Updated: Jun 22
Are your employees feeling anxious about working from a physical workplace again – mixing with people, re-establishing work practices, navigating another period of change? What strategies are you putting in place to support your employees’ return to work? What are your plans for building future business resilience?
In this blog, I explore some of the key challenges of returning to work and redefining the new workplace, together with Joe Wood, Co-Founder & CEO of Wiseup. Wiseup are currently supporting businesses through their Revive & Thrive Programme working in partnership with businesses and utilising Wiseup’s community of experts across a wide range of sectors and specialisms – coaching, mentoring, consultancy & workshops. We also consider some of the steps you can build into your return to work planning.
I recently joined the Wiseup community as a Coach & Mentor, initially providing some Mentoring support for a job seeker affected by the pandemic. Having had several engaging discussions with Joe about the challenges faced by employers returning their employees to physical workplaces and the feeling of fear and anxiety being experienced by some employees, I was delighted when Joe invited me to get involved with the pilot for the Revive & Thrive Programme - 'Revive your business growth and people development strategy to become a post-pandemic high performer.'
The Revive & Thrive Programme is split across three stages:
Insights Sessions: Joe initially led the session with some insights from the last 12 months and looking at potential trends moving forward. The leadership team and employees were then spilt out into skilfully facilitated one-hour workshops with experienced performance coaches to explore strengths, expectations, concerns, and challenges, and to also think about future learning & development needs. I had the pleasure of facilitating one of these sessions which highly engaging and insightful.
Survey: Within 24 hours of the Insights Sessions, a short employee survey was issued by Wiseup who confidentially managed the process to encourage participation and candidness. The findings from the survey and Insights Sessions were incorporated anonymously into a report – see below.
Report & Review: Within 2 weeks of the initial Insights Sessions, the client was provided with an in-depth report summarising key findings, themes and recommendations that the client could action – some of their own volition and other actions supported by Wiseup. Joe and one of the performance coaches discussed the report in detail with the client and helped them to develop a follow up action plan.
Some of the themes we discussed were the psychological contract, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity & ambiguity), business & personal resilience and a strategic reset. I explore some of these in a little more detail further below.
Impact of Covid on Trust & Safety
I recently shared an article on LinkedIn taken from Psychology today that explores Hysteresis and the fact that it will take a while for us to feel safe again. Hysteresis is a term from cybernetics that describes "a lag in a system’s response to a change in input." The pandemic and lockdowns occurred very quickly, and it took time for most of us to adapt - a lag in our systems – before we settled into new routines. As restrictions are lifting, a greater hysteresis is occurring, e.g., despite vaccination, people are reluctant to revert to pre-pandemic behaviours - another lag in our systems – with uncertainty and anxiety still being prevalent.
Whilst hysteresis is in fact just in our heads, we can only overcome it as quickly as we feel safe to do so. The psychological contract and psychological safety have been significantly impacted by the pandemic and businesses’ responses and it’s critical that businesses focus on restoring this as a priority. During the recent pilot, it was apparent that individuals appreciated the opportunity to have access to a forum for discussion and exploration.
The psychological contract is an unwritten set of expectations of our employment relationship, distinct from the formal employment contract. Covid has changed every aspect of our lives and there will be an emotional legacy from some of the rapid changes that businesses implemented in response to the pandemic. Therefore, it’s important for businesses to pause and take time out to re-establish the psychological contract. Employee expectations will have shifted, for some quite significantly, and therefore, it’s prudent not to overlook this as it will only result in incongruence further down the line.
As businesses adapted to operating at a lower cost base resulting in restructuring and redundancies, any initial relief from survivors may be short lived and likely to be replaced by feelings of anxiety over their future and job security. Additionally, survivors may have feelings of guilt, anger or loss about colleagues who were exited from the business, furloughed, etc. Again, by providing a platform for employees to discuss their feelings and to get them out into the open, this will help to start re-building trust.
Psychological safety (mental & emotional) occurs when leaders create an environment for risk-taking that supports change without fear of negative consequences to an individual’s self-image, status, or career. One of the keys of psychological safety is that people feel comfortable voicing their opinions and do not fear being judged or afraid of retaliation. When bringing teams back together, creating a few ground rules on how team members interact with each other can help to develop a safe environment, even more so if the team is empowered to develop those rules themselves as they are more likely to take ownership. This may prove challenging with hybrid models and ideally should be developed in a face-to-face team meeting.
VUCA & Leadership
VUCA describes the constant, unpredictable change that was becoming the norm in certain industries. The pandemic has seen this spill over into all industries. Responding to VUCA requires you to avoid traditional, outdated approaches to management & leadership and day-to-day working. Instead, your focus should be on innovation, creativity, and collaboration which is even more critical moving forward. Cognitive and emotional intelligence skills will be critical.
One mistake businesses cannot afford to make is to adopt a business as usual (BAU) approach to bringing their workforce back into physical workplaces or adopting virtual / hybrid working methods. BAU needs to be redefined in response to the degree of change experienced over the last 12 months on both a personal and professional level, and in response to different employee expectations. The last 12 months has also pushed businesses to think outside of the box, revising service offerings / operations, etc. Now’s the time to pause and think of what’s been possible and what more could be possible.
New Workplace Expectations
According to a poll of more than 200 respondents conducted during a recent Gartner webinar, only 1% of midsize companies are planning on becoming fully remote organizations. On the other end of the spectrum, only 5% of midsize companies are planning on having all employees come back to the physical workplace. The remaining 94% will have some mix of in-office, remote, and hybrid employees.
Various research and surveys from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) show some interesting insights:
There is a real unmet demand around flexible working arrangements. This finding is corroborated by the Labour Force Survey, which finds that 9.3% of workers – equivalent to 3 million people – said they would prefer to work shorter hours and accept the cut in pay that comes with this. This finding suggests that for many, the 9-to-5 working day is too rigid, and policies such as flexitime (flexible start and finish times), compressed hours and part-time hours would better match peoples’ preferences.
Employment confidence has continued its upward surge and all sectors are currently experiencing a jobs recovery. A note of caution emphasises the need to focus on creating better jobs not just more jobs.
Creating a successful returner strategy is not an off-the-shelf process.
Employers are starting to recognise the value that experienced, returning employees can add to their business.
The case for reviewing job quality in organisations is clear with increased expectation for flexibility and security in roles and opportunities for development and promotion. With activity now picking up, employers should seek ways to strengthen their employee proposition.
The ADP Research Institute’s People at Work 2021: A Global Workforce View looked at 5 dimensions of working life including worker confidence and job security, workplace conditions, pay and performance, worker mobility; and gender and family. From this People Management consider some of the ways our working lives might change in the future:
Where you work – the report shows that 75% of the global workforce plan to change their living arrangements, suggesting that people are ready to move in terms of where they live and work. The report found that those working remotely – or from home – are no more likely than their colleagues in an on-site workspace to report that maintaining productivity is a major challenge for them (10% compared with 13%). This could mean more organisations move towards a post-pandemic hybrid working model.
What you’re paid - according to the report, pay precision is more important than ever. Almost half (45%) of workers are paying closer attention to their pay than they did before the pandemic, perhaps as a result of increased financial worries and more time to assess household income. More than one in four (28%) report having taken on a new role or changing roles due to job losses in their organisation and most of these (68%) received a pay rise or bonus. This could have an impact on how we view changing roles.
How you view job security - the pandemic has fuelled feelings of job insecurity, with optimism about the next five years falling – more in Europe than any other region (from 78% to 71%). The way in which various regions and sectors have remunerated their workforces will have an impact on this but we will all be having a rethink about who we work for, with one eye on future disruptions.
How well you balance work & home - two-thirds (67%) of the global workforce say they have felt forced to make compromises between work and personal life because of the pandemic. This is particularly marked for women and parents. Women report that stress management is an issue. Future job choices could depend on flexibility and how well an employer respects work-life balance, particularly as more parents are opting to home educate.
Case Study – Unilever
This week I was reading an interview in Time about the Future of Work in a Post-Pandemic World. The interviewee was Leena Nair, Head of HR at Unilever. She talks about reinvention and doing everything with the spirit of experimentation. Some of her examples were a 4-day workweek in New Zealand, a UK programme called U-Work where people who want to work for less months than they do today can do so and get flexibility and security, and U-Renew, where people can choose to get educated and take a sabbatical and Unilever pays their salary.
She also went on to talk about reskilling flexibility in the workplace referencing the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020 which shows that 40% of core skills will change in the next 5 years, and 50% of all employees will need reskilling to support business growth. Unilever’s ambition is for all employees to have a future-fit skill set by 2025 through reskilling in the company.
Strategies for your Return to Work Planning
While the desire may be to return to “normal” as quickly as possible, the reality is that the workplaces employees left behind in 2020 are very different to the ones that they are returning to in 2021. Businesses priorities should include clear communication, flexibility, safety, wellbeing, upskilling and innovation in recognition of another period of significant change:
Communicate return to work plans as soon as possible – many employees will naturally be feeling apprehensive about returning to work, particularly in terms of safety and wellbeing. Communicating upfront and regularly will help to remove some of the fear and uncertainty they may be experiencing. This should include details of safety measures that will be in place and how to escalate concerns. Remember to build 2-way communication into your plans.
Review your working arrangements policy – various surveys with HR & business leaders indicate that approaches to flexible working will impact on retention and attraction. Therefore, a hybrid model will be an attractive proposition for employees as long as it is well thought out and clearly communicated. Some businesses are using office spaces for collaboration and social connection. Think outside of the traditional boundaries of ways of working.
Provide a forum for your employees – think about ways in which you can provide a forum for your employees to discuss their fears or concerns, whilst giving thought to how best to facilitate this so that it doesn’t end up being counterintuitive. We found that by offering a facilitated forum, employees were able to discuss their feelings, felt heard and acknowledged, and then were in a better frame of mind to focus on moving forward and looking at opportunities for personal and professional growth. We also found that it was an opportunity for ideas generation.
Upskill your workforce – businesses need to think about upskilling employees to respond to new ways of working and changing technologies. New roles, activities and ways of working will emerge, and employees need to be skilled to match these requirements. A robust Talent Development plan is critical, not just for today but for future proofing so that businesses can be more agile, developing business and personal resilience for future challenges. Too often there is a lack of investment in learning & development and when times are hard, it’s usually the first budget to be cut. You owe it to your employees to invest in them so that they can be higher performing for your business. This is how you will truly make a difference.
Innovation, creativity & collaborations – most businesses I have worked in don’t focus enough importance on cultivating an innovative and collaborative culture, instead focusing on reporting and cost efficiency. New ways of thinking and new ways of working are critical as we move forward. Think about how you can create a safe haven for collaboration and creativity. A coaching client I am working with has carved out a weekly ‘creative hour’ for her and her team purely for ideas generation. I too carve out a couple of hours weekly for innovation and creativity – I change my environment, I get out my A3 pad, lots of coloured pens, grab a coffee and chocolate and remove any electronic distractions. I find it so relaxing to switch off from the electronics and really get into a creative space.
Wiseup’s Revive & Thrive Programme
Here Joe Wood discusses Wiseup’s Revive & Thrive Programme:
“The New Workplace programme gives you the opportunity to step back and review your business’ performance and post-pandemic transition with a number of impartial experts.
Wiseup’s experts are a diverse range of experienced mentors, accredited coaches and renowned consultants.
The programme is structured around three key activities:
Step 1 – Insight Sessions
- Skilfully facilitated sessions with a Wiseup Expert:
o One session between the leadership team and a Wiseup Expert.
o Sessions between small groups of employees and Wiseup Experts.
- The sessions give your teams a chance to share any observations, challenges and opportunities within the business in a supportive and thought-provoking environment.
Step 2 – Survey
- A follow-up survey is sent to the workforce to gauge further fully anonymous insights from all teams
- Questions range between views on the business strategy, the response to the pandemic, learning & development requirements and employee engagement.
Step 3 – Report & Review
- Drawing upon the information gathered in steps 1 and 2, Wiseup issues a detailed report to the business, containing our findings, observations, and recommendations.
- The Wiseup team meets with the business owner or leadership team to review and discuss the report collaboratively.
The insights gathered can then be used by the business to steer the business strategy, post-pandemic transition plan.”
If you would like to find out more about Wiseup either for yourself personally or for business support, details can be found at https://wiseupnetworks.com
References Below are a couple of links to the articles I reference, together with an overview of Wiseup's Revive & Thrive Programme.
If anything here resonates with you and you would like to explore coaching or an NLP breakthrough day, please do get in touch for an informal no-obligation exploratory call - 07791 863092 / firstname.lastname@example.org