Jenny Perkins, head of engagement at Cirrus, writes for People Management.

The UK government is now letting employers decide if the time is right to bring office-based staff back to work. So far, many have decided not to. In fact, British Chamber of Commerce research found that 62 per cent of employers expect some or all of their staff to remain working remotely at least for the next 12 months. Health secretary Matt Hancock has suggested that the right to work from home could be more strongly enshrined in law as it becomes “the norm”. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also said employees can carry on working from home “forever”.

When it comes to the future of work, there is no shortage of views on what the ‘new normal’ will entail. But one thing that researchers and commentators everywhere agree on is that remote working will become a lot more prevalent. 

So, what have we learned since we went into lockdown in March that could help us make remote working work well for employers and employees alike?

Although working from home has become increasingly widespread in recent years, not every employer actively supported it. Many felt that for employees to be really productive, they needed to be in the office. All too often, this stemmed from a lack of trust. Many managers like to see where their teams are and what they’re doing. Lockdown forced a sudden and seismic change as more managers had to let go and become more flexible.

Trust and flexibility are key as we take tentative steps back towards the office. It looks like many organisations will adopt a hybrid model, combining that time in the office with more remote working. As we enter this period of transition, leaders and managers have a critical role to play. 

When planning for the future, we need to ask employees what they want. We are going to see an increase in formal requests for flexible working, so be proactive about offering flexibility and choice. We can keep this conversation alive as guidelines and circumstances change. The future is uncertain, but if employees feel they are listened to, they are more likely to feel an active part of that future.

Every manager is now faced with challenges they have never had to deal with before. Many who have previously had a strong preference for sitting in a shared office space with their teams have had to make changes to their leadership style. This isn’t always easy, and organisations can provide valuable support. Virtual learning offers opportunities for development that can be implemented quickly. You may benefit from building skills such as virtual leadership and managing remote workers across your organisation. This learning can cover specific areas such as listening skills to help managers build that all-important trust. Coaching can also be invaluable during periods of transition, helping managers to reflect on their behaviour and find new ways to deal with issues.

A positive and supportive culture is of course key to building trust and keeping people engaged in our virtual world. And often getting together face-to-face helps us to build that company culture. Again, managers have a critical role to play in building this culture. Virtual coffees, quizzes and online events all help. However, ultimately great cultures come from employees feeling valued and trusted. Informal conversations, support networks, and a focus on wellbeing and work/life balance are important. Rewards and recognition help, too. Some big corporates, such as Citigroup and RB, have given all employees a day off as a thank you for going the extra mile during the Covid crisis. 

The role of manager as coach has really come to the fore in recent months. Many have found new ways of building relationships of trust as we support employees to adopt healthy and productive new ways of working. As ‘new’ becomes ‘normal’ we all need to keep building that trust and create the future of work together.

© People Management 2020.

Read this article on the People Management website.

Jenny Perkins talks to The Times about how employee engagement can boost business performance.

Discover more about employee engagement at Cirrus.

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