The recent Productivity Commission report – Working from Home – emphasised how working from home is here to stay. For employers and employees, the next step is to successfully plan for the workplace future that meets both parties’ needs.
The Productivity Report aligns with previous indications on the permanence of this workplace shift. Earlier this year, the community of Chief Economists at the World Economic Forum reported remote working would have the longest-lasting impact post the pandemic. While Microsoft research found 73 per cent of employees want remote working to stay, and 67 per cent want in-person collaboration. However, research also highlights employee nervousness about returning to the office, while Gartner research revealed employee concerns about getting infected by an unvaccinated colleague.
Organisations need to develop a return-to-work strategy to navigate this new world of working successfully.
One – Map your business needs
The process starts with fully understanding customer and employee preferences and what business activities most effectively operate via in-person or remote interactions. Not everything translates to the virtual world. Working from home works best for tasks that are well known, relatively independent and with transferable knowledge. In contrast, in-person is more effective where high levels of coordination, creativity, and collaboration are required.
Two – Define your culture
The old workplace is gone, and the future workplace will be where colleagues and teams socialise, brainstorm, and collaborate. Consequently, as part of the return-to-work strategy, reflect on your organisation’s culture. How has your culture changed over the past 18 months? What elements do you wish to retain, shift, or discard? With that knowledge, you can then specify the steps to restore or retain employee connection and team dynamics.
Three – It’s not one size fits all
Recognise there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all in this situation. Employees will have different needs, and the best employers will want to understand those. As well, there are many issues to consider. For example, how to manage employees who don’t want to return, deal with employees who come into work sick, and demonstrate you are providing a safe work environment.
Different workplace needs and conditions may require different approaches. However, a hybrid approach will be cumbersome and ineffective if it’s unstructured and employees can come in whenever it suits them.
Four – Start the conversation early
It’s essential, therefore, to start the conversation early. Many employees have now had 18 months of working from home, over which time they have created new habits and ways of working. People quickly get attached to doing things in a certain way.
Talk to your team members and find out who is eager to come back and who isn’t. Seek to understand any concerns or roadblocks. Next, as a team, agree on how you will work together and what activities require collaboration and connection.
You may decide on a set number of days per week or month that you will all come into the office. Carefully facilitate this conversation because the outcome will impact engagement and retention.
Five – Focus on attraction and retention
The enforced work from home experiment has proven that leaders don’t need to be in the same room as their team members to lead effectively. However, it does require different skills, including higher levels of trust and delegation—consequently, leaders who can’t build trust or connection with their team struggle.
Organisations need to continue to focus on elevating their leaders’ emotional intelligence and facilitation skills to build teams and an organisation that excels in this new working world.