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The out of office is on – permanently

With social distancing in place for the foreseeable future, employees can be separated into two distinct groups: home workers and non-home workers. Those that have to leave home to work have been the focus of employer’s efforts to date, making workplaces safe for employees to return and implementing social distancing measures.

Whilst we’re busy creating two metre squares across our offices and factory floors (who’d have thought tape manufacturers would do so well out of global contagion?) it’s easy to consider homeworkers as a low priority. After all, they’re the ones tapping away on a laptop on the sofa whilst the cat grows increasingly worried their human may never leave.

This approach makes perfect sense but creates new hazards. Firstly, out of sight, out of mind. Do those who work from home still have access to the same opportunities and information as those who have visibly returned to the office? The fallacy that home workers are less committed, have lower productivity and are constantly distracted has been disproved many times, but for some managers being able to oversee staff at their desks is the only way they know how to manage.

Secondly, duty of care. With large swathes of the workforce working from home the focus for many employers has been on ensuring the technology infrastructure works. There has been significantly less focus on employee wellbeing. Not only is there a responsibility for the employer to protect an employee’s physical wellbeing whilst working, there must also be consideration of the impact of homeworking on an employee’s mental health.

Whilst it’s easy as an employer to assume all employees are responsible enough to remember health and safety in their own homes, experience should tell us this is unlikely to be the case across the entire employee population! So whilst we need to worry about new safety procedures and social distancing on business property, we must also ensure our people have the knowledge and tools required to work safely in their own homes.

We’re reinventing how work happens for millions of people, and we need to see that our people strategies are keeping up. This is especially true for mental health considerations. Many workers see more of their co-workers than they do of family and friends, and whilst family and friends are the ones who we’re most looking forward to seeing when lockdown ends, we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of not seeing our colleagues.

Yes, Zoom and Teams may allow meetings and conversations to carry on as before, but the casual, informal chats have been completely excised from the work experience. There’s no comments on breaking news, no gossip about colleagues or last night’s TV, no calling out answers during Popmaster. These small interactions, and the lack of them, have a disproportionate effect on employee wellbeing, not to mention idea generation and the informal relationships built up between teams and through the organisational hierarchy.

With so many new messages to be conveyed our learning strategies take on new significance. Off the shelf e-learning packages are easily deployable and can often be rebranded to match your business. Workshops can often be conducted as webinars with only a small amount of adaptation.

Working with other functions will help ensure the new format of your training programmes are delivered successfully. Marketing and sales teams are well used to delivering webinars to sceptical viewers. A crucial difference between in-person workshops and online webinars is time – a webinar viewer is not the captive audience someone trapped in a room is. Condensing information is key to successful webinars, and many subjects will probably have to be broken up into a sequence of webinars. Recording webinars for watching later on demand will also benefit your employees.

You can help employees manage their workloads around other home commitments through the elimination of unnecessary meetings. With schools unlikely to return to normality anytime soon and popping to the supermarket now involving a queue around the carpark, reducing fixed working times is hugely helpful to employees struggling to manage their lives.

Other organisations may have previous experience in managing a large number of home workers. Sharing knowledge, whether through ex-colleagues or contacts or through employer networks, can provide useful information about unexpected pain points around home working.

The next question to begin asking is what happens to your workforce when this is all over? Does homeworking continue for the majority of employees, with physical attendance required only exceptionally?  After all, having a significant proportion of employees wanting to stay at home is a real boon for employers worrying about how to enforce social distancing in their workplaces.

Employers will have to transition from homeworking as an emergency solution to home-working as the way people work now. This change was already happening; Covid-19 has accelerated that change forward by years. The software required to do this has existed for several years now and it’s unsurprising that technology businesses are leading the way on levering these advances to work differently. The public sector has also proved quick to adapt to the shift to homeworking, a consequence of working efficiencies driven by austerity.

We’ve also seen Twitter announce that employees can elect to work from home permanently. Jes Staley, boss of Barclays, has put London’s commercial landlords on notice that the big office is now likely a thing of the past.

Learning and development, performance management and employee wellbeing are all crucial parts of the employee experience that we as employers invest millions of pounds in each year. Now that everything has changed, are the strategies and tools you had in January still appropriate five months on?

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