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So much of the HR mindset is rooted in the idea of staff working together in a physical community, the hive of a workplace.

The WFH revolution and the likelihood post-Covid-19 of more ‘blended’ ways of working means a new HR world and vision when it comes to how people relate to each other, managing engagement and relationships. 

Lockdown has been a test lab. There have been high-profile cases of how using remote technologies changes the dynamic and can catch people out: such as Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething, who was heard being abusive about a fellow Assembly member on Zoom by 20 other participants. But also, more generally, there’s been reports of how remote working creates new fault lines and pressures in team relationships and more potential for conflict. There have been many cases of an increased sense of togetherness among remote workers, battling adversity through lockdown, but this was a temporary phenomenon. The novelty and glow of community has been replaced by a growing familiarity with the realities of the ‘new normal’.

Through the professional standards of a working environment, dress and routines of how time is used, workplaces impose an instinctive sense of what’s appropriate in terms of manner and attitudes. Work has a particular look and feel – most of which is lost when employees are at home, leading to a change in behaviours made possible by distance and the use of IT: cyber-bullying via excessive contact via messaging platforms by managers; dominating video calls and not allowing others to speak; or messaging that’s just uncivil and aggressive by people freed from the conventions of face-to-face conversation. Virtual meetings make it more possible for people to feel excluded and bullied. It’s harder for managers to show empathy. All forms of communication between managers and line reports are more easily misinterpreted.

In this context of long-term, structural change in the nature of work, now’s not the time for reducing HR budgets. There’s too much risk from increased levels of grievances and conflict (particularly when remote working means electronic logs of evidence that can be collated and produced at any time); and too much risk of an impact in terms of motivation and productivity at a time when all organisations need their people to be flexible, resilient and contributing more.

More attention is needed to how complaint and grievance processes work, and what kinds of solutions are in place to help. Mediation, investigations – a great deal is still possible to be carried out remotely, avoiding the need to postpone or make finding a resolution even more painful for the people involved. 

At the heart of everything, there’s the need for strong conversation skills. Managers need the right skills to maintain good relationships with line reports and between team members remotely, keeping up the flow of open, honest conversations so important to ensuring there’s trust and a healthy work culture. That means having ‘Conversational Integrity’ –  an awareness of how they go about making sure they are listening, have self-awareness and empathy, and are able to deal with conflict rather than just look for ways to avoid it.

Richard Peachey, Workplace relationships consultant – CMP

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