Coronavirus has broken the mould in how most of us work. Almost all office staff are now based working from home, and many have enjoyed the benefits that brings; a reduction in the amount of time spent commuting to and from work, a greater degree of work/life balance, more time to spend with our nearest and dearest, a reduction in our travel costs and in our carbon footprint.
Many of us report eating better as we now have time to cook from scratch, we are taking time out to have lunch (no more eating at our desks), taking more exercise, are discovering new hobbies and are saving money on work clothes (suit and tie anyone?) and on our dry cleaning bills. All of which is positive and to be welcomed.
But what of the longer term? What happens when most of us have been vaccinated? Will staff want to or expect to return to the office, and full time? When we go back to ‘normal’ how can we ensure that working in a more agile way becomes a new way of working and not just simply something we did in response to a pandemic?
We know that working from home through a pandemic has been very different to what would have been a programme of planned agile working, but how can we use what we have learnt and the benefits we have taken from this time in our careers to reset our employment relationship and re-imagine work as it could be?
At the West Midlands Combined Authority, based in Birmingham but with staff scattered across the region, we engaged with hundreds of staff at dozens of webinars last year to talk about work re-imagined, and the art of the possible. We started with the premise that ‘work is something you do, and not somewhere you go’ and that agile working is open to everyone, not just office based staff – and certainly not just available to powerful groups in the organisation.
We based our discussions with staff around the idea that it is performance and not a culture of presenteeism which is fundamental to our success, and that trust based relationships are the key to a happier and more productive workforce. Importantly we’ve been open in saying that we value our people more highly than property.
We have found highly innovative ways to support staff as they learn to work in a more remote way, running workshops which help them to create their own healthy work environment, making the most of their space, time, and technology. These included hints and tips like using small blocks of deep work time free from distractions to focus on difficult tasks which require a lot of concentration and batch time to answer emails, do filing or for phone calls.
We also recognised early on that research showed that the benefits of homeworking in terms of employee wellbeing declined over time, so we developed a new wellbeing strategy to help manage long-term physical and mental health. And staff have responded really positively to that support with more than eight out of 10 staff telling us they feel comfortable with a future of flexible work locations.
This result is remarkable, particularly given the context in which we conducted the survey, in November 2020, when our region was in the highest COVID tier. It also compares well to our August survey when we asked the same question and nine out of 10 staff answered ‘yes’.
Having a positive working culture has been critical to the success of our Work Re-Imagined programme. We have a culture of shared values and behaviours where we instil the importance of collaborative working and good communications. Of course buy-in from the top has played an important part in what we have achieved; the key has been staff feeling that they have a real vested interest in the programme.
As we look forward to what we are calling Work 2021 and our Return to the Workplace strategy, we are acutely aware that one size doesn’t fit all. We know that for some staff their preference is to spend at least some time in an office where they can see colleagues and workmates face to face, share a joke over a cup of tea and, not just drop into a virtual kitchen in Teams.
So our strategy is to support staff however they wish to work, be that working in a hybrid way, working part time at home and part time in the office, working full time from home or working full or part time from partner locations. We are committed to exploring how we can support staff to do whatever enables them to be the best they can be.
Tracy Walters is head of human resources and OD at West Midlands Combined Authority