As I’ve previously mentioned in these blogs, when COVID-19 first forced working from home on companies there were widespread reports of increased productivity. However, two years later it is clear that in spite of much improved technology and more refined processes remote workforces have significant downsides. Communication and creativity are suffering, individuals don’t feel the same sense of loyalty to employers (or colleagues) and much of the invaluable on the job training that comes from shadowing colleagues is lost. Furthermore, the novelty and discipline that initially drove the productivity gains are eroding. It is hardly surprising employers are keen to get staff back in the offices but this is sometimes neither easy nor popular.
Having experienced greater flexibility, many employees are reluctant to return to working patterns we once simply accepted or at the very least tolerated. Some employees loathe the commute, others are concerned about the impact on their mental health resulting from increased risks of catching and potentially spreading COVID-19 as a result of going into offices, and others have concerns around scheduling flexibility.
While employers are not deaf to these concerns, they must balance them with the imperative to be competitive and effective if businesses are to survive. As in many sectors, construction is gravitating towards circa 50% of employers allowing employees to work from home 1 day per week, with the other circa 50% allowing two days a week from home… the few companies offering 3 days a week from home is now very attractive to candidates who are back in the office 4 days a week.
While working patterns may be largely standardised, the way employers manage concerns about coming back to the office is a key differentiator not only in relation to the enthusiasm with which staff return, but also in relation to their ability to attract and to retain staff.
Managing employee anxiety and new habits
Fostering an engaged and motivated atmosphere as staff are ‘encouraged’ back into the office can make a big difference to the productivity gains employers are hoping for. In order to foster a positive mindset many businesses are taking an empathetic approach that recognises how employee attitudes and expectations have shifted and also directly tries to allay their anxieties as far as is realistically possible.
For many staff the risk to their own safety and the potential of infecting others remains a very real and distressing concern. The companies managing these concerns most effectively are proactively communicating their risk management measures, have in place mechanisms for employees to suggest ways to make the workplace ever safer (e.g. COVID focussed Workplace Practice committees), and are listening to employee concerns at a 1-to-1 level.
Other employers are allowing working days in the office to flex around core hours. For example, they might state employees must be in the office from 10:30 until 15:30 but can flex or work remotely either side of that. This approach enables staff to avoid the most crowded (and high risk) hours on public transport, dodge the worst of rush hour traffic and provide greater flexibility when it comes to childcare arrangements and other commitments.
To avoid the return to the office being a sudden shock, other companies are allowing staff to gradually build up to the three or four days a week in the office.
Encouraging inter-function communication and a greater sense of team
While reducing the anxiety employees feel around returning to the office is important, so are re-establishing the sense of shared purpose that drives success and improving communication across the business.
While simple actions such as social drinks or encouraging employees to shadow colleagues in a different team can help with this some companies are going further, for example by implementing re-onboarding programmes. Re-onboarding is typically particularly valuable for hires made during lockdown and junior employees who, as a result of home working, have to date had a siloed experience of the business. Some companies however are re-onboarding all employees as they look to embed a cross-function understanding of the business, good communication between different team and a strong company culture.
Mandating core days
Many companies are implementing one or more ‘core’ days i.e. specific days of the week when all employees have to be in the office. In some cases the core days are company-wide, others companies are leaving it to the discretion of individual business units or teams. While mandating specific days will anger some employees, many businesses feel it is critical to improving collaboration and creativity. In order to minimise push back, policies should be implemented consistently and once a decision is made the company or team should avoid the temptation to tinker thereby ensuring that employees can put in place childcare provisions and other commitments outside work without the risk of needing to repeatedly change them. To soften the blow of mandated days in the office, some companies are introducing social activities, for example putting in place company drinks or even free lunches on a specific day of the week.
With staff shortages across construction, companies that are sympathetic to employee concerns will experience relatively lower attrition than many in the sector. And employers who listen to staff, communicate what the business is doing and why, and look to foster the sense of common purpose that has often been diluted during lockdown will thrive.
If you would like further details about any of the trends or would like to speak with us about how we can support you then please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0330 174 6801.