Pandemic opens up new working model options for employers
BY JONATHAN KENT
The great work-from-home experiment forced upon many employers when the pandemic struck Bermuda in March 2020 will lead to changes likely to last long after the worst of Covid-19 is behind us.
As the pandemic fades, employers must decide whether they mandate a return to the office, whether staff are offered the option to work from home all the time, or whether there will be a hybrid model requiring a certain number of days in the workplace. There are numerous options. And employees who don’t like what their employer decides may look for somewhere else to work.
Before the pandemic, 5 per cent of work in the United States was done remotely – now it is 40 per cent, according to statistics reported by The Economist newspaper. And while 27 per cent of employers were allowing flexible hours in 2019, the figure has risen to 88 per cent today. A sea change has taken effect in less than two years.
Jenny Smatt, president of Ontru, a firm that advises on human-resource management and business strategy, says the “silver lining is that there are so many possibilities we have learnt for the way we do work”. She said the pandemic had led organisations to consider not only where work was done, but also how.
“It’s highlighted the question of how effective our professional relationships are,” Ms Smatt said. “Are they working and where are the opportunities to improve those relationships? Moving forward, it’s causing a change in a number of businesses in the way that they do work and interact with their customers, as well as the way that teams interact in order to be effective.”
Remote working has required managers to communicate differently with teams and with colleagues of different generations. Millennials, for example, are likely to be more comfortable with communicating quickly and frequently via digital channels than some of their elders.
Overall, the need to react to a fast-changing environment has forced many to examine their own operations, Ms Smatt said. “It has stressed the need to be adaptable and agile. There cannot be one way of doing business. And we must be focused on results.
“I’ve seen a huge shift in the way businesses are thinking about the way they get things done. This model is dependent on thinking through what success looks like. How we get there is not as important as whether we get the work done and done well.”
While some businesses are reliant on customer interaction and need staff back in the workplace, those with the option of continuing to work remotely may do best to get feedback from their employees before mandating their future working model, Ms Smatt suggested. Integration of some flexibility within a hybrid model will help to accommodate colleagues’ different preferences.
Those intending to mandate a full return to the office should engage with employees, she advised. “Some individuals feel they’re more productive at home. Talk with them about why that is and how we can leverage that – maybe blocking off two mornings a week without meetings, maybe working from home two days a week. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing discussion.”
Failure to engage could be costly in terms of potential talent loss. A survey by FlexJobs in the US found that 58 per cent of respondents would look for a new job if they could not continue remote work.
Argus Group is one Bermuda employer who has listened to staff and built a new working model to accommodate differing working preferences, while striving to ensure that customer service levels are maintained.
Kellianne Smith, senior vice-president, People Americas at Argus, said feedback from staff was that working remotely has had a positive impact on their work-life balance and job satisfaction. There were some, however, who loved working from the office and could not wait to get back.
“So, by design we have been able to offer a hybrid option, which enables those who prefer the office to come in, while also giving those who prefer flexibility – for reasons including family commitments, a reduced commute or the benefits of quiet, focused time – the option to work from home,” Ms Smith said.
“With our hybrid model, colleagues can rotate in and out of hot desk spaces and offices that are configured for collaboration with innovative, shared spaces. We believe this model embraces the freedom that most of our colleagues crave after working from home for months.”
Some staff have said the Argus return-to-work model is “an excellent attraction and retention tool”, she added.
“At Argus, we recognise that the needs and desires of our workforce have shifted due to the pandemic. This has been a focal point of our ongoing discussions and we have reimagined our internal policies and procedures to align with that vision.”
Argus has found that since remote working started, productivity has held up well. “In fact, in many cases, we found it was enhanced,” Ms Smith said. “We were extremely impressed with how successfully our colleagues adapted to new technologies, showing agility and creativity in the way that they work and collaborate. As a result, this shift has not affected our client service delivery or strategic output.”
The company’s support for its managers in the remote working environment included resource scheduling flexibility and performance management training, Ms Smith said.
Argus is also mindful that customer service should be unaffected by the numbers away from the office at any given time. “For roles which require an on-site presence, such as frontline operations for walk-in customers, property management and digital teams, we are keen to ensure that we have enough staff covering those areas to yield the best result for our clients,” Ms Smith said. “Their experience always comes first, so whatever changes we make, we make certain our customers are not negatively impacted.”
Seeking regular feedback from employees has revealed starkly differing preferences between those who love the collaboration in the office and those who have enjoyed working from home so much that they would rather operate remotely full time.
Ms Smith said: “Our biggest takeaway is that they value flexibility, and we are happy to acknowledge where remote working has proven more effective and are prepared to balance scheduling accordingly.”