Agile working has been on the radar for most of us for some time now. We all know it claims to boost productivity and improve staff morale, but some have been wary of putting it into practice. A good friend of mine, who has a pretty senior role in a large global organisation, still had to ask her boss in the States for permission to work from home when waiting in for the boiler man. That’s a pretty extreme example. That said, for someone who embraces the concept, even I have had to have a quiet word with myself sometimes. And my experience is that business owners and managers have often “talked the talk” (especially in an interview or when chatting externally to their peers), but have actually struggled with the reality. The little devil on our shoulder telling us that people will abuse the freedom – or be ‘out of the loop’ - can be difficult to silence.
Yet suddenly employers have no choice. The enforced home and flexible working demanded by the coronavirus pandemic may well just change our way of working forever. For those of us already on this track, the transition has been more possible and less acute. The huge IT investment Burnetts has made in the last couple of years is now paying off in a way we could never have imagined. Even our desktop work phones are working in our own homes as if we were in the office. But, against a background of everything else (and there is so much else!), however ready our technology is, we all now face the challenge of engaging and motivating our employees remotely.
I could not be more proud of the team at Burnetts. The understanding and commitment of everyone has been overwhelming; and I don’t mind saying that it has nearly reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. We are all becoming familiar with Zoom team meetings, WhatsApp video calls and the chat groups and virtual quizzes that keep the office banter flowing. I have found the endeavour to keep my team engaged a time-consuming, but incredibly satisfying process - trying to speak to all of them as much as possible and being as open as I can be about this very uncertain time. And I know my partners in the firm are all doing the same. One commented that her team, who are in more normal times spread across our several offices, has actually never felt less remote. So, some of the practices of this exceptional period will be retained.
“Why are you doing so much social stuff on the computer with work now Mummy – you must be missing them lots”. Well, yes, I am. However good we are at “remote” team bonding, I still can’t wait until we can sit in a room together again - even if that becomes the exception, rather than the norm.
So, there is definitely some good stuff out there. But I want to know what else as managers we need to be doing. I turn to Shelley Hayward, who owns People Keepers, for a different perspective. People Keepers works with businesses and HR teams to support them in being great places to work, and in turn keep great people. They do this through Engagement & Leadership Programmes, Coaching and in-house Learning & Development support.
Shelley tells me that over the last 3 weeks she has had some of the most honest conversations she has ever had with leaders from across the county on topics such as trust, control and their own sense of purpose. She thinks that this crisis has made us all a little more human, and now it’s time to make our workplaces more human too.
She comments that, “Good managers will have already started to hone some of the skills required to do this – simple things like talking to our teams and finding out what they need to do their job and providing the space to get stuff done, without peering over their shoulder.
It’s all about a manager’s ability to create the environment for great work – not the environment for them to get promoted or to hit that KPI for their bonus – the environment for their teams to succeed. That takes courage, commitment and compassion.”
I ask Shelley what we can be doing to make sure we keep all the good stuff once this is all over. She tells me some of the advice she has given clients in the last few weeks:
REFLECT – We all know the stuff that got in the way of great work before this crisis and we also know the stuff that we are missing from this new world too. So, start by writing it down and don’t avoid points that may seem controversial. Also take this time to reflect upon your own leadership style – what approach worked before but maybe isn’t now? What talents have really shone through in this crisis? When working through this with one leader their response was, “I think I have been the problem, I want to know every detail. It’s because I care, but I think I may have slowed things down.”
TALK – This is where courage comes into it. Talk to your team members about your views on your workplace and approach to leadership. Share your reflections and invite them to provide their views. Do the same with your peer group too. Start the conversation to open a new dialogue on your world of work. Listen to your colleagues, what do they miss and what ideas do they have that could improve the current working environment? This conversation alone will help your teams know that you are thinking about the future and, by getting their views, you are demonstrating that you want them to be part of it.
PLAN – I’m not too sure what’s going to happen once we come out the other side of this crisis. Will we all just go back to what we did before, or will this instigate a more agile approach to work? Whatever the answer, as managers you have this unique opportunity to decide, but most importantly you need to get a plan in place. Don’t leave it to chance. “
This all sounds good to me. And if there is a time to be brave as managers and business owners, I think it is probably now. Shall we give it a try?