As we mark a year since the first UK lockdown was announced, Chris White speaks to some of our team and takes a look at the impact remote working has had on business and how a successful company culture can be maintained – and developed – even when people are out of the office.
Working from home throughout the different stages of lockdown in the UK has meant a whole world of new business challenges for owners and employees alike, but as we start to take our first tentative steps towards the light at the end of the tunnel – and reach a year since the announcement of the first UK-wide lockdown on 23rd March 2020 – it’s clear to see that ways of working have changed, and so has the way in which we develop a company culture.
Twelve months ago we had no idea what lay ahead of us and many were in the early stages of trialling working from home to ensure that employees were able to, should Covid-19 and government legislation require us to. What this led to was an era of remote working unlike any other, with companies bringing in brand new work from home policies and those already offering a limited amount of remote working were required to adapt their strategy to accommodate the needs of their employees.
Fast-forward to 23rd March 2021 and we’re on the verge of being able to get back to something resembling normality. Vaccination programmes are progressing well, infection rates are reducing and there are indications that we might all be able to work together in an office once more in under 100 days time.
Here we’re going to take a look at how things have changed since our last days in the office together, and how companies can develop successful company cultures even when remote working becomes a part of a normal working week.
How has the way we work changed in the last year?
The occasional work from home day was nothing new with people often asking to stay at home to work in order to take deliveries or look after their children, and some companies – such as Meet Hugo – had a policy in place that permitted one work from home day each week.
In many ways this enabled these businesses to move fairly seamlessly to a remote way of working, but for those who did not have such policies it was more of a challenge. Equipment was bought at great expense to enable people to work from home and then the work dried up putting jobs and entire businesses at risk. Fortunately, the furlough scheme enabled companies to grant a period of leave to employees while ensuring that they received 80 per cent of their wages each month, and there are signs that businesses are gearing up to return meaning people will be taken off furlough and brought back to work – either remotely, or in person.
While returning to work, for many, is very exciting it does present further business challenges, and can even give cause for anxiety among people who have joined businesses during lockdown and are yet to meet colleagues who they have worked alongside remotely for a number of months.
It all has the feel of the first day back at school, or the first day of a new job. Walking into the office for the first time after lockdown will be a great day for many, but for others there will be a nervous anticipation of finding their desk and meeting colleagues in the flesh.
At Meet Hugo we trebled our workforce during the first national lockdown and while many were hired over Zoom or without a face-to-face interview, we tried to develop an almost instant company culture to welcome them by getting all of our new starters together prior to their first days in the office after the lockdown was lifted. We found that this was a great way to break the ice and to introduce people to each other rather than the sometimes awkward tour of the office and departmental introductions, and are delighted that these new starters formed an almost instant bond and have remained with us throughout the last year.
Business owners around the world will tell you that onboarding new team members during a national lockdown wasn’t ideal, there are a series of benefits to having people working remotely both for the business and the employees affected. It has forced business owners to take a look at the way in which employees are trusted to work independently by managing their time and responsibilities to hit their targets rather than being micromanaged, and there has been the freedom to employ people from further afield rather than the immediate geographical area because of the far greater ways of remote working with the benefits of the cloud and video conferencing platforms.
Some companies have taken the approach of equipping staff with laptops and equipment in the past few months, finally moving away from their tried and tested desktop PCs in the office, while others are reaping the benefits of investing in company laptops far earlier as they haven’t had to fork out on new equipment during lockdown. This has meant that staff are fully up-to-speed with the ways in which their devices work and have been able to go about their business as usual – perhaps with the added challenges of childcare and other distractions at home!
Our CEO Ben Harper gave his thoughts on remote working and the challenges we have faced as a business. “We adapted to working from home quite quickly, as we already had the tech and policies in place to enable this in our business”, he said.
“90 per cent of the time remote working is working great for us. The main area we struggle with is when it comes to product innovation and collaboration around new changes. Like most we find being in one room much easier when it comes to these in-depth problem solving discussions and look forward to all being back together again to make those a reality, but remote working has certainly been beneficial for us without a doubt.”
Is working from home proving popular?
A lot of people were, understandably, worried about working from home when the lockdown was first introduced. How were they going to juggle hectic schedules with hectic lives at home, and how could they ever push for a promotion or pay rise when nobody was on-hand to see the sheet amount of work they put in?
As with most things over the last year, we have adapted and thrived. Businesses have had positive feedback on remote working policies and employees have been able to find new ways of working and coping with their schedules that haven’t impacted too greatly upon their family lives.
There is evidence to suggest that companies are more likely to maintain their new working from home policies than revert back to their previous methods, based on the successes of recent months. Trusting employees to get their work done, while also balancing a personal life and the challenges brought about by working away from the office, has meant that businesses can continue to offer the same services and hit their deadlines, so why revert back now?
Instead of offering work from home days as an occasional perk only utilised because of a domestic issue or childcare emergency, businesses are looking to permit team members to work from home on a more regular basis until they are completely comfortable returning to the office on a permanent basis; but even then the weekly work from home day is likely to be something that is used more often rather than being available but not taken up because of preconceived challenges that are no longer the case.
Why not? Let’s be honest, we’ve all been forced to adapt over the last year and we’ve developed new routines and ways of working, why throw those skills away? Provided that people are checking-in with the office and provide plenty of notice of their intention to work from home on a certain day, combined with clear guidelines on working hours, getting fresh air and taking plenty of breaks why shouldn’t home offices continue to offer a comfortable, practical workspace that requires little more than a 10-step commute.
There have been fewer meetings and distractions that take up people’s time with little or no understanding of why they are happening or why they were needed to attend. There have been fewer mornings when they have been running late and found themselves trapped in traffic on their drive to the office as a result. Those with young families have been able to spend time with them while balancing their workload, and the traditional 9 to 5 daily grind might just be a thing of the past with remote working enabling people to – up to a point – work the kind of hours that suit them and their teams.
All of this has combined to create a much happier working environment for those still in the workplace, those working remotely and those excited about getting back to work.
Meet Hugo’s Customer Success Manager, Becky Cunningham, said “As with anything, working from home has definitely come with its range of benefits and challenges which I know I am not alone in saying. The difficulties with Wi-Fi connectivity, lost ‘mute’ buttons during video calls and trying to manage a team whilst homeschooling has been a test of willpower on many occasions. Having said that, I have been lucky enough not only to be able to work from home, but also to grow and build a successful team who have adapted and proved that working from home does not have to stop you from achieving your working goals.”
Our Partnerships Manager, Emma Derbyshire, had similar views on the pros and cons of remote working. She said “Meet Hugo has always had an open policy with working from home and flexible working hours which is, in my opinion, absolutely essential for businesses today. An opportunity for mutual respect and trust to be built between employee and employer”, she said.
“Amongst my friends and colleagues, working from home seems to be a little bit like marmite. They either love it or hate it. I think as the pandemic has gone on the novelty of working from home has been replaced for many by boredom and a desperation for face to face interaction with colleagues and clients. Personally, working from home is great for one or two days a week but no matter how good Zoom or teams are, nothing can replace the value of face to face meetings and contact in the working world.”
It’s understandable really that there would be differing views on remote working, especially a year on from it becoming the ‘norm.’ There are likely to be plenty who have enjoyed it, and plenty who have struggled to find the motivation to work from home, similarly to how homeschooling has affected children around the country.
So are companies likely to maintain their remote working policies? The likely answer is yes, to an extent, although there are some – like Emma – who might not be taking them up on it right away.
She added that “I fully expect that once we are all allowed to be back in the office together – it will be a while again before anyone wants to take advantage of our pre-covid working for home policy!”
What have business owners done for their employees?
In addition to the great investments for employees in terms of equipment to work from home like laptops, keyboards and even additional monitors; businesses have invested in a wealth of video conferencing systems and new policies that will make remote working much more frequent – and simpler – in the years ahead.
It will also result in a change in the way that offices are configured in the future with companies perhaps even investing in smaller premises and more permanent hot desks with the perception that people will take them up on the offer to work from home in the months and years ahead.
Of course, over the last few months businesses have had to cope with a lot of new requests to work from home and for additional equipment to make that simpler, and many have been incredibly receptive to the ideas despite the need to tighten their belts as work on behalf of clients has slowed and income has dropped.
Emma, who heads up Partner With Meet Hugo as part of her role, gave her account of what Meet Hugo has done for her during lockdown. She told us that “Everyone at Meet Hugo made sure that we all were comfortable working from home – encouraging us to take all of our usual desk equipment home and ensuring us that anything we needed could be ordered ASAP. The laid back attitude towards it all made it an easy transition between office and working from home life.”
It goes without saying that the way we work has changed, and that after the pandemic things won’t be normal immediately, but they will certainly be more positive. Whether working from home or from the office, there will be pros and cons but there will be opportunities to improve processes and the morale of each employee, each department and the business as a whole.
A successful company culture can be developed anywhere provided that employers and employees are willing to pull together to do anything they can to take the company forward while looking after each other at the same time. Whether it’s a Zoom call with those working remotely, or buying the coffees for your department on your way in on a Friday, a successful company culture is likely to have already developed and it’s now a case of maintaining that and ensuring that people are just as happy when they settle back into a new routine.
Top tips to develop a successful company culture through remote working
Whether you’re ready to welcome people back to the office or not, it’s important that you’ve got the steps in place to ensure that everyone is still happy in their working environment, and are ready to hit the ground running when they do return to the workplace on a full-time basis – whatever that routine looks like.
So, here are our top tips to ensure that you develop a successful company culture even while you’re still remote working:
1. Check-in on everyone – but not too much.
People’s wellbeing is of paramount importance, more so given the year we’ve just had. While a lot of people will think that daily catch-ups are excessive and time away from the work they need to get done, checking in on people to see how they are coping working from home can make all the difference.
If you take an inadvertent “out of sight, out of mind” approach then you might find that people are struggling to adapt to remote working and being away from people, and that daily catch-up to ask how they are and if they need anything can make all the difference to them, and also shows that you value them as people, not just employees. You don’t even need to chat about work!
2. Ensure that employees have what they need.
When they continue to work from home it’s key that they have everything they need to do their duties to the best of their ability. With more businesses going back to work, more will be expected of people to deliver work as they would have pre-pandemic, and that might mean that the equipment they have made do with for the last few months is no longer adequate.
By asking if there is anything in particular that they need in order to work more efficiently, and then delivering on that request by ordering new devices or software and having it sent to their home can help them to develop their home office into more of an office environment, making the transition back to the office even more seamless – and they have the added benefit of having access to the latest equipment already.
3. Give people the option to work in the office, or remotely.
When restrictions are finally lifted and you have ensured that the workplace is both ready and safe to welcome employees back regularly, giving people the option to continue working remotely will give them that peace of mind that they can get back to work in their own time – rather than being dragged into the office full-time after a year away.
It’s going to be an anxious time for a lot of people and providing them with the option to work remotely, even if it’s for a couple of days each week, will enable them to overcome the anxiety in their own time as they transition back to work as we once knew it, and what the workplace will become in the months and years to come. It may be that they choose to come back full-time and never work remotely again, but giving them the option shows that you care about their wellbeing as well as them as an employee.
4. Hold open, transparent conversations about returning to work.
Before you make your final decisions on a return to work process, hold a number of open and transparent conversations about how people feel about going back to work. For many this will involve significant changes to the way they have worked over the last year, and might involve getting back on public transport for the first time which they may be particularly anxious about.
Remote working has changed people’s feelings about certain aspects of their professional lives and asking how they feel about getting back on buses, trams or trains will give you an insight into how people feel about going back to work and whether or not they are ready. Working remotely, in many sectors, has proven to be more viable than many thought and while it’s not likely to become the permanent way of working it does provide a period of time for people to readjust to the infamous ‘new normal’ so they can go back to work when they are ready, and you can adapt the workplace to suit the needs and preferences of not only health and safety, but your employees, too.
5. Make adaptable plans for the long-term that you can implement at short notice.
As the pandemic has shown us it’s important for businesses to think on their feet and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Policies may have been in place before around remote working, parental leave and flexible hours; but now we know how feasible remote working is and how quickly lives can be changed by lockdowns it’s vital that there is a policy in place that allows people to change their plans quickly and easily, and that business owners – to the best of their ability – are alive to the changes that need to be made.
Businesses have made significant changes to their ways of working over the last year and are likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future even with vaccinations available, and in order to avoid thousands of questions from understandably concerned employees it can benefit everyone to develop and maintain a contingency plan so that if anything goes wrong in the future, or if we are forced into another lockdown, people are aware of the company policy and the options open to them relating to remote working.
Ultimately, everyone has learned about the new ways and challenges of working over the past twelve months. While none of us would ever want to experience such a year again we can take learnings and put them into practice to help develop a workplace culture that we can all be proud of, even if we’re not physically in the workplace!