Set your business's direction in the new normal
As the call for a return to the office grows, we consider how the new normal will work.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is urging managers to get workers back into the office. But, after a year at home, how we re-enter the office is not as straightforward as jumping back on the commuter train. Still, with the UK’s successful vaccine roll-out ongoing, the call for an end to blanket home working is becoming louder.
Understandably after a year of pandemic isolation, some employees are keen to get back to the office. But, not necessarily a return to business as usual. Over the past few months, management have been busy plotting how to implement a blended return. Many large companies such as Google and Facebook are already offering staff a hybrid option of three days in the office and two at home. Nationwide has announced that it will allow 13,000 office staff to choose where they work under its new flexibility scheme.
However, the hybrid option of working isn’t as clear cut as it might seem. There are lots of challenges to deal with. So how can finance bosses charged with supporting people management help their organisations and staff fi nd a way through that accommodates employees, business owners and clients?
One upside to the past year’s national working from home experience is that productivity hasn’t slumped, despite initial concerns. This suggests that many jobs can be competently done remotely full-time. Others, however, cannot. And many workers don’t want to work from home at all.
A good fi rst step for any organisation is to review the different tasks related to each job within each department. Understanding what jobs and tasks can be completed efficiently and effectively away from the office will provide evidence for management and employees to manage hybrid working - if that’s what works for the business.
But even if jobs can be done remotely, employees - especially younger generations who live in shared households - may not necessarily want to work from home full or part-time. It’s vital to have those employee conversations early. Critically, consider the creativity and connections that come from face-to-face interactions.
Freedom versus anxiety
Although most people are overjoyed at the thought of freedom, it will be tempered by some anxiety. A year is a long time to have to isolate, and it’ll take time to adjust emotionally. Communication will be vital to informing staff of your expectations as well as reassuring them if you require them to return to the office, even part-time.
“I think we will have a challenge ahead to get people back in the office, people will have anxieties that will bring HR challenges. You can’t force people to have a vaccine, but you can advise and encourage them to read the information. This is what we’ve been doing. We’re disseminating the government information and pushing government messaging,” says Kevin Johns, managing director of Prime Accountants.
In the coming months, employers will also need to be alert to the potential pitfalls of managing a partially vaccinated workforce. Once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, employers will need to be up to date on all official guidance in regard to vaccines and the possibility of transmission before inviting staff back into the office.
“Private vaccinations are not currently available and, at least at present, employers will need to be mindful of both who will be prioritised for the vaccine and who may be excluded, particularly given the real risk of discrimination,” says Daniel Parker, associate at law firm Winckworth Sherwood.
Kevin Johns, who is also executive member of the Solihull Chamber of Commerce, says it’s essential to reassure staff if they haven’t been in the office for over a year, of your covid-secure office set-up.
“We spent a lot of money last year refitting the whole office, so every single desk is two metres apart. Everyone has an allocated desk, so no hot-desking, and they all have a covid-combat kit to keep their desks clean so there’s no cross-contamination. The office is clearly marked with signage, too,” Johns says.
Outside of the big cities, many people drive to work which is an advantage during the pandemic, but for those who do have to take public transport, that will also undoubtedly cause concern. In that case, allow employees to adjust their working hours if they have to come into the office to avoid rush hours.
Once finance managers have established a headcount for a blended working arrangement, office space can be negotiated. Businesses of all sizes have been cutting back on the amount of office space or changing the location of that space because of evolving circumstances. Many organisations have offered a blanket work from home policy with some flexible office space in one or more city centres to accommodate face-to-face meetings. Others have opted for a hybrid working policy with office space available in a number of key locations.
Equally important is to understand what can be automated. If businesses hadn’t already begun the digital automation journey, then the lockdown will likely have forced managers to adjust rapidly.
In many small organisations, IT falls into the lap of the finance manager or FD, so understanding the risks and threats to the business and staff is also a vital first step. Much of that work may have already been done given that the majority of staff have been homeworking for a year. If not, consider the technological needs of staff and the quality and efficiency of portable technology. Increase tech training so staff understand the risks of cyber attacks and data leakage. Educating staff on other risks such as the use of personal emails for company information is also critical.
A quarter of respondents to a survey by Samsung Enterprise Edition said remote working had increased security threats. With almost seven in 10 (67%) employees still using personal devices for work, and 18% saying they have no confidence in the security of their mobile.
Regular employee surveying of mental health and wellbeing is also something to consider. Since national lockdown began many companies have introduced wellbeing employee benefits for staff such as free counselling. Options like these should be considered in adapting to the new normal. On top of the HR challenges for FDs and finance managers there is also the day job to consider. After a year of almost complete national lockdown, businesses need to get their finances in order to grasp those opportunities.
“For our clients, re-adjusting for the ‘new normal’ is more about managing any debt taken on during the pandemic and preparing for growth. Businesses have generally been in a ‘protective’ mode to keep going, and are now emerging from this defensive positioning - it’s now about looking at opportunities for growth, and refocusing on robust foundations to strengthen the business,” says David Gormer of Square Mile Accounting.
Offering a blended approach to working should not be underestimated. This will be a huge change for most and will introduce significant HR challenges including inducting new staff , learning and development, reward and recognition, performance management, engagement and recruitment. If you don’t have in-house HR expertise, seek advice on how to tackle each element of the blended working approach. Ultimately though, there are benefits for both employer and employee, so a solution is in everyone’s favour.
Michelle Perry is a freelance journalist