COVID-19 has required the majority of businesses to significantly change their working practices, but during this time it is also essential that employers begin to consider how they can prepare their workforce for the end of self-isolation and the likely changes that this transition will involve.
According to research by the Office of National Statistics, only 30 percent of UK employees worked from home during 2019. While in contrast, due to the current pandemic, the majority of UK businesses that are able to work remotely are now doing so.
Before COVID-19, remote working was generally viewed as a luxury, while some companies were reluctant to let their teams work from home due to concerns over productivity. However, many businesses are now finding that employees can work just as efficiently from home, potentially improving work / life balance and reducing both office and travel costs.
Of course, like any change, a shift to remote working has presented several challenges, requiring businesses to make technological investments and consider workplace culture. For example, the need to stay connected with both colleagues and clients has created a demand for online collaboration tools, while cloud-based solutions have had to be swiftly implemented to ensure that documents are accessible from any location.
However, this ‘new normal’ has also allowed employees to experience a number of benefits, including the flexibility that remote working offers. People no longer have to conform to the 9-5 structure and as a result, business leaders now have an opportunity to take a step back and assess whether remote working could play an important role in the company’s future, even after lockdown.
For many it is likely that the processes adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic will be the beginning of a brand-new approach to the workplace. From increased productivity and improved staff retention to the positive environmental effects, there are a number of clear benefits to remote working. As such, businesses may find it difficult to justify not offering the option of flexible working post-lockdown.
In order to make the most of recent technological investments and continue to benefit from the advantages of a more flexible workforce, businesses should evaluate the success of these processes to date. This will highlight any weaknesses in resources or communication and allow time for amendments to be made before any post-lockdown initiatives are put in place, ensuring remote working can continue to run successfully in the future.
Companies will also need to consider how they can support their employees with the eventual transition back into the physical office. In order to help employees through this change, companies should regularly check in with individuals to assess how they are feeling and whether they have any concerns.
During this time, the majority of individuals working from home will have experienced the full cycle of the SARAH model of change. The acronym explains the stages that most people progress through as they adapt to a new situation; Shock, Anger, Resistance, Acceptance and Hope. It is possible that people will continue to skip between the stages until the current situation becomes more settled and allowances should be made for this. For this reason, organisations should consider adopting a new working approach while social distancing measures continue. This may involve daily welfare calls to ensure that individuals are clear on their tasks or even taking a more flexible, output driven approach to make allowances for the other commitments, such as childcare, that many employees are currently juggling.
Open communication and the provision of support for the individuals affected will always be key to an effective change project, as the lockdown eases some companies may decide to continue to offer flexible working options. For example, staggered start times to avoid commuter rush hour or the option to continue working from home for part of the week are likely to be increasingly welcomed by employees.
Remote working can take time to adjust to from both a people and processes point of view, however when rolled-out successfully the benefits that it can provide are undeniable. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided leaders with an unprecedented opportunity to reassess business practices and make positive changes that improve employee wellbeing, and in turn productivity, long into the future.
Julie Smith is a managing consultant and special projects lead at business change consultancy Entec Si.