Since the early 1900s, business as usual has meant a group of people congregated at one location to work 9am to 5pm, five days a week, despite all adversities, challenges, and disturbances. However, COVID-19 has put this into a tailspin with the heart of a business no longer being the office.
Flexible working has become an acceptable practice with 57 per cent of organisations planning to voluntarily adopt a work-from-home (WFH) policy. Although, it is crucial that management take into consideration whether this scheme would be suitable for their business and its people.
A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that WFH people spent 12 per cent less time in large meetings and 9 per cent more time interacting with customers and external partners. It also revealed that initiative increased across the board with employees doing 50 per cent more activities without being prompted by their boss.
However, employee efficiency and the broader success of a flexible work environment are greatly dependent on an individual’s drive, support structures the business puts in place for staff, and the culture of the organisation.
Situations where management are reluctant to WFH themselves or where they appear to be more engaged with those in the office, versus those working from home, will consequently impact their team’s willingness to adopt a new routine.
Aaron McDonald, managing director of Pragma Lawyers said: “[F]lexible working is here to stay. What I know to be true about flexible working is that it is cultural. In particular, this means in order for all staff to do it, management need to adopt it, otherwise junior staff won’t feel comfortable doing it.”
Professional service firms have generally benefited from flexible working with many experiencing increased productivity although, businesses that have a culture entwined with in-person interactions and face-to-face learning may find it difficult to adapt to a WFH situation.
It will be more difficult for those businesses that have a strong focus on juniors “learning on the job” from senior staff as virtual training fails to facilitate the opportunity to holistically observe how senior staff handle day-to-day situations and problems.
“… it doesn’t really work for professional staff at graduate level. They are at the firm to hone their skills and they can only really do that by being in the physical presence of more senior professional staff – what I refer to as ‘osmostising’ the learning,” said Mr McDonald.
Feedback on this has highlighted many instances where junior staff, who when physically present at a centralised workspace, had the advantage of limited distractions, increased concentration, and direct opportunities to interject training to ask questions and receive additional assistance from senior leaders.
This was on the contrary for those completing training at home, with it eventually becoming apparent that their skills and knowledge were inferior in comparison to their peers.
To overcome this issue, businesses will have to consider implementing strategies and systems that provide better learning opportunities for their people including one-on-one mentoring, shadowing of senior staff, question forums and possible training programs where staff are able to complete regular in-person training.
Those who fail to introduce flexible working arrangements risk falling behind their competitors as an employer of choice but, it is important for employers to weigh up the “pros” and “cons” of committing to a WFH scheme.
As the dynamic of business life continues to change, it is expected that the volume of people in the office will be significantly lower. This may see businesses pointedly reduce their office footprint, allowing for savings on leases to be redirected to better support virtual operations.
Businesses will also have the opportunity to reimagine their communal workspaces, turning them into inviting destinations, rather than a place that is only used for completing tasks. The design of workspaces will shift towards including collaborative zones consisting of open spaces that provide room for large communal working areas and team activities.
By providing appealing working arrangements, businesses could possibly avoid the “great resignation” that is predicted to occur in 2022 with 40 per cent of the global workforce considering leaving their roles.
An appealing workspace could help boost employee loyalty and team comradery as teams will have a “fun” space to meet, work and collaborate, all of which will increase employee satisfaction and morale as employees form stronger ties to their employer and teammates. Studies have shown that frequent in-person interactions lead to commitment, support, and cooperation among people in teams.
A decentralised workforce, due to more time working from home, could result in reduced commitment, creating a transient workforce. Employers may also become less sensitive towards having a local workforce and turn to using offshore workers if their people, despite all their efforts, continue to be disloyal.
As businesses emerge from the pandemic, they must remain focused on maintaining a strong workforce by ensuring that tactics are introduced to better employee learning opportunities and stabilise morale, productivity and loyalty. Prior to committing to flexible working arrangements, leaders must proactively plan and implement innovative strategies that will assist in the adjustment to a lack of bricks-and-mortar.