Flexible working post Covid-19 part 2: commitment and determination

This is the second in a series of blog posts about hybrid working post Covid-19, and how we might make it a reality.

Everyone wants hybrid working, so the surveys tell us.  The vast majority of people who have these hopes for a more flexible future have now been working from home for nine months – and there is no sign of them going back to the office any time soon.  It almost seems inconceivable at this point that we would all head back, five days a week.

But the signs are there, that we just might.  Employees may want flex – but are employers (and managers) really prepared to let them have it?

Prior to Covid-19, there was a lot wrong with office life and the way that many people worked (and commuted). The technology was available to support something else entirely, but most people weren’t using it.  All too often employees who wanted flexibility didn’t get it.  Sometimes that was down to organisational culture, sometimes the attitudes of individual managers. Do we really think this working from home interlude has changed things forever?

In the last few weeks I have had some interesting conversations with people, both in person and on Twitter.  I’ve heard of some frankly baffling examples.  Managers insisting their team spend all day logged into a Zoom call, complete with cameras on. Employees who have worked from home successfully throughout the pandemic being told they can ask for a trial of homeworking post Covid-19.  Others being told that, even though the organisation is talking about increased flexible working, it won’t be apply to their team so don’t bother asking. 

We would be naive to think that the micro-manager has had a revelation in the last year. Instead I believe they are just waiting – waiting to reassert the old normal at the earliest opportunity.  I am yet to hear from any HR professional that they are dealing with a tidal wave of skiving but if we had suddenly figured out that people work hard even when we can’t see them, there wouldn’t be so many discussions about remote monitoring software and ensuring productivity. 

Organisations who want to introduce hybrid or flexible futures have a couple of key issues and risks to consider:

  • Manager attitudes – at all levels.  Some managers and leaders will be fearful of change, of losing control, of what this might mean for their personal future.  Managers of hybrid and flexible teams need different skills – as well as the will to develop them. Some might not wish to do so.
  • Status quo bias (no, not the band). The preference for the way things are (or were a year ago).  Doing the same stuff is easier that doing new stuff.  If everyone goes back to the office there is no need to think about new policies, manager training, tech strategies, communication methods……  It involves much less effort.
  • Drift. Companies may start off with good intentions but will fall back into old habits and established neural pathways.  There will be just one meeting on the day you are normally remote that you just simply must attend face to face – and a few months later, everyone is back, every day.

These aren’t the only barriers that organisations will find themselves facing – but they are perhaps the most significant to reflect upon and plan for.

My first blog post in this series talked about strategy being the starting point – deciding just how flexible (and hybrid) you want be.  The next step is being determined to see it through.  Commitment in the face of the ‘it won’t around here’ attitudes, unwilling managers, and outdated beliefs about work.  So if you do want to introduce hybrid and flexible working post Covid-19, overcoming objections must be part of your plan.

Flexible working post Covid-19 part 1: the flexibility spectrum

This is the first in a series of blog posts about flexible working post Covid-19.  We all know that employees want to retain elements of flexible working (homeworking in particular) in the future.  The idea of a hybrid or blended approach is popular; employees spending some of their working time at home and some in the office, ideally with personal autonomy around how this works in practice.  

Today, many knowledge workers are still working from home and will continue to be for some months to come.  When this whole mess is finally over there will be two challenges for business.  First of all, how do we set up these new way of working?  Secondly, once they are in place, how do we make a more flexible future work in practice, ensuring effective management, engagement, communication, creativity and team working?

There are a wide range of considerations issues to work through – but the first decision for an organisation is deciding exactly where they want to be on the flexibility spectrum. 

Imagine a straight line, drawn on a page.

At one end is a formal flexible working policy setting out how flexibility will be managed.  At the other, total employee empowerment on working patterns. 

Let’s start with the formal stuff.  Many flexible working policies do nothing more than state the law. 26 weeks to make a request.  Three months to respond (including an appeal where one is offered).  One request in a rolling 12 month period.  And so on.  Sometimes there is a list of the different types of flexible working available.  Pretty much always the list of reasons a request can be turned down. Often these policies are accompanied by forms to complete, for the employee who wishes to make a request.

This approach has been around for years, but rarely amounted to true flexibility for employees.  Prior to Covid-19 the pace of flexible working adoption in the UK was described as glacial.  There were great companies doing great things around flex – but they remained in the minority.  The problem with formal flex is…. It just isn’t that flexible.  It is still process driven, manager controlled, operating within a structure that has time and hours worked at the centre. 

If post Covid-19, all organisations do is follow this same approach, with perhaps a few tweaks or an extra category or two, real change will not result.  Employees will not get the new deal that they crave.  These organisations run a very real risk that they will lose their talent to others who have taken a bolder step.

Let’s turn to the other end of the spectrum.  There, we see total empowerment.  Employees with complete freedom to choose when and where they work as long as they fulfil their job description.  What is sometimes described as a Results Only Working Environment, in which employees are judged only on their achievement and contribution.  There is no ‘can I work from home tomorrow please’, revised terms and conditions, forms to complete. There is no parent / child dynamic. 

This is the place of the truly brave.  For many, when they hear of such working environments, their first thought is ‘that wouldn’t work around here’.  For those who are curious to learn more, I recommend reading ‘A Year Without Pants’ by Scott Berkun and ‘Work Sucks and How to Fix’ It by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson.  The total empowerment approach cannot of course work everywhere; some work demands a physical presence or a specific time window. But it is more possible than many people believe.  A year ago if we’d asked the same people whether their organisations could be run remotely, the same people would have said no.  And yet here we are.

The first decision for any organisation to make is this: where do you want to be on the flexibility spectrum?  How ambitious are you going to be?  How much change will you make?

Everything else flows from there. 

What policy you need, what systems, manager training and accompanying structures.  How to performance manage, reward and recognise, collaborate and create. 

There are some organisations who will be satisfied to stay at the formal end. They will keep their policies, and their own particular version of the new normal might amount to allowing employees to make a request for the occasional work from home day.  Others may be wondering why they need that corporate, city centre head office and be thinking about a remote first future.

From this decision, we can decide what comes next, what needs to be in place.  In the next blog post in this series I will be exploring the necessary policy and principles to support flexible, blended work.  

But for now, back to that imaginary line.  Where will you stand?

Not working 9-5

Remember that old joke about going to a meeting that could have been an email?

Well, we’re still doing it.

Nine months after many of us went remote, although it might feel like we have adopted whole new ways of working, in many respects all we have really changed is where work is currently taking place.

The how – not so much.

All those unnecessary meetings are still happening, it’s just that they are now on Zoom or Teams. 

Progress meeting, project meetings, status updates, actions and minutes and agendas and apologies. The office bureaucracy remains.

Although the last nine months have often been referred to as a great homeworking experiment, we are not experimenting as much as we should. We have introduced location flexibility because we were forced to, but adaption and experimentation hasn’t gone far enough.

From training courses to the Christmas party, since March 2020 we have embraced the virtual. What we haven’t yet embraced, is asynchronous working.

Some work has to be done at a specific place. Some work has to be done at a specific time. Prior to Covid-19 many organisations would have told you that lots of the work of their employees had to be done in the office – but they have had that particular bias unconfirmed. Now we turn to the next one; that to work effectively we must do so at the same time.

Sometimes, conversation matters. Sometimes, to collaborate and create we need to come together, discuss, engage and share. But sometimes, we can just get on with stuff when we want. We don’t have to work 9-5. It is a tradition, a hangover from the days when we all needed to all turn up at the factory gate at the same time because that widget we were making, we made together. Instead, we can, if we want to, work around not only our other commitments and responsibilities but our own personal rhythms, timezones and patterns.

My own research has demonstrated to me just how freeing working from home has been for some people. I’ve had people tell me how they have realised that they work better in short bursts and with small breaks rather than the office standard 3.5 hours followed by an hour lunchbreak. Others have discovered their preferences for a very early start or how their productivity and creativity comes to life late at night.  We are each of us different in our styles and preferences but the 9-5 assumes that one size fits all. It doesn’t. But despite this, the plethora of articles about employers undertaking remote surveillance to make sure people are working at an any given moment tells us we are still wedded to the arbitrary idea of the working day. 

Just like with location flexibility, the technology that can enable us to work asynchronously is available and has been for a long time. Similarly, it isn’t usually availability that is a barrier to use, but will and skill. If we have all figured out how to have a remote meeting, we can also figure out how to collaborate and share at different times as well as in different places.

There is a course a note of caution. In a society that so often glorifies busy and in which the immediate response is the expectation, working at different times to others may risk elongating the working day. Working asynchronously should not mean more work, but instead smarter work, more tailored to the employee work, and ideally, fewer just for the point of it meetings. In a culture that truly understands working anywhen, employees know that there isn’t an expectation that they respond or work when others are working but only when they are. In asynchronous cultures working outside of the 9-5 does not mean work extensification but freedom and autonomy.

There has been much talk in recent months of organisations adopting more flexible futures post Covid-19. Long term success of flexible working must include an element of both time and schedule flexibility as well as location. Otherwise, that so-called flexible future that everyone desires will just amount to a full day spent on Zoom from home instead of the office.

So back to that online meeting. Instead, could it be a MS Teams chat, a Slack update, a podcast, a blog post, a shared document or a social media update? 

Or you know….. an email after all?

Four quotes

As we near the end of this most extraordinary year, the festive season is almost upon us.   The break from work will be a welcome one for most, but there is no doubt that this will be a very different holiday period than the ones we have known in the past. 

Christmas can be a difficult time of year even in so-called ‘normal’ times.  Christmas 2020 brings a whole other layer of complexity and new challenges to navigate.  Much of my work this year has unsurprisingly been focused around wellbeing.  Supporting employees, training managers so that they can do the same, raising awareness about mental health. 

Wellbeing remains on my mind.  If you are thinking about it too, I’d like to offer you four simple quotes upon which I have been reflecting in the last few weeks.

Image: pexels.com

It’s okay not to be okay.  This is a well-known saying about mental health, designed to take the stigma out of poor mental health, sending the message that there is no shame in this illness.  But this year, right now, it has never felt more true.  There is almost no one untouched by Covid-19.  If you are struggling right now it is not only okay to feel this way, but a totally normal reaction to living through a long period of extreme stress and uncertainty.  Maybe you don’t feel that you have had it as bad as others, and shouldn’t feel so tired or so stressed.  Please, do give yourself permission to feel just exactly how you feel.

Self-care isn’t selfish

If you’ve attended a wellbeing event on self-care on resilience I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase too.  It is perhaps nearly reaching cliché status. It is however, oh so importantBecause when we are busy dealing with all that Covid-19 has delivered to us, as we attempt to balance and keep all of the plates spinning, the thing that might just slip along the way, be put to the bottom of the priority list, is us.  Our own wellbeing.  The stuff that nourishes us and helps us to recover and recharge.  Without this, burnout awaits.  Taking a little time for you, is not a nice to have, it is a necessity. 

This too, shall pass. 

And it will.  Although the end may not be as close as we would like, it is in sight.  The days will come again where we will socialise, and hug, and meet without thought (or mask). There is hope, there are better days to come.  We will get through this. 

And finally….

A less well known quote, but one that I return to often.  From the then Managing Director of the New Economics Foundation (it is their research that forms the basis of the popular 5 Ways to Wellbeing framework).

Wellbeing is not a beach that you go and lie on.  It is a dynamic dance, and there is movement in that all the time.

Our own wellbeing is not something that we can ever stop focusing on and working towards.  We are never ‘done’.  It’s not a qualification or a date in the diary. It is something that we need to focus on and work towards and strive for.  Every single day – and especially now.

Not even the half of it

A significant chunk of the workforce has now been working from home for nearly eight months.  We have all become familiar with the headlines suggesting that employees don’t want to return to the office in the future (full time at least) and how employers are fundamentally re-thinking their estates strategies.

Work will never be the same again.

Apart where it already is.

Pre Covid-19 the adoption of flexible working had been described as glacial.  The eight hour day, five days a week, 9-5 ish model was already decades out of date.  A hangover from when we really needed to be in the same place at the same time to get the work done.  Technology had made different ways of working possible – we just hadn’t used it.

The pandemic forced us to finally acknowledge you really can work from anywhere, and this wouldn’t result in the majority of office workers watching Homes Under the Hammer instead.  But what else has really changed?

What used to be a face to face meeting is now an online one.  If anything, the barriers to arranging meetings have reduced even further.  We don’t have to wait for people to get in the office or finish the agenda because someone has to rush for a train home.  Your laptop is in the lounge and there’s nowhere to go so there’s nothing stopping you jumping on a quick Zoom.  Perhaps the most welcome difference between online and IRL is that it is easier to multi-task during the boring bits. 

We’ve seen other headlines and reporting too.  How the micro manager, far from having a revelation about how to lead, is doubling down, forcing people to be at their desks all day.  Checking start times, setting up remote monitoring and watching MS Teams for a green light. 

Turned-on Laptop on Bed
Image from Pexels.com

I’ve said this many times during the last eight months.  The current situation is not flexible working. It’s not even the half of it.  Because flex is more than remote.  It is about schedule flexibility too.  At one end of the flex spectrum is a flexible working policy with a flexible working application form in order to apply for a contractual change to working hours that may be heard in three months (don’t forget your right to be accompanied).  At the other end, truly empowering your people to work anywhere and any when.  To work when it best fits their personal rhythms, when they feel most productive, and around their other commitments and responsibilities. 

We can embrace the other half of flex.  Technology doesn’t just gives us the ability to have location flexibility but schedule flexibility too. We can go asynchronous.  MS Teams, Slack, Yammer…. we have the tools. They are already on our corporate networks or are free to use.  The biggest mental shift we still need to make is that work will only get done if we do it together, whether that is in a meeting room or Zoom one.  But (most of us) aren’t on a production line in a factory.  This isn’t the 1980s.  So it’s time we stopped working like it is. 

PS.  My book on Flexible Working is published on 3rd December.  It’s available for pre-order here and the code AHR20 will get you 20% of.

Six months

Tomorrow, it is six months since I transitioned to working from home.  Like many, I still haven’t been back to the office.   

Those early months were all about crisis.  Getting through and making do.

But, and despite government urges to the contrary, for those workers formerly known as office-based, there is no sign of a full time return.

So what next?  Now that adrenalin has passed and the long haul beckons? 

Most of us have now got some sort of routine sorted out, even if it isn’t completely optimal.  The kids are back at school (for the moment) even if that isn’t entirely normal either. We’ve mostly got to grips with the tech. There are now other areas, possibly somewhat neglected in these hectic months, which demand our attention.  One of these areas is an old HR favourite: employee engagement.

How connected are people feeling, now?  How engaged?  To the organisation, the mission and vision, the team, their manager? Without the place itself, the social interactions, the familiar daily rituals and habits.  In almost every employee engagement survey I have ever seen, respondents rate the people they work with as a central factor in their own engagement.  Does this hold true when we only see them through a screen?

What too, about the daily micro-frustrations of working from home (a term I have shamelessly stole from Professor Sir Cary Cooper). Not having a decent printer, the noisy neighbour, not having access to that file you need that’s still in the filing cabinet in an office you can’t access. The ergonomic issues of still not having a proper place to work.  Is this too having a negative impact on day to day engagement and job satisfaction?

Then there is all that hygiene stuff.  The bottom rungs of Maslow’s ladder.  Do employees feel safe and secure?  Do they have those basics to work effectively? Are their social needs being met by this prolonged break from the old routine?  Fast forward to a more modern thinker, Dan Pink. He argues that what really motivates us isn’t money but autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Some of us might have more autonomy right now than we had before – but are we still getting opportunities to learn, develop and progress our careers?  Do we still like we have a purpose beyond all this pandemic stuff?

During early lockdown people described themselves as more productive whilst working from home, away from the distractions of the office. Wil that sustain? And what to of creativity and innovation in the longer term?

There are more questions here than answers.  We do know that the last few months has for many people been a deeply reflective time.  For some, this is behind the desire to work more remotely in the future – a headline which has now become familiar by its regularity.  For others, a deeper reflection about what they really want out of life.  Although I have no empirical evidence, I am hearing story after story of people resigning their positions, changing jobs, starting something new. 

Is this a result of personal reflection… or is this a an engagement issue?  A loosening of the connections, a statement about how their employer has handled Covid-19, or just too many micro-frustrations?

There is no single definition of employee engagement.  Neither is there any broad agreement about whether it leads to positive business or even what drives (or detracts from) it.  But there are some similar themes whatever you read about the subject.  The critical role of leaders, organisational vision and mission, purpose and meaning, organisational integrity. 

There could just be a perfect storm of poor employee engagement building.  Reduced social connections, increased stress and anxiety, poor work life balance, blurred boundaries between work and home, furloughed employees, the impact of redundancies or cost cutting, reduced development opportunities, too much change all at once. These are the factors that will influence how people feel about their work and who they work for.

I’ve written already about the ‘what next’ for organisations post Covid-10.  There’s a need to learn from this last six months, to focus on employee mental health and determine a future strategy about flexible and remote working.  I’d argue that the other critical priority for the months to come is sustaining engagement and retaining connection. 

There’s no quick fix or simple solution. It is more than a Zoom team quiz, a virtual get together, a regular leader’s update. It also can’t be the things we did before, as those strategies are for a world that is no longer available to us.

It is time for us to re-think how we engage with our remote workforce, for the long term.

The flexibility spectrum

The results are in.  Lots of people want to work from home a lot.  

Survey after survey (including my own research) have shown this.

Although we still recognise the benefits of the office for collaboration, creativity and relationships, there is a clear desire from employees (the office worker type at least) to spend less time there and more at home.  Even with the complexity of working through a global pandemic, many employees have still found a range of personal benefits from more homeworking, from productivity, to saving money and improving wellbeing. 

So now what?

Some organisations are already starting to think about what the future means for them.  Creating their new normal if you will pardon the 2020 cliché.  For some this is an opportunity to rethink their estates strategy and spend less on real estate.  For others it’s about meeting this new employee demand, considering it from the perspective of talent acquisition, engagement and retention. 

There is a decision to be made for those organisations: where do you want to be on the flex spectrum?

At one end, there’s having a flexible working policy and process.  Employees can make an application.  Have it duly considered.  A decision in the statutory three months.  The possibility of a trial period. A day a week from home but please remember to check with your manager to confirm the day before.  Within this approach the default office model (M-F, 9-5 ish) remains dominant. 

At the other end, there’s something else entirely.  Not just flexibility of working hours or locations but true personalisation.  Allowing someone to decide in the moment where and when they can best do the work that they need to do that particular day.  Empowering people to work in a way (and at the times) that align with their personal energies and rhythms – when they best feel productive.  Employees working around their other commitments, trusted to do their best and judged and rewarded based on their results and not on being seen in the office. 

We talk of blended, hybrid working practices. This is one possible future.  Some days in the office, some days out.  But again, at the heart of this approach is still the default model. Can we go further? 

As ever, context matters.  What works for one organisation, sector or role type won’t work for another.  Experimentation might be necessary to work out just what the best approach is.  But making that decision, figuring out – strategically – where you want to play is the starting point.

Either approach, both ends of the spectrum can deliver benefits both organisationally and personally. The latter, for many workplaces is a much bigger leap. Will feel more risky, pushes harder against typical organisational ills such as presenteeism, leavism, micro-management and heavy meeting cultures. 

The time to think about this stuff is now. The time to listen to what your people really want from their work and their workplaces, is now. 

We can go back to the default.  We can find a compromise between home and work.  Or we can make an even bigger shift. 

If we are brave enough. 

PS, my book on all of this flexible working stuff comes out in December.  An excellent Christmas present for all the family. 

Working parents. Between a rock and a hard place.

When the country went into lockdown in March, there is no doubt that this provided challenges to almost everyone. For working parents, these challenges were significant. For those who had to combine work and childcare, work and homeschooling, this has been a time of stress, anxiety and guilt. Guilt about not doing their best at work, guilt at no doing the best for their kids. Stress from trying to do it all in complex circumstances. Overwhelm from the sheer volume of stuff to do.

The response to lockdown from schools has been highly variable. Some provided a great deal of support and guidance, others very little. Some children returned, however briefly, to school before the summer break but most did not.  We are now five months on and the schools are preparing to go back – but the situation is far from normal.

Here’s what is currently facing working parents:

  • Schools are opening – but not in the way they were before lockdown and even small changes are impacting working parents. One example – staggered starts and end times to the school day. Just one more thing to navigate if you are taking more than one child to school.
  • Wraparound care isn’t opening or opening at normal capacity. Parents might have the school hours back but they don’t have the vital before or after school support that they need, limiting the hours that they can work.
  • The prospect of future school closures if there are cases in the school or locally loom large.
  • Pressure from government messaging that people should be returning to work (by which I assume they mean the office, given that many have worked longer and harder than ever before during recent months).

The flexibility that many organisations provided during lockdown cannot realistically last indefinitely. This week I have been sent a copy of new guidance (from an employer that I won’t name here) stating that from 1st September their pre Covid-19 Homeworking Policy now applies in respect to children – parents cannot now wfh and be caring for children at the same time. The company expects them to have childcare in place – or apply for reduced hours. It might look harsh, but there is an economic reality to be faced for many businesses and they need their people to be productive. In some cases, erroneously, managers and organisations feel that this involves being present too.

What will be the outcome for those working parents who still cannot find childcare, who may once again have to homeschool children whilst working in the event of a school closure, and who cannot meet those employer demands to have childcare in place or return to the office? The picture is bleak.

If one parent in a household has to give up their job or reduce their hours, there is a good chance this is going to be the female of the species. We already know that women have been taking the brunt of the childcare during this period – and are starting to face the worst of the economic consequences. The systemic gender issues in our society mean that the chances are it’s mum who has already gone part time, earns less or otherwise limited her career in order to balance work and family. It isn’t a stretch to assume this trend will continue in the difficult months to come.

There is no end to the potential issues. Long term career implications, stress and anxiety, exhaustion, financial implications of reduced hours or incomes, the mental health and education effects on the children themselves. Lost jobs, lost opportunities.

So what can be done? There is no easy answer – and certainly not one that will keep all parents in their jobs and all parents earning their normal salary.

Recognising that many organisations have critical business challenges as result of Covid-19, I still believe that they must do what they can to support their working parents during this difficult period. Here are just a few things that can be done:

  • Support career breaks or sabbaticals from working parents who may want to take some time off.
  • Provide additional special leave, even if it can only be unpaid, for working parents who need to take time of work in the event of a school closure. Don’t count this as absence for the purposes of internal policies.
  • Support requests by parents for temporary reduced hours working – with the option to return to full / contractual hours in the future. Don’t hold people to lengthy application processes for this – provide quick decisions. Don’t force parents into a permanent change.
  • Allow employees to work flexi-time where roles permit. Let them work their hours when they can work their hours if you can.
  • Provide ongoing wellbeing support, including mental health support to all employees. If you can, target some events at parents or provide a space for them to network and share – and simply support each other.
  • Promote messaging about flexibility and empathy to people managers – they need to know they have permission to make individual arrangements and should be focusing on outputs not hours.
  • Take steps to ensure that any absence or short term reductions in performance / output do not have long term career implications. Monitor other policies such as disciplinary, attendance, reward, promotion and performance review to ensure fairness and consistency.

This is not a time for slavish devotion to formal policy.  This isn’t a time to shame those who simply cannot return to normal or who have some additional challenges.  This is a time for empathy, compassion, flexibility.  It’s good for employee engagement, retention, motivation.

It is also simply, the right thing to do.

Employee wellbeing – through COVID-19 and beyond.

Most of us are now thinking about the return to the new different. Whether this is a return to work for those employees on furlough or a return to workplaces for those of us that have been working from home for these last few months, change is on the horizon.

Wellbeing needs to be on all our agendas right now. I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late, reading and researching. I’ve collated here, for those who might find them useful, what I believe are the important factors for us to consider – and share with your leaders and managers with key roles to play in facilitating this return.

Disclaimers first. There’s lots of stuff on mental health here. I’m not a mental health professional; this is a distillation of stuff that I know from and have read from a range of sources. I am drawing on academic research and papers, so some points are somewhat simplified.

Now onto the helpful stuff.

We have each of us been living though a shared situation but we have experienced it very differently. From isolation to overwhelm, busier than ever to furlough. There will be people that have copied well, others that are not coping at all. We cannot assume what category people will fall into, what their particular concerns will be, what they will need in the week and month to come.  Mental health professions are telling us that during the last few months many people have experienced poor mental health – and these effects are likely to be long lasting.  Check out this report from Mind Charity.

When it comes to experiencing potentially traumatic events, people tend to fall into one of four groups.

1. People that will be fine
2. People that will need some support but recover reasonably quickly / well
3. People that are ok now but will become not ok in the future (delayed responses)
4. People that will not be at all well and will need lots of support.

It isn’t that straightforward to say how many people will into each group. There are a number of factors at play here from personality type, demographic factors, availability of resources to the proximity to the experience. So for example, if there’s a traumatic event (like a pandemic) you might be more likely to fall into group 4 if you have actually become ill rather than just been worried about being ill.

Broadly, the majority of people will probably be fine (group 1) – possibly up to 65%. Again, we just don’t know. We cannot know a person and then guess where they will fit.

Lessons for HR? We need to prepare for what each of these groups need, from some basic wellbeing support for those people in group 2 to those in group 4 who may need long term support. We also need to make sure whatever we put into place is available long term – not just for the next few months.

Generally wellbeing interventions fall into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. Simply, primary is about tackling the source and preventing poor workplace wellbeing. Secondary is the wellbeing stuff that many of us do in the workplace – mindfulness, fitness classes and training and learning. Tertiary is the stuff that supports people who are ill (occupational health, EAPs, counselling). HR also needs to ensure that we have all of these available. Regarding primary interventions we can’t necessarily tackle the main source of stress (the pandemic itself) but we can reduce stressors of returning to work through good, timely communication, trained managers and effective health, safety and hygiene. Right now, we need to ensure that we are considering wellbeing initiatives at every level. We can’t tackle all of the primary (the source of the problem is outside of our control – but our response is not). We can address the particular sources of stress relating to returning to the workplace or the source of stress for particular employees such as working parents or people in BAME groups. We then need to have proactive wellbeing support to enable people to boost their wellbeing – and support for those who are currently unwell or will become so.

What about those employees who have been on furlough? Again, we don’t know. There’s no research that we can look at because it’s never happened before. We can however draw (to some extent) on research into unemployment and its impact on wellbeing. There are of course key differences (people on furlough have continued to have income even if reduced and there has been an end point even if it was not exactly known throughout).

Work, for some people, is associated with meaning and purpose in life. Furlough has challenged this. Just like with trauma, people react differently to being unemployed. Some of the factors around wellbeing and unemployment are less relevant but still possible (fears about re-employment or financial worries – noting that people may have had reduced incomes or be worrying that furlough will lead to longer term unemployment). Unemployment is linked with poor mental health and poor physical health too. This is often greater for those who have high levels of work-role centrality – e.g. their sense of work is highly linked to their sense of self. People’s response to unemployment isn’t homogenous and neither is the response to furlough likely to be either. There’s a whole range of factors that will impact how much someone’s wellbeing is impacted from their ability to be able to use coping strategies, retain some sort of structured time use and routine, financial implications and the duration of the unemployed period.

Onto quarantine now.  We’ve never before quarantined a whole country – so we are back to not really knowing the long term implications of it.  But there is research into other quarantine situations like SARS and Ebola, and it has been associated with stress, anxiety and increased substance misuse – some of it long lasting.  One thing that does need to be in the secondary and tertiary support mix – help for people who have struggled with substances during COVID-19.  Make this about wellbeing, not discipline.

As HR professions or people managers we are unable to make any assumptions about how people will be or what they will need. We can make an educated guess or two. If someone has been seriously ill as a result of COVID-19, they may be more likely to fall into the group that needs more wellbeing support. If someone has been bereaved the same might apply. But as we cannot assume; our only option therefore is to engage on an individual level to find out whilst making sure that organisationally we have the right tools in place.

I believe it is critical that managers are provided with tools and information.  Many organisation train managers on mental health – but we need to help them understand the specific implications of COVID-19, and how to support staff now and for the months to come.  I attended a CIPD webinar last week where one of the speakers commented that (for furloughed employees but I think it applies wider too) returning to work isn’t a one off event, it is a process.  Improving wellbeing and mental health post COVID-19 and lockdown is similarly a process, and possibly a long term one too.

There’s one more thing to add. For some, a potentially traumatic experience leads to deep reflection. It challenges what we believe to be true, what we think we have always known. This can lead to a desire to change, to new motivations a new life course. We should expect some of our employees to be in this space too.

And finally.  Not everyone has seen a negative impact upon their wellbeing.  For some respondents to my recent research, the last few months has meant less stressful commuting, more time for exercise, a chance to eat better food and have the opportunity for hobbies.  Although I am not sure many of them were also home-schooling……

The future of work is at home. Maybe.

Recent weeks have seen several media articles and surveys, all predicting an increase in demand for homeworking in the future, now that many of us have seen just how possible it is to work effectively outside of the office.

I’ve been researching this subject with colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University. We asked employees, who had transitioned to homeworking as a result of COVID19, about their experiences. We asked them to reflect on their challenges from this time, but also what benefits they had found, and what if anything they wanted to differently in the future as a result. We analysed over 3500 individual comments and coded them into themes.

We expected that respondents would tell us about a range of challenges including childcare, home-schooling, stress and anxiety. We also expected to hear about the practical challenges relating to technology and appropriate work spaces, as well as finding balance and establishing boundaries between work and home. This is exactly what people did tell us. However, despite the very many difficulties expressed and the hardships endured, many of the survey respondents were able to identify and articulate very real benefits to their lives too – and much of this related to working from home and reducing the commute.

When we asked people want they want to do differently in the future, almost two thirds of people said that they want to work from home more. More than a quarter of those don’t just want to work from home one day a week, but on a much more regular basis. Some survey respondents talked of wanting to spend the majority of their time at home, or have an equal split between home and office. Others want to reverse the old idea of working from home being something you do one day a week and being in the office for the remainder, to four days at home and one in the workplace.

What does this mean in practical terms for organisations, and for HR teams in particular?

It is highly likely that in the months to come there will be an increase in flexible working requests specifically in relation to homeworking. In my experience of advising on flexible working requests in the past, most people who want to work from home asked for one day a week, or maybe one day a fortnight if they felt their manager was going to be particularly resistant. But we may well see a shift to asking for more time from home – or even the majority.

Of course, what employees want is not always what they will get.  So what happens if people get told no?  There’s a potential risk that where this demand isn’t met and requests are turned down, employees may choose to seek work elsewhere, perhaps for an employer that will allow them more flexibility in their working lives. We know we are heading towards an economic recession so these implications may take some time to be felt – but engagement and morale might take an immediate hit.

This increased demand for homeworking can present a real opportunity, especially in terms of talent acquisition and retention, for those organisations who are prepared to continue these new ways of working into the future.

There are some steps that our research suggests organisations should take now to prepare for the increase in demand for homeworking.

  • Review your overall approach to flexible or home working; how might it work for your specific organisational sector, role types and context in the future? Identify the risks and benefits for your organisation of increased homeworking (or indeed refusing it).
  • Prepare people managers for the potential increase in flexible working requests. Ensure that they understand policies and procedures and their specific responsibilities. They also need to be aware of the potential and multiple benefits of supporting flexible working in the longer term.
  • Review Flexible Working and Homeworking policies and processes to see if they are fit for purpose and update these were necessary.

Is homeworking here to stay? Only time will tell…….

What people want to do differently

This graph represents the answers to the survey question regarding what people want to do differently in the future as a result of their wfh experience. Simply, the bigger the box the  more coded responses.  

100 days

This week we reach 100 days in lockdown, or so I read on Twitter.

It has been long and long.

Those early pandemic, strange, discombobulated and anxiety filled early days have mostly passed. We have come a long way, but still have far to go. We have made new routines, accommodated new challenges along the way.

From the conversations that I’ve been having in recent weeks however, the main issue people seem to be experiencing right now, is exhaustion.

Juggling work and home, work and childcare, work and home-school. Working from kitchen tables and sofas. Sharing tech and too-small spaces. The constant online meetings demanding a whole different kind of focus. For parents, the thought that there are weeks and weeks more to come.

All too often we seem to have lifted and shifted the way that we worked in the office and moved it online. An all-day meeting? Let’s make it a seven hour Zoom! Some office forced fun? Now it’s in your living room.

We are running the risk not only of having tired employees, but actually burning them out.

How many concessions has your company made for the stress people are under? The balancing they are doing? How flexible are you being? What changes to ways of working have you made?

I sent a few tweets earlier today, prompted by one of the organisations I work with announcing a meeting light fortnight, in which they are encouraging people to cancel all non-essential meetings. The senior team are leading the way by halting their own.

I shared this, along with some thoughts of my own. The rapid number of likes and comments tells me that others recognise this problem too.

We need to think about tiredness. About exhaustion, about burnout. We need to make changes in the way that we are working for the sake of our people’s wellbeing and ongoing mental health.  Sometimes, this needs a formal, leadership message to provide the permission.

We need to recognise that being in online meetings all day is different – and more tiring – than sitting in a room with folk. There’s no opportunity to stand up and move around. No walk between meeting rooms even. Long meetings are especially tiring.

It is also too easy at the moment not to take any holiday – because there isn’t anywhere to go. Some of those things that might have got us up from the desk whilst in the workplace – coffee with a friend, nipping out to the shops at lunch, going out for some food – aren’t available either.

These factors, plus the ongoing and ongoing nature of this pandemic, are creating a perfect storm for being utterly, completely and totally knackered.

Here’s what I think we should do:

  • Reduce the length of meetings. All meetings should be 45 mins by default to provide for some movement and brain space between them.
  • Remind people to take their annual leave. Keep messaging this. Don’t just allow people to carry over leave or build up too much flexi-time.  Rest is essential, even if it just more of being at home.
  • Have a maximum time limit on online meetings. If you can’t sort it in two hours, do something else. No one needs a day long Zoom.
  • Stop meetings over lunch. This will help people find time for a break, and help parents who need to feed their kids.
  • If you see people looking visibly tired, check in with them. Ask them how they are, tell them you are worried about them. Encourage them to seek support from their manager.
  • Remind people about your wellbeing services. Get senior leaders to be part of the message – it will give the permission to play.
  • If you can afford to, give everyone a day off. Wherever possible, the same one. No email, no pressure.
  • Declare some meeting free days, e.g. no meetings on a Friday.
  • Have an email free day. Trust me it is possible. No you can’t replace them with instant messages, Slack notifications or Teams comments.
  • Where people are working with more time flexibility, such as working evenings and weekends around other family commitments, encourage them not to send emails immediately and schedule them for more typical working hours. Whilst I generally don’t like to perpetuate the myth that work takes place 9-5, right now let’s help each other with overwhelm by not filling up their inboxes.
  • It’s always been said that many meetings can be emails. Try and prove it.
  • Have a phone call instead of an online meeting! Remember them? You can get up and move!

We have a way to go yet, before there is some sort of normal again, whatever that means.  Let’s not burn people out before we get there.

Woman Leaning on Table

How is homeworking working for you?

I’ve already written about whether the current situation will really change how we work, or whether the old ways will just pull us back in.

Well I decided I’d try and find out some of the answers for myself. Along with some colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University I am researching employee experiences of working from home during COVID-19. If, before all of this, you more typically worked in an office but are now working 100% from home, please fill in this short survey. We are aiming to make the results available quickly so that they can be useful to organisations in their planning for future.

You can find the survey here.

Possible, flexible futures

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I am a big advocate of flexible working. In recent weeks I have seen it suggested that we will never go back to the old ways of working, that the case for remote working is now made, we will all be flexible workers now.

I am yet to be convinced.

Firstly, let us not conflate flexible working and remote working. Working from home is just one way that people can work flexibly, outside of the default 9-5 model. Secondly, we also need to acknowledge that what we are doing now is neither remote working or flexible working – not in any typical sense anyway.

Remember toom that research shows that there are strong biases against flexible workers, and these are unlikely to have gone away over night.  The current situation has challenged some of the myths about flexible working (technology being the main one) but many of the barriers and stereotypes remain.

When an organisation moves towards flexible or remote working it usually does so in a strategic, organised way. Thought is given to ways of working, equipment, communication, manager training and support. It isn’t normally something that we do with notice of just a day or so. It does not usually involve trying to simultaneously home school children, cope without a decent workspace, manage increased levels of anxiety, support friends and relatives with care or practical matters and cope with restrictions on our lives and freedoms.  We are not working from home, we are working during a crisis.

There is a potential different future on offer. There are certainly indications that there will be an increased demand for flexible and remote forms of working now that people have realised just what is possible. There is another future however. One where the old ways pull us back in strongly. Where the desire to manage once again by presence will return. Where those managers who have personally had a difficult time whilst working from home will simply return to turning down requests using that personal experience as evidence.

The business case for flexible working is strong. It is about talent, engagement, wellbeing, inclusion and sustainability. It can contribute to solving some of our big problems – if we let it. And that is the key. If we want a more flexible, remote future we cannot assume that this situation will deliver it to us on a plate. We will need to craft and create it.

HR – time to step up.

Wellbeing Resources

There’s no shortage of wellbeing content around at the moment. My social media feeds and email inbox is full of top tips on working from home, leading remotely, staying healthy during lockdown.

It can be difficult to know just what to read, or what to ignore.  I have curated for colleagues some of the more useful and interesting articles and links I have read in the recent weeks, below.

For anyone who is in a management or leadership role or supporting people that are, last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Sir Cary Cooper, President of the CIPD and expert in health and wellbeing about the role of managers in supporting wellbeing during the current time.

Please feel free to share.

Ted playlist on self-care.

From Harvard Business Review: how to avoid burnout when working from home.
From the Conversation – being a better manager when working from home.
Harvard Business Review article – That discomfort you are feeling is grief.
From the Conversation – the perils of perfectionism during lockdown

My interview with Cary Cooper on the role of managers in wellbeing is here.

Productivity Shaming

We are living through something that almost defies words. Each of us is experiencing it differently, with our own unique fears, perspectives, losses big and small.

There is no one way to be right now. No good or bad. Just getting through, the best way that we can.

In the last few days I’ve seen several posts on social media that fall into the category of what I’d call productivity shaming. Bragging about achievements made during lockdown. Suggestions, implied and explicit, that if you’re not making the most of this situation you’re not doing good enough. Maybe a little lazy perhaps.

I call BS.

This might not be the time to learn a language, write that book you’ve always thought about, start a new hobby. If that’s what’s getting your through, if it’s adding to your wellbeing, then of course do it.

In normal times there is evidence to suggest that learning and accomplishment contributes to overall wellbeing. But these are far from normal times.

But maybe don’t tell others that they should be doing the same. Maybe don’t suggest someone isn’t enough if they don’t take your path.

And to those managers pushing for productivity right now, expecting people to deliver like they always have, I say simply this.  Lift your head. Look around you.  Look up the word empathy in the dictionary.  The time will return to worry about metrics and measurement and performance against objectives.  That time is not today.  

We’ve all got much to cope with right now. Our normal resources may not be available to us, our challenges greater than ever.  Finding balance between the two for many, is simply impossible.  

A list of shoulds, musts, oughts and got tos on top of everything else to be faced are neither necessary or helpful.  Verging on cruel.  

Be productive. Or don’t be.

There is no shame. Just getting through.


Working from home – the etiquette guide

Just for fun…..

All you folks who have never worked from home before, this list is to help you with vital etiquette when engaging with others virtually in the coming weeks.

1. Do not just randomly video call people. Us regular homeworkers cannot promise we have showered / brushed hair / go dressed. Always confirm first if video will be used.
2. Do not schedule virtual meetings unless absolutely necessary at the same times as Homes Under the Hammer (10am daily, BBC1 – you’re welcome).
3. If you have an audio call and here some random noises in the background we might be cleaning our kitchen / sorting the washing out. Multi-tasking is our jam. Don’t mention this.
4. Do not comment on the home décor of the person you are video conferencing with. Commenting on their pets who come into shot is fine.
5. We might look smart from the waist up but there is no guarantee we will have proper trousers on. Don’t request anything of us that might require us to stand up.
6. If we take a few seconds to pick up your call, we are hiding the biscuit tin / frantically chewing our lunch. Don’t draw attention to this.
7. If we say our webcam isn’t working it is because we haven’t showered. All that advice that says get up and put proper clothes on? I give you three days.
8. We look better than we normally do IRL? We know where the button on Zoom is that says ‘enhance my appearance’. Yes this is a thing. Don’t mention this either.

And finally….. as we all start managing this astonishing and scary shift in all our lives, balancing work and sometimes home schooling, be good to each other.

Be well.

About feet

I want to talk about a photo.

A photo of feet.

Not just any feet, but working feet.

Specifically feet that seem, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, to illustrate issues like the gender pay gap, workplace sex based inequality and so on.

I know you have seen the photo (or one very similar to it).

There are a couple of versions around, but they have something in common besides the headlines.

There will be several pairs of feet. The  majority look to be male feet, suited and booted.

Then there will be some female feet. Always white.  Always appearing to be a professional or office type worker.  Always, and I mean always, wearing a skirt and with bare legs (or wearing some very womanly tights).  Heels are obligatory.

I have several problems with these photographs.

First of all – why and when did gender/sex related articles became associated with feet?

There’s a suggestion contained within that the only people (women) who experience gender and sex based problems in the workplace are professional, white and looking like a particular version of femininity.

Do women of colour, women working in retail, care or domestic work not experience the same challenges at work? Do women who wear boots and don’t conform to the old style idea of how women at work should dress also not experience discrimination, harassment, a lack of equal pay, career marginalisation?

Can we please find a better image to explain the systemic, structural and serious issues of sex based inequality in the workplace?

Say no to feet.

Being Human

Yesterday I sent a tweet about a conversation I’d been in that morning. It briefly described a situation that had been told to me, relating to a large UK organisation the name of which would be familiar to many.  This organisation was undertaking a redundancy exercise.  How did you know if you were impacted?  You were given a conference call number to dial, where you could listen to a recorded message.  Some people got the recording that explained their jobs were safe.  Others got the version that confirmed the individuals on the call were at risk of redundancy.

My tweet said that if you worked in HR and thought that was an acceptable approach, maybe it was time to find a new career.

The tweet has since had a lot of interaction; some has been from other HR folk expressing their dismay. Others have shared their own, similar stories.  I have even had private messages sharing other examples that they can’t mention publically, but all of which are frankly, shameful.

I stand by what I tweeted yesterday.

In HR, we have to do difficult stuff. It’s part of the job description.  We discipline people, we make them redundant, we change terms and conditions, we dismiss, reach settlement agreements, TUPE out and in, we change benefits arrangements.  I have done all of this in my career and more.

We do stuff that impacts upon people’s lives. When we do that stuff, we have an obligation to do it with decency, empathy and respect.  We have an obligation to do it properly and in accordance with all of the necessary policies and legislation.  We have an obligation too, to do these things professionally and with the individual – and not the process – in mind.

We should not do these things the quickest way, or the easiest way.  We should not do these things in the way that is most convenient for the business or the HR professional themselves.

Technology has its place – although the example here very much isn’t it.  But when it comes to job losses in particular, we must do this difficult stuff face to face.  It is the very least we can do.  Oh, and for the record, that means you go to them, you don’t get someone to come and meet you miles away from their home or office to get the worst of the news.

This is what being a human resources professional is really about. It’s not about resources, it’s about people.  They day we forget that, the day we set up a conference call to take away someone’s job, is the day we don’t deserve to work in HR.

Feel free to get your coat on the way out.


Stay away from my emails

I run a lot of wellbeing workshops and manager training. In most sessions, the subject of email use will surface at some point.  Often, someone will suggest that organisations should prevent email from being sent outside of office hours.  Sometimes they will have seen examples from other countries or businesses where emails are banned between certain times, or even prevented by IT systems.

I’m not a fan of this suggestion.

Just what are regular office hours anyway? If we assume that it’s 9-5 (or thereabouts) all we do is reinforce the outdated notion that these are the hours that people do / should work. If we banned emails outside of these hours then we limit the option for people to work flexibly or just simply when best works for them. It is just a whole new version of command and control management. There are already so many barriers to flexible working, this would be one more to overcome.

I was therefore pleased to see this research from the University of Sussex that will help me respond to this debate with evidence. The headline findings are that restricting email isn’t actually the nice simple wellbeing solution that some people think it is, and could actually do more harm than good.  You can find more information here.

When it comes to wellbeing, we are all different. One size only fits one.  What causes one person stress won’t even register with someone else.  The same applies to the question of what enhances wellbeing – there is no single approach here either.

Blanket policies and more rules aren’t the answer.  Neither is removing people’s control over how they work; we know that this only has the potential to cause even more stress.

Instead, if we want our employees to be well, we can start by treating them like adults, giving them autonomy and letting them work in the way that works for them.

Or is that just a bit too radical?

The often practiced art of non-work

Do you want to get some work done? Or do you want to do something a bit easier instead?

After a couple of decades of working in organisations large and small, I’ve concluded that there are many ways to ensure that nothing at all very much gets done. Here are the most popular ways of avoiding real work, making decisions, influencing real change or taking effective action.

To become effective at forms of non-work, consider this list.

First of all, if you don’t want any real work to take place, ensure that all meetings have at least 10 attendees. Responsibility for any actions will be so diffused no one will ever remember who is supposed to be doing what.  This works even better if the room is filled with people who have lots to say; it is inevitable that you will run out of time and a further meeting will be required to finalise the conversations.

The next best thing to a large meeting is to set up a Working Party. A misnomer if there ever was one.  The purpose of a working party is normally to look at a particular issue or undertake a discreet task.  Unless there are very well defined aims and objectives for the group, or determined timescales for completion, working parties can expand exponentially.

Run some Focus Groups. Decide that nothing can be done until you have some feedback on something from someone or other.  Ensure that, for  maximum non-work impact, multiple focus groups are held for separate stakeholder groups.  Report back the findings of a focus group to a Working Party.

Have an audit. Before any action can be taken it is a good idea to understand where you are now. So an audit of current practices / customers / stakeholders / external factors (etc) should be undertaken.  This could be completed by a Working Party (see above) for maximum inefficiency.  An audit will take at least six months, and the output of which will undoubtedly have to be reviewed by a committee who will have a meeting (see first point).  You can easily get a year of no work at all out of an audit if appropriately combined with other form of non-work.

Take a minuted action from a meeting. Guaranteed to kick the actual thing in the long grass until 48-hours before the next meeting when everyone will look at the agenda and work out what they haven’t done since the last meeting ended with relief all round.

Set up a sub-group to report to the main group / working party (no, I don’t know either, but I’ve seen plenty of them).

Hold a conference. First of all, a great deal of time and energy will be needed to plan the conference, including significant numbers of meetings.  Then there will be the conference itself, which, for those skilled at non-work can take at least several days of work time. There’s the (usual) daylong conference, and then some time required to set up and set down, send follow up emails and the like.  Typically conferences will have a plan for ensuring that the content isn’t forgotten and there’s follow up which most people recognise will never actually take place but everyone will pretend to dance.

Have a team-building activity (no good will ever come of this so just stop now).

Deferring a decision until the next meeting. This can arise in various forms.  ‘Taking something away’ is the main culprit.  Similar work terminating versions will include the need for further interim discussions (a pre-meeting before the next meeting), time for everyone to reflect, or a chance to consider how other organisations or departments might be tackling the same change.

Set up a committee. Like a Working Party on acid, many committees are nothing more than talking shops that create minutes, agendas, papers and buffet orders.  If you make sure that this is a committee with a large number of attendees, this will compound the inaction.

This blog post may feel a little snarky. It isn’t intended to be (well, maybe just a little bit).  There is a serious point here; in most workplaces there is always peripheral, life-sucking, value lacking stuff that gets in the way of the real stuff.  The stuff that makes a difference.

What do you want to be known for? Sitting in meetings and taking an agenda item away for further discussion? Or doing something that is real, valued, makes a difference?  There is of course value in some of the activities I have criticised. But not all of the time.  Not as the default mode of working or approaching any business challenge.

We can do real work, good work, better work.

Or we can perpetuate the bureaucracy.