have been able to accommodate each other. Whilst in crisis mode, everyone's just pulling together, but is it sustainable? Mark, do you have any, any views on that?

 

Mark

I recognise all those challenges, that's for sure. I don't know if there is something called intent based leadership, we're trying to impart that ability as a project leader to individuals to actually be empowered and fully enabled to make decisions that are appropriate to them. As Bridget said, there are definitely things we need to look out for there. One of the concerns I have is that sense of team cohesion that's been talked about. We're certainly seeing that I think we, we have lots of those techies, and they're doing lots of things. And actually, there was that spike of actually getting on with it and doing some really good stuff. It's very difficult at the moment, to make a good judgement call on whether some of the perhaps downside perceived productivity and things that are actually a sustained downturn, or are people just getting a little bit kind of tired of the general circumstance at the moment and therefore that's impacting their mental health and everybody's feeling a bit flatter or is this is this sustained issue because of adjustments we need to make to work culture and how we improve that reality as, as with everything is is probably a little bit of everything. And we're going to have to tweak a lot of little cogs and little ways to try and get everything to where, where it works for everyone. But yeah, I think similar challenges, I think we're certainly looking for ways to try and improve those things and keep everybody on a nice even keel.

 

Emily

Great. Thanks. And Sharon, , we talked about the opportunity to sort of decentralised a business because of the sort of remote working. Are there any other opportunities, you think the hybrid working situation really, really brings to businesses?

 

Sharon

Yeah, I mean, as well as opening up the flexibility to acquire talent. I think the other piece in there is around how the culture then adapts around that. So we're all very used to pre COVID turning up to a workplace and the physicality of the collection of people in the building being the kind of fundamentals of the culture and how we communicate face to face. I think, as Bridget says, there's lots of challenges to come around the culture piece as we move forward. There are also opportunities as to how we reshape that for the future. We've got various phases, we've come out of the crisis phase, but we still got a marathon to go. As this pandemic sits alongside our lives for months, if not years, we've got this transition piece and then after that, we've got an opportunity to shape how we want working life to look like thereafter. But I think awareness of the strain that this is putting on people's mental health, the impact that that has on productivity and the lack of connection that some people may be feeling, especially if they're in a one bed flats on their own or having to homeschool several children alongside full time work expectations. There's some incredibly challenging individual situations at the moment. So that empathetic approach to leadership is more important than ever and recognising that everyone is an individual and to treat them accordingly.

 

Emily

Yeah, yeah, I think that there's a really good point, Sharon. We've actually had a really relevant question come in that. Someone's saying that they work from home, and that's actually working out much better for them. They're more productive, and it's fitting really well for them, but the rate of change in their organisation, culturally is very slow. And now they're wondering if the panellists having advice on how they can, I guess persuade their employees, employers to allow them to continue working from home longer term.

 

Sharon

I would absolutely have the conversation with not just your line manager but also with HR or director level depending on the size and shape of your organisation and where those decision makers sit, and not necessarily initially ask to work from home but have more of an open conversation. Initially to ask whether or not this has been considered long term, what the company views are what they see as being the challenges beyond just your own personal circumstances. And then to suggest that actually, this is something that you've thought about, you've considered your productivity as well as your own well being, and that you do see a way of this working going forward.

 

Bridget

And I'd be having the conversation with them about what are they thinking about how they want to exploit the opportunity going forward as an organisation, because if that individual has notice that they're working better, and they're happier, and they're contributing more than what other individuals in your organisation are feeling the same? And I think that's the question that organisations should be asking themselves because this is a massive opportunity to make employees more engaged and loyal and have a better work ethic. So why wouldn't an employer not want to recognise that and seize it? So I think that's a good starting point for that conversation to say, I'm feeling like I'm a better employee. How can we take this forward?

 

Emily

Yeah, I think it's true that a lot of larger organisations have had to, have an enormously fast rate of change, to mobilise to work from home. So it's the perfect time to try and have those conversations and sort of start more change in that kind of area.

 

Mark

We've run surveys for staff because obviously we want to find out what staff opinion is. I would hope that most organisations are thinking about doing that because hopefully they've seen that opportunity that Bridget referred to. But don't be shy about getting down the benefits that you've found to drive at this change yourself. Because certainly in terms of the feedback we've had on surveys so far, you know, people have really given us some solid information. They haven't just given like a, you know, a score out of 10 and gone, move on, they've given us some solid worded feedback on what's worked for them. What doesn't we, you know, we've asked about what would improve it. So I think, you know, anything, you can jump on to take advantage of like that and give that feedback is going to help because, as has been said, there's definitely opportunity here isn't just a negative story by any means.

 

Emily

Thanks, Mark. Earlier we touched on the mental health of employees. What's your view on that? Do you think we're sort of heading towards a mental health crisis?

 

Chris

What we have to remember, is now have probably 65,000 families who are bereaved, and have not been able to attend funerals or mourn their loved ones, and not just from COVID, but from all of the other conditions that people have not been attending hospital for that they could have otherwise been treated. So there's going be a lot of guilt and regrets around that. And there is a general COVID fear which I'm becoming more and more aware of. Being isolated as we have been, and you kind of get a view that everybody is thinking the same way you are, and they're not. And what I'm becoming aware of is that there are some people who are actually terrified of COVID. And there are other people who actually don't care and cramming into pubs on Saturday, as you know, as if there's nothing happening at all. And we'll be aware that domestic abuse rates have gone through the roof the divorce rate is really up and homelessness as increases, families have fallen apart. There are people who, whose health has declined because they've not been able to get the health care they wanted during the pandemic period. And that's before we even touch on the economic impacts with 3 million unemployed at the moment. And that's only going to rise. Then there's the impacts on young people, which is a whole other can of worms and on their education, which has been severely disrupted in lots of cases. You add all of that together. And it's not surprising all the studies are showing that we have a mental health tsunami coming over the horizon. As an organisation, we have to prepare for that. And we, you know, and we're doing so but interestingly, when the lockdown first started, referral rates into mental health services actually dropped by half, I'd say, for all health services, because people were actually afraid to go to anywhere that has kind of a healthcare label. That's just simply come up now and just like a tsunami wave goes out before it comes back in again. So as a society we are expecting a huge mental health tsunami, at the micro level, all of those things that I just mentioned could be affecting one or more of your employees. And we have to remember that all our employees are individuals and they all have their particular circumstances. And it's true that some are actually much happier in the current environment. That's certainly the case with us and they are happier and more productive working at home and we've got to deal with that. And others are really struggling and personally and my heart sinks every morning when I look at my diary and see that I've just got a whole series of zoom calls. Nothing personal Emily, the first one of the days usually Okay, and then it just, I start flagging on the on the third or fourth. And, as I say that, , that's becoming quite difficult for some people as well. What we've got to do is more and more treat people as individuals and actually tailor the work going forward to individual circumstances as much as we can do. And I think as an organisation, we're quite good at that.

 

Emily

Bridget do you do you have particular advice for managers on how to sort of maybe identify and protect help protect employees against mental health issues?

 

Bridget

We had someone come in and give us a seminar, which was absolutely brilliant actually a few weeks ago, and one of the pieces of advice that he gave us, which actually i thought was brilliant and I hadn't thought about it before was actually it's not our responsibility to fix it. And that is actually a really important thing to remember as managers because actually, it's quite overwhelming. I mean, just listening to what Chris has said, you know, that's a lot for people to take on just knowing that that's out there. And we, we can't fix it all. But we can listen, we can be empathetic, as Sharon said, and we can talk to people about what measures we can help put in place to help support them in the workplace. And I think that is a really positive conversation to be able to have with people. I think if we do try and take on everybody's mental health problems, we're all going to go under. So I guess that would be one piece of advice I would pass on - listen, make sure that you're open and aware and trying to put measures in place. But don't try and fix everything. Because you'll take yourself down too. And that's not going to help anybody.

 

Emily

A lot of businesses that we work with have furloughed many of their staff. And as they start coming back to work it's important to be aware of how that might affect those employees. Sharon have you've got any advice for that kind of situation?

 

Sharon

Yeah, absolutely. I think reboarding employees that have been out of the business for weeks or months is important. It definitely hasn't been a holiday for a lot of people. It's been incredibly stressful. There's been nervousness about whether or not there will be a job for them to return to. So that on top of COVID anxiety it is very difficult. So I think to onboard those employees as if they're coming in again for the first time, and just taking your time to reconnect with people. Don't make assumptions about their capabilities within their job, the devils in the detail, set clear expectations and check in regularly like you would for a new starter. So again, going back to that initial 12 week plan just to make sure people are steady, and I think Bridget points on the mental health are absolutely spot on and I just reiterate for team leaders middle managers, It's really important to put your oxygen mask on you first. And just check in and make sure that you're in a good place to lead and be balanced, to be able to have those lines in place where you are listening. You're empathetic, you're supportive, but you're also not the solution provider. You're there to enable and equipped and support with that. But we're not trained mental health professionals. There are people that are and it's making sure that that's available to the right people who need it at the right time.

 

There may be changes to the spoken word in this transcript in order make it more readable.

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