Since Covid-19 closed offices everywhere, the workplace has changed beyond recognition. Home working currently accounts for than more than two-thirds of economic activity in the U.S. Now, about a year in, employees have settled into a routine of working from their bedroom, office, or kitchen. And managers have found new ways to communicate and engage with their staff.
With the pandemic normalizing remote work, the question is: Will we ever want to work in an office again? According to research, 55% of US workers want a mixture of home and office working. Liz Vaccariello, Editor-In-Chief of Real Simple at Meredith Corporation agrees that hybrid is the best option.
“All remote, all the time is not healthy, especially in media, where the creative process needs to happen in person,” says Vaccariello. “But as a creative lead, I don’t see the need for office hours to be Monday to Friday, nine to six. It’s just inefficient. Twice a week is good enough!”
Many businesses are considering this hybrid option and starting to think about a long- term model. So, what lessons have been learned during lockdown that we can take forward into this next phase? We spoke to industry experts at Complex Networks, Meredith Corporation, and The Financial Times to find out.
Communication pro tips
“The pandemic has put a focus on intentional and clear communication,” says Krystle Douglas, VP People & Culture at Complex Networks. “So, think about what it is you are saying, how you’re saying it, and how it’s received.”
While Slack is great for keeping in touch with your team and dealing with daily duties, you need to make sure you take the time to personally reach out to individual staff. “I’ve been checking in with everyone by calling them every two weeks,” says Vaccariello. “A phone call feels more intimate and it makes us feel more connected. This is even more true than when we were in an office together, where I was around, but not always available. Additionally, I personally mail each person a note about each issue, mentioning a story they worked on, or how they contributed.”
Surveys are also a great way to communicate, as the anonymity enables employees to freely express their opinions. The Financial Times (FT) regularly surveys their staff. Since lockdown Kirsty Devine, the company’s U.S. Head of HR & Global Project, says they have been targeting questions around well-being and working from home.
According to Vaccariello good communication starts with empathy. “Managers need to empathize individually and thinkabout each member of their staff and what they need,” she explains. “For example, when dealing with my younger team members, I think about my 22-year-old self. I ask: How would I be feeling?”
Douglas agrees that empathy is key to ensuring people interpret messages the way you want them to be received. “We are all busy, but you have to pause and pay attention. Everyone is dealing with a lot right now, but not everyone is ok with sharing it,” she states. “It’s about being more thoughtful in how you reach out and connect with people.”
Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone. However, according to research, it can be taught. The FT provides training and coaching on how to supervise staff according to their situation.
“Empathic leadership has never been so important, but not all managers are used to it,” says Devine. “In the office you can read body language. But with people working remotely they need to ask questions about how people are doing and not just brush off the response, which some people are uncomfortable with.
EMPATHETIC LEADERSHIP TIPS
The mindfulness app Headspace offers the following advice for empathetic leadership:
- Look: Check-in with your team and look for the unsaid. How are people’s energy levels?
- Listen: Give your team space to be open and honest about how they feel, both mentally and physically.
- Feel: Taking the time to acknowledge how someone else is feeling empowers us to respond with kindness.
- Respond: In times of high stress, it’s easy to let frustrations get in the way of skilful communication. Pause and give yourself space to respond in a kind way.
Flexible hours and expectations
With empathy comes an understanding of how people choose to manage their working day. This can be particularly important if they have other responsibilities, such as home schooling.
“Nine to five is out the door,” states Vaccariello. “Working during this pandemic is just about getting work done when you can.” You have to trust your staff to get their work done, at a time that fits in with their home life.
Giving them more autonomy, rather than constantly checking they are online, will cultivate a culture of trust, respect and ultimately hard work. “The work will speak for itself,” says Vaccariello. “If a team member can get their work done in five hours, good for them!”
Less can be more
The downside of flexible working is finding the “off button” at the end of the day. “The commute served as the emotional shoulder of the day,” explains Vaccariello. “You would read the paper on the way in to prepare for the day, and a novel on the way home to switch off. But now we have no practical or emotional boundaries. So, we work longer hours.
“Meredith may get more [time] out of us, but I don’t see it as a benefit. I want employees with a healthy work-life balance. if they spend 12 hours a day looking at a screen they are going to burn out, and that’s not good for business.”
It’s up to management to supervise their staff and ensure they aren’t working all hours. Real Simple has a “no meeting” policy on Fridays, so people can set their own hours and focus on creativity. Complex Network has Mental Health Friday, where the office is closed every other Friday.
Monitor mental health
It’s also up to management to keep any eye on their team and watch for signs of mental health problems. Of particular concern are employees who live alone because work is their main source of interaction. Research by TotalJobs found that 46% of U.K. workers have experienced loneliness during lockdown.
There are a number of things you can do to support staff, from offering virtual therapy sessions, to providing in-house mentors. The FT already had a network of employees with mental health training in place. Devine says they have been a great source of support during lockdown. The newspaper also offers an employee assistance program (EAP), which provides independent, confidential counseling and support 24/7. Plus, they offer to pay 50% of a Headspace subscription.
“Since lockdown we have also introduced five wellness days, which are paid days where staff can take a break to get their head together,” says Devine. “And we provide resilience training on how to manage yourself in a remote environment.”
No matter how much support you offer, nothing can replace the bonding and benefits of sharing office space. “Journalists in the newsroom are itching to get back to office. They miss those moments of serendipity, when they are working on a story and bouncing ideas between desks,” says Devine.
Without those watercooler moments, Vaccariello says you need to find new ways to kickstart a conversation for your teams – especially with new staff members. “We can’t grab a beer or have a welcome bagel party. So, to make new staff feel part of the team we play games on Webex. Or we go around and have everyone say something about themselves, such as a book they’ve recently read.”
Complex Networks has a similar system, set up by Douglas, called Complex Coffee Talks, where different staff members talk about their professional and personal lives. “I wanted to find a way to keep morale high, but also provide a learning experience, so that all employees understand what everyone else is doing,” Douglas says. “Because understanding is the route to empathy, which builds a stronger, happier workforce.”
While Covid has caused chaos around the globe, there is no doubt that some positives have come out of the pandemic. Workplace flexibility is one of them. It can increase productivity, decrease stressful commutes and save money on office space and travel expenses. But the key to successful remote working is good management and consistent support.
“It’s all about empathy, communication and understanding,” says Douglas. “You need to be in tune with your team, so listen and pay attention.”