Changing working habits

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people work, and evidence suggests many employees would like to keep working from home, at least some of the time, but to make it work employers need to formalise the arrangement, says RSM’s Philip Alexander.

“The challenge is to get productivity levels back to where they should be.”

Philip Alexander, RSM

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a big disruptor, with some arguing it has changed the experience of work forever, making working from home (WFH) the new normal.

Whether that proves to be the case remains to be seen. I do concede that there was a novelty associated with WFH—it was always interesting Zooming colleagues first thing in the morning, finding out who was up and who, having failed to disable their camera, was still in bed. It was also interesting to see the limited range of home furnishings available in Cayman!

For me at least, the novelty soon wore off. I was glad to get back to the office in the early summer.

While we are on the whole happy that RSM Cayman’s office is now open again, the senior management team does have a nagging doubt about whether we should embrace the WFH lifestyle and encourage our staff to adopt a more flexible working culture. These doubts originate from anecdotal evidence, and a plethora of surveys carried out by major firms operating in the financial services sector, suggesting employees would welcome some form of WFH. However, it’s not a one-way street: there are also benefits for employers.

At the tangible level, office space is expensive and cutting the office footprint, through having people WFH, can have a positive impact.

At the intangible end of the spectrum, staff should be happier and there may be productivity gains.

So setting aside my Luddite tendencies, I am prepared to accept WFH. The challenge is how to make it work for the employer and employee.

“Management should set clear criteria for considering WFH requests.”

Making WFH work

RSM Cayman stumbled into WFH, but the transition was surprisingly hassle-free. This was partly because we are predominantly an audit firm and the work we perform is very much project-based and task-focused.

Accordingly, our people knew what they had to do and hit the ground running. In this respect, it helped that we have a young and highly motivated team, who were able to adapt to the changing environment.

However, as lockdown continued, productivity went down. This coincided with the completion of the projects we were working on and the initiation of new ones. For WFH to work for us, the challenge is to get productivity levels back to where they should be. There are several techniques which can be employed to help make this happen.

From the employer side, the key is to set priorities, ensuring everyone understands what their future roles and responsibilities are. During lockdown, we had an artificial scenario which prevented teams gathering face-to-face, and the setting of priorities was more difficult. However, setting appropriate working protocols and remote meeting etiquette can address this.

Focused meetings, as opposed to rambling ones, help. On too many occasions, especially in the early days of lockdown, meetings tended to be unstructured and sometimes involved team members who either didn’t want, or need, to be there. These meetings covered too a wide a variety of topics to be useful. Through focusing meetings and better communication from senior management, we got a much stronger dialogue and could set priorities and targets such that we could monitor our progress and get our productivity back up.

Team members have an important role to play in this. At the start of lock down, working practices hadn’t been established. On day one, people arrived home, plugged in their laptops and got on with it. However, at this time we had no idea how permanent the remote working arrangement would prove to be.

“Health and safety responsibilities do not go away just because an employee may no longer be office-based.”

Best practices

Different people adopted different strategies for coping with the new arrangements. Over time we defined a set of best practices to optimise our working arrangements, which entailed:

  • Ensuring we defined our working day so everyone was available online for certain core hours, such that important but impromptu conversations could be organised without too many problems;
  • Encouraging staff to ‘dress for work’ to help them mentally differentiate between work and leisure time;
  • Organising a specific workspace, again to help differentiate the work space and to help get in the right frame of mind; and
  • Answering calls promptly, and always with the camera on.

We also tried to keep a fun element. We learned through the monthly rounds of Pictionary that none of our team had missed their true vocation as the next Picasso. The banter and joshing were important in maintaining our informal networks and giving the impression of normality.

These practices did help and have given us a foundation for what WFH should like in the future. We recognise that our emergent best practices will not be fit for purpose in the new normal, where WFH is more commonplace and we may have to develop and embed more formalised and permanent WFH arrangements.

However, before doing this it is important to establish whether there is a business case for doing this. All businesses are different, and in cases where there is no constraint on office space and where commuting times are low, the case for WFH will not be as strong as for business situated in a major conurbation, where office space is at a premium and employees may spend many unproductive hours commuting to and from work.

Management needs to be satisfied that it is something that employees want. Hearsay suggests that during the first part of lockdown, many employees enjoyed the freedoms presented by WFH. However, as time has passed, the lack of social interaction, particularly for young singletons, issues with caring for very young children, and the problems resulting from not having a dedicated workspace, have changed the perception of WFH.

If it is decided to push ahead with WFH then businesses will need to consider who is eligible to take advantage of the WFH policy. Certain roles need to be office-based, and in these instances WFH may be difficult. In addition, there may be employees where there are performance or other issues which might make WFH inappropriate. Requests for WFH may be turned down and management should set clear criteria for considering WFH requests and be transparent in determining who can take advantage of the policy.

Management should have the option to suspend or cancel the arrangement For example, project teams, with multidisciplinary skillsets and where there is a need for creativity, will often perform better when there is face-to-face contact. This may dictate the need for office-based working.

“Many would like WFH to continue into the future.”

Employees need to understand that the needs of the business trump their working arrangements. Employers, however, should be sensitive to upsetting established working arrangements.

Employees need to have the right physical and IT infrastructure to effectively WFH. The lucky ones among us have our own home offices and a good broadband speeds, such that the transition from the workplace to WFH was a seamless process.

Others will need to invest in an ergonomic workspace—setting up a work zone which is separate from their normal living environment. Employers can help by providing the financial and technology support, and advising on what the ideal home office set up looks like.

However, for the young or those with families, where living space is compromised, this may be a challenge. Such employees shouldn’t con themselves that WFH is a panacea to solve all of life’s ills.

Employers have a role to play in advising people how to successfully WFH. Communication is key to prevent an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mindset developing. Businesses need to go the extra mile to be inclusive to keep those WFH motivated and working in line with the business’ ever-changing priorities.

Finally, employers have a role to play in the welfare of their WFH employees. Health and safety responsibilities do not go away just because an employee may no longer be office-based. Similarly, the stress associated with day-to-day office life are likely be replaced by other stresses. Businesses and their human resources functions need to adapt their processes to the new environment.

For many businesses the COVID-19 pandemic forced a new mode of working. Many would like WFH to continue into the future. However, as we leave the lockdown environment and enter a new state of normality, the ad hoc nature of WFH, which was prevalent when the pandemic hit, will need to be formalised.

This presents challenges for employers and employees which will need to be addressed if the dual benefits of increased productivity and a happier workforce are to be achieved.

Philip Alexander is a partner at RSM Cayman. He can be contacted at:

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