The events of March 2020 marked a turning point for the traditional workplace. From the mainstay of many organisations, offices and buildings emptied as the instruction to work from home wherever possible was sent from Westminster. For those key workers whose roles were deemed imperative to keeping the country going, the advent of PPE, social-distancing and new safety and hygiene measures meant that any sort of normality was gone.
Fast forward to now, and employees up and down the country have adapted and adjusted to new ways of working – whether remotely or with new policies and procedures in place. So, what then, of the future of the workplace?
As restrictions ease and the world learns to live with Covid-19, coupled with a successful vaccination programme in the UK and a familiarity with the measures in place to limit the spread of the virus, do we want to go back to how things were? Or is this an opportunity to do things differently – and possibly better – than before?
“A whirlwind 12 months”
For Richard Nolan, Group People Director at The Hut Group (THG), the changes at the company since the pandemic began means there’s no possibility of a return to ‘business as usual’ as far at the office landscape is concerned.
He explained: “It’s been a whirlwind 12 months, both from a scale perspective and from our employees’ perspective. We’re in a position now where all our sites have continued to grow – both capacity and headcounts – and we’re operating 60 – 70% up year-on-year. We’re at the point now where if we brought everyone back into work tomorrow, we probably couldn’t fit them in the office.”
Instead, Nolan and his team have used the opportunity to think openly about what the working landscape looks like at THG.
“It’s going to be a focus on creative, innovative areas where people can really inspire and demonstrate their potential,” Nolan continued. “We’re moving away from the traditional views of office spaces where it’s ‘one person, one desk’, to a more fluid working environment.”
And this fluidity will also apply to not only in the office itself, according to Nolan, but also in terms of working patterns and where individuals choose to base themselves.
“We’re looking at overhauling all of our working practices entirely,” he continued. “We’ll be a lot more agile going forward and we’ll allow people to flex and choose between home and office. This will allow them to make the most of their job and let their abilities come to fruition in the environment that’s right for them.”
Also embracing a new, agile approach is Peel L&P. For Carrie Westwell, the organisation’s Director of People & Culture, understanding what this means for different people within the business is key to its success.
She said: “Before Covid, we were quite traditional in the sense of the office setup. When March 2020 happened, we thought ‘how are we going to do this?’ – some people didn’t even have laptops. But now, however, we’re embracing agile working and we’re looking at both what people want, and what the business needs, and trying to find a common ground.”
But when embracing agile working after spending so much time in a traditional office setup, what does it take to truly understand the benefits and how it can be beneficial for everyone?
“We’re running agile workshops to understand what ‘agile’ truly means to us as a business,” Westwell explained. “It’s how we can really listen to what people want – and we’re finding out that people at different life stages have different needs.”
Of course, where agile working embraces different working environments, and looks at potentially utilising office spaces in a different way, what about collaboration, and the feeling that employees crave of feeling part of something?
“The whole aspect of collaboration is something we’ve missed as a business and it’s now about how we find the right blend going forward,” Westwell continued.
“It’s been a process of change and exploration. We’re not being draconian and dictating when people have to be in but instead looking at both what’s needed for the role and what works for the individual. It’s a journey and we’re only part-way through the process."
“We’ll continue to have the discussions and see where we are in the next couple of months. Having really clear direction is key and, if people know what they need to achieve, then it’s easier to work remotely and differently. But we also know we need to support people to make that change.”
“A sociological change”
For Rachel King, People Director at Camelot UK, the ways in which organisations are embracing doing things differently marks a turning point that could define a whole new era for the workplace.
“I think it’s a really interesting point in time – it’s a sociological change,” she explained. “At Camelot, we’ve gone from a business where pretty much everyone worked in one of our buildings, to the majority of us working virtually.”
Now that her colleagues are used to working in the new, virtual world, King said the organisation is considering what the office space will be needed for in the future – and the type of work that will be done there.
“We’ve got to look at the way we work now – virtually - and work back from that,” she explained.
“We are working with people to understand what works for them. Certainly, there’s the buzz you get from collaborative and creative work and being together and we are missing that. It’s about trying to have those things, as well as acknowledge the practicalities around how you operate when some people are in the office, and some are at home. This will require cultural and behavioural change, and do we have all the answers to that? No. We’re going to test and learn.”
But whilst options are being discussed and decisions being made – how do you keep colleagues updated? For King, communications are key.
“Being really explicit about things is so important,” she said. “The ambiguity that people face can cause anxiety and can impact mental health. Keeping connected with people, everybody, when we’re working virtually is so hard, especially maintaining a feeling of community. The key thing when it comes to communications is not to just broadcast - but listen.”
“If you want people to love what they do, they need to love where they’re doing it”
When it comes to returning to the office – whether full time or part time – it needs to be somewhere that employees want to be. That’s according to Antony Chesworth, CEO & Founder of Ekm.com, who believes that simply providing what was there in the past will no longer be an incentive for many employees.
“Even prior to Covid, a lot of people worked in a little white box,” he explained. “That just won’t cut it anymore. You’ve got to make an environment where people want to go in – where it’s better than their home environment. If you want people to love what they do, they need to love where they’re doing it.”
For Chesworth, even with an attractive office workspace or building, the option for people to choose when – and if – they work there is crucial to a successful future.
“As our business grew, we never really embraced remote working, but this has forced us to. We’ve told all of our people they can work from home forever, if that’s what they want to do,” he explained.
“I don’t think there’s many employers out there who say they want people back in because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. People have proven that it works – that they can work from home and be trusted. And if you don’t trust your workforce then they shouldn’t be working for you.”
Flexibility is key
Of course, what works for one organisation in the future may not necessarily work for another. But, in the current environment, where attracting and retaining talent at all levels is a priority for many, then a flexible approach, a strong purpose and clear communication is a common denominator for success.
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