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Building culture and talent in a remote environment

Chris Seel, Director - Harvey Nash Group

The Covid-19 pandemic put the spotlight on tech teams across all industry sectors like never before, as they worked flat out through the crisis to enable organisations to rapidly transition to a remote environment. The speed and success with which this was done is a credit to tech leaders and team members.

This year’s Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, that takes in the views of over 4,200 IT leaders across the world, finds that 86% of IT leaders moved a significant part of their workforce to remote working, and over four in ten expect more than half of their employees to work from home at least some of the time after the pandemic.

This raises significant questions for both tech leaders and the HR department. How do you maintain a strong culture and attract new talent if you have the physical assets like grand buildings, pool tables and quirky office environments to draw people? On the face of it, the employee offer has completely changed. A new deal is needed – this year’s survey shows that work location and remote working has risen to become one of the five most important factors for engaging and retaining key technology talent during, and after, Covid-19.

For many of the tech leaders that I speak to, these issues are top of mind right now. Children have returned to school and the time feels right for businesses to begin to bring more people back to the office. So what should the future model look like?

Positives to build on

Without doubt, there are many positives from the lockdown experience that organisations can reap the benefits from. Seven in ten tech leaders report increased collaboration between the business and technology teams as a result of remote working and over half say it has created a culture of inclusivity within the tech team. For many people, working from home has been a positive experience, enabling them to balance work and home, share child and caring responsibilities with their partners, and reduce time (and expense) taken up in the often wearing daily commute. With location less important, it could also open up opportunities to a more diverse set of talent. It could have a positive impact on gender equality too as working while also parenting or caring – which, in the main, has been a barrier experienced by many women – becomes ever more commonly accepted.

Issues to balance out

But while remote working has proved itself to be entirely feasible and effective, there are nevertheless signs that productivity has begun to wane the longer it has gone on. Although remote working has come as a boon to some, for others it does create significant issues. It may be easier to fit ‘life’ elements around work, but at the same time the boundaries become blurred and there can be little time to switch off. For those with children, it can be exhausting especially if the home space is not ideally set up. For those without children (or a partner), it can simply become lonely: isolation can grow.

These issues, together with the sheer pressure of work that tech teams are increasingly under, mean that concerns about mental health and wellbeing are growing. Our survey finds that 8 in 10 tech leaders are concerned about the mental health of their team. Seven in ten of those have put programmes in place to support their staff, up from just over half pre-Covid. This is an encouraging development – but at the same time it is an indication of the very real nature of the problem.

Keeping a sense of culture, team and identity

The danger of a much more remote and distributed system of working is that personal relationships and bonds become weaker. With that, the sense of loyalty and engagement to the business may decline. How do you build that back up if the brand that people work for has effectively become just a screen most of the time?

A number of aspects will be key. People-centred leadership skills will be critically important. Good leaders in a more remote environment are those who take a genuine interest in the welfare of their team, checking in regularly, listening and supporting. They maintain a sense of team and identity, so that everyone feels part of something even if they are physically dispersed.

Some organisations strengthen this team sense through internal social media or information sharing platforms; others may create a programme of online social events such as coffee meetings or chats (although these don’t work for everyone). IT leaders should work closely with HR teams to ensure the best mix of tools and options are in place. The common thread is to maintain and build a team culture where the vision and strategy are clear and individuals feel valued, supported and listened to. There are support resources and help available for those who begin to struggle, professionally or in terms of their wellbeing and mental health.

The role of the office

To retain a sense of brand and identity, there seems little doubt that it will remain essential to have physical spaces where people can come together some of the time. From the clients I speak to, this is particularly the case for projects that require an element of brainstorming, workshopping and collective thought. Sometimes, there is no substitute for bringing people physically together to bounce ideas around and form creative solutions to an issue or brief.

The question will become about finding the right mix of remote and office-based working. Establishing the expectations and guidelines around this will require some flexibility as the right balance is found over time. It will be a case of experimentation and listening to feedback.

Recruitment of new talent

Getting this right will be crucial for the recruitment of new talent too. Candidates will increasingly expect organisations to have a flexible model that supports different needs; they will be drawn to organisations who have retained a sense of identity and purpose rather than becoming a collection of individuals working at a distance. Quality of work will also be a key determinant, perhaps even more than it has been in the past. This is an easier proposition for tech businesses working on innovative products, than it is for some tech teams within non-IT organisations. Remuneration and benefits will also be critical – although no one wants to see a bidding war for talent break out.

It’s essential that tech leaders, liaising closely with HR, take the opportunity that exists right now to actively debate, discuss and listen to team members about the model for the future. We are still in a discovery phase and will be for a number of months to come. The businesses who get it right could begin to build a new model that really supports a creative, productive and well workforce – giving them a huge cultural and commercial advantage over their competitors.

The 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey was launched today. To register for the launch events, or for a copy of the report, click here

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