Can forced change be a good thing?

by Jenny Bowes | Dec 21, 2020

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This year has brought a single focus to a single issue in a way that has not previously been experienced by humans on this scale. Every one of us currently alive on the planet is potentially impacted by Covid-19 in one way or another, and whether we are consciously aware of it or not. And our children and their children and their children beyond will also be affected. This incredible external, global forced change is changing who we are as individuals, on the inside as well as the outsides of our lives, how we think about ourselves and how we work.

We have examples from the past – those images of the Berlin Wall being torn down or terror of 9/11. We know how these events created ripples of social and economic changes that can take years to play out and mature.   Covid-19 is no different but is much bigger as it touches every part of the planet and every aspect of how humans live and work together, raise children, feed ourselves, stay connected and create sustainable communities.

So what does the future look like? Maybe the question is more accurate as what could the future look like? And specifically, what could the future of our businesses, the cultures of our organisations, be like?

Remote working is here to stay

The phrase “the new normal” has become, well, the new normal! We think that it’s more like “the new different”, to coin a phrase from the recent HSBC ad campaign. Not that we are promoting HBSC over any other bank, but the messaging around opportunity, positivity, different outcomes and the future, is significantly different than say, Lloyds, with their current campaign with themes of tradition, stability, heritage and family.

Here at TBG, we are more aligned with the values HSBC are promoting and so we are leading change and growth within our own organisation and with clients every day.  Change has always been our normal. And this year we have noticed a new difference – Covid-19 has been a catalyst for immense forced change and so those that see the opportunity are going for growth.

And there are smaller, more ordinary changes that continue to happen and these can be just as impactful in a business – a change in leadership personnel, a new product or competitor entering the market to name a few. But the opportunity offered by COVID-19 has already significantly altered our environment and workplaces and it’s up to us to use this to our advantage and to create a great new different.

People want flexibility and better health

According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, 99% of people surveyed said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers, with a flexible schedule, working from any location and having more time with family all cited as factors driving a growing number to consider remote working.

There have been many examples this year of businesses being forced to switch to remote working almost overnight and doing so very effectively, and finding positive results from this. For some organisations, the pandemic and lockdown accelerated an existing plan to move to remote working, in some form and scale. Many businesses have already chosen to continue this approach for the foreseeable future.

However, being told from one day to the next to work at home is very different from having choice and flexibility with your own work schedule. Being able to plan to work from home, or at short notice in case of an emergency is something that current research from within organisations and externally is something that many people now want. Many have wanted it for some time, but the lockdown impact has shown people both the benefits, and disadvantages.

We know that working from home is good for the planet (reduced emissions from air and road traffic) and good for many people. It’s not for everyone, either by the nature of their work, home circumstances or personality preferences, but many of us really value the choice and flexibility of a mix of home and office-based working.

And it’s good for our health. According to the BBC, an average commute is 54 minutes, so that’s nearly two hours a day for millions of people, recording higher levels of stress when they have to use a number of different forms of transport.

So do we think that business will return to the new normal? No, we don’t. We know now what remote, home-based working is like. Businesses have created solutions for remote working and will refine and improve these moving forward. The benefits are obvious and tangible. Adding increased choice and flexibility as the vaccination programme rolls out and more workplaces can re-open does not mean that everyone is coming back into the work place for the same hours each week as before.

Many many people are experiencing an improved work / life balance, greater creativity and focus working at home, the option to manage daily life more easily and greater empowerment, ownership and accountability because of the nature of remote working creating the space for people to think and work things out for themselves, rather than also having their boss or a colleague close at hand.

The benefits are many, for many, and overall have greater weight for most than the negatives, homeworking is simply not for some, for many reasons. It’s important to point out the potential negatives so that you as an employer can design a longer term strategy that will be fair, transparent, flexible and supportive.

Homeworking isn’t for everyone

If, for example, you live with an abusive partner, have caring responsibilities for children or adults, lives with a family member with mental health problems, or perhaps in small or overcrowded accommodation, working from home can be a nightmare. Employers must not force anyone to work from home if the office is a space of safety, respite and care for them. You have a duty of care to every individual and if you suspect someone in your team is struggling in their domestic environment, for whatever reasons, please reach out and ask them what you can do to support them.

For most however, flexibility is the key and agreeing a weekly pattern with your team members for who is in and who is out of the office, choosing to come in for team meetings, training and events, regular catch ups is a great way to offer choice. Your team can figure this out for themselves so how about bringing them together to do this?

If we work from home, how do we live at home?

So whilst many of us value the flexibility of working from home (or indeed anywhere that may suit us!), there is an obvious downside. How do we define the boundaries of work and not work? This is in terms of our time, focus, attention as well as the physical space.

We can pretty much all get online anywhere at anytime. We are used to our phones and devices pinging, binging and singing away to notify us of emails, messages, upcoming meetings, the latest news and so on. Many of us are so used to having our work time scheduled to the last 15 minutes every day. We are no longer commuting so many are finding the working day has simply been extended into that time, 108 minutes on average a day. Whilst a commute may be stressful, at least for some it meant no more work for the day.

Learning to manage the new different

So how do we learn to manage that, learn to properly switch off mentally, emotionally and physically, when it’s time to go home? But when we are already at home?

We need to be aware of our own mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. We are working and living in different rhythms now, so it pays to pay attention to how and what you are feeling, as much as to your team members’ wellbeing.  Talk about it. Create space on your team meeting agenda to ask. It’s harder to get the visual cues and non-verbal signal that someone is struggling online, so it takes intentional effort, a dedicated space and an open, authentic approach from the team leader to understand and listen, just let people talk.

The risk of not doing this is that relationships and connections within the team will be damaged, because even if we spend all day online with our team members, it’s just not the same as being in the same physical space. Neuroscience teaches us that we the vast majority of us need physical closeness, appropriate touch, sharing informal time together to bond, stay and feel connected to each other.

According to a survey conducted last year by DigitalOcean, 82% of US tech professionals who work remotely said they feel burnt out, with 52% saying they end up working longer hours and 40% believing that they are expected to contribute more than those who do not work remotely. However, they did report having a better work-life balance.

So this needs managing carefully and consciously. A simple daily check in practice is invaluable. We do this at TBG and use 30 minutes every morning to fill each other in on what we worked on the day before, what’s coming up for the day ahead and just how we are, what we are feeling and what’s going on for us. It’s sometimes more chatty than work-based, but always valuable, productive, supportive and useful.

We teach this as a Team Inclusion Practice, with multiple applications and styles, on our OKR Coach Academy programme.

Commercial property is on the decline

Amidst the daily Covid figures and other global and domestic news, the phrase “bounce back” is something we keep hearing. This might be in relation to the economy overall, or a specific sector or industry. For some sectors or industries, a return to the new normal is their only focus, and that makes sense for a hairdressers, a manufacturing plant or a coach company. It doesn’t make sense for many other industries and this is where we are back to the idea of the new different.

This applies directly to the commercial property sector. Already we have seen large corporations and smaller businesses retreat from their expensive city-centre office locations and plan for a downsizing strategy. Creative industries and tech businesses may find it harder and harder to think of valid reasons to retain the overhead and instead invest in better tech to support flexible remote working. We think this is highly likely and will also impact on the emerging start-ups that got kick-started into life during 2020.

And if a business chooses to retain physical office space, it’s more likely to be used on a rota, with dedicated hot-desking or booked on and as and when needed basis. Clients may also be more likely to choose remote meetings, rather than travel and will expect to be offered the choice at least.

Great results can be achieved remotely

Organisations have shied away from home and remote working for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons are to do with infrastructure and investment in technology to enable this. Some of these reasons are cultural and to do with the level of trust (or lack of it), psychological safety (or lack of it) and mindsets of leaders and managers.  Micromanagement can become a feature of daily life for those who have requested homeworking and been granted permission to do so!

2020 has now been a long enough and different enough year for us to understand that it is a myth that people don’t work hard if they are working remotely. In fact, there is a huge evidence base of an explosion of creativity, innovation, high performance, outstanding outcomes and huge learning.

So, if you are now like others, considering the longer term strategy for your business as we commence the new different, is remote working here to stay for you? Do you need conventional office space, at all, or in the form that you currently have it?

Watch out for bumps in the road

For many industries, a permanent transition to flexible home / remote working is already happening. And it’s not always a smooth journey. industries, working from home is a very real and sensible option.

According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Working report, 19% of workers said that loneliness was their biggest struggle when working remotely. 

Humans need interaction, connection and to feel a sense of belonging in order to be able to learn, contribute and grow together as a team. There is no doubt technology can help with this, used well and with balance. Expecting someone to be online, on Zoom, all day every day is a really poor choice for a manager and leader. Having an online place that you can drop into, like a shared kitchen or hang out space,  is a great way of keeping your team connected. Maybe just have lunch together now and again.

Use the great platforms that are out there for their intended purpose. Provide multi-channel communication so that not everything comes via email. We recommend using programmes such as Slack and Trello for business communications but use WhatsApp for informal communication. Zoom is great for meetings and training sessions. Learn to use the feature in Zoom or Teams or your other online spaces. Learn to facilitate an online session. Don’t assume you can or should run it like a face to face meeting. People need more and longer breaks. You have to take account that slow or dropped connections are likely. But there is still room for creativity and doing new things differently, to keep online time interactive, energising and productive.  We offer training in online facilitation in our OKR Master programme.

What stays from our old ways of working?

Of course we still need to set goals and objectives. Or OKRs if you are using them. And it’s not different when working remotely in terms of the principles, flow, cadence and process. But checking in on progress and checking in on the wellbeing of your team becomes even more important, because you can’t walk over to their desk and see how they are getting on.

So what stays from the old normal in the new different is this: connection with and care for ourselves and colleagues. A focus on growth and innovation, delivered by a team working together, learning together, contributing and challenging together. Shared successes and celebrations.  Looking back, review and reflection. All of this stays. It’s the way that we do it that is the new different – more consciously, more listening than telling, more engagement than directly, with more awareness of self and others.

So how can we help?

TBG has adapted to working remotely. Our small and growing team have a variety of flexible working arrangements including home working, remote working and office-based. We do things differently as suits each of us and we have the flexibility for that.

We do what we help our clients do: we stay focused on our objectives with regular check-ins. We pivot OKRs for shorter timeframes if we need to.

We talk with businesses around the world every day who are looking for support with their ideas, strategy and implementation of their version of the new different, after the pandemic and beyond. A key issue in our discussions is how to keep teams aligned and on track when working remotely.  OKRs do this, it’s built into the DNA of the approach and processes, the principles and practices.  So if you want to hang on to what’s great about how your teams were working together before the pandemic and build on the opportunities Covid-19 has created, we’d recommend OKRs as a really great way to do this.