If the zeitgeist is to be believed, the transition to a home working culture has been a resounding success for many businesses. Once we got through the initial adjustment period in early March many businesses began to see their productivity return to pre-COVID levels. In many cases, it sky-rocketed.
Organisational Wellbeing

A number of high profile companies around the world have made public announcements to extend their working from home policies to mid-2021, in some cases indefinitely. This is paving the way for other organisations to follow suit, confident that if the large corporates are moving in that direction then why not follow a similar direction of travel.

There are many well documented arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ these moves – as the economy prepares itself to battle its way through more challenging times, organisations are managing cost tightly and real estate represents one of the largest balance sheet costs. Sadly for some, it’s a stark choice between the commercial reality of embracing the remote working boom or facing the prospect of going bust.

So, what’s the key to making the right decision, and not knee-jerking into choices that serve a short term need but become detrimental in the longer term?

Making critical business decisions in a fluid and uncertain environment comes with built in risk. Despite the fact that we all seem to agree we won’t revert back to a pre-COVID workplace any time soon, in the absence of a crystal ball to tell us how the future world will look, we’re left with options of making decisions based on a combination of gut instinct and commercial sense. What business leaders need to figure out is how best to manage costs and productivity in the short term, whilst at the same time not repositioning their business operations to such an extent that could be difficult to reverse in a year or so’s time. It’s a difficult conundrum for CEO’s and once again reinforces the clear conflict in messages between finance and human resource departments. Ultimately though, pushing forward with drastic plans relating to real estate, without balancing this with solid health and wellbeing arguments could prove to be disastrous for organisations in the long term.

On the face of things, whilst businesses may have maintained productivity and even boosted profit projections over the past six months (many are experiencing their best financial years in decades), it’s crucial to remember the personal sacrifices that many have made in order for this to be possible. For those of us who haven’t experienced furlough or being made redundant, the reality is a UK workforce working longer hours, taking less breaks and being less mobile – acknowledged contributors to mental and physical health deterioration. Put simply, for many, remote working is not sustainable. It presents a pretty bleak and depressing long term prospect, particularly for those who either live alone, or in crowded shared living arrangements. Conversely, for another section of the workforce, the prospect of working from home indefinitely may come as a welcome change.

History tells us that for economies, every downturn has an upside. Therefore, for some businesses a prudent decision would be to hold their nerve in the short term and hold off making any big ticket business decisions about how they will expect employees to work in the future. Decisions should be informed by both P&L and other financial data and outputs from ongoing employee communications and engagement survey responses.

Many companies surveyed employees in April and May in the midst of lockdown and new travel restrictions to find out how they’d like to work in the longer term – the vast majority swung in favour of long term home working. However, as the mental and physical impacts of remote working become better understood, there’s every likelihood that the pendulum may have begun to swing back in the opposite direction. And with the prospect of seeing 2020 out minus an overseas holiday or having been in the same room as work colleagues for almost a whole year, come 2021, people could be ready for a fresh start away from the dining room table or desk in the spare room. Communication is the key. Regular, two way communication to get closer to how your people are feeling, and spot any patterns or fluctuations in the feedback, is vital. We would advise any organisation that making any critical business change decisions without such evidence would be a mistake.

Finally, paying close attention to data from healthcare providers is key. EAP and mental health providers can equip businesses with a good insight into how people are faring in our current working environment. There’s a growing concern around the rise in the number of organisations committing to long term remote working, when mental health claims, use of EAP’s and general spikes in mental wellbeing related concerns are also on the same upward swing.

Communicate with your people regularly, stay close to your data points, avoid making headline grabbing decisions in the midst of the pandemic and don’t pin your future business strategy on a remote working model. Taking the journey a step at a time over the next 12 months and regularly taking a temperature check to see how things are working before closing the door on our offices for good, will pay dividends.