workingmums.co.uk white paper on agile working in an age of coronavirus

workingmums.co.uk held a virtual roundtable with employers from across industry in June to discuss agile working at a time of coronavirus and how it can be embedded as the pandemic passes.

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This white paper is based on a virtual roundtable, held on June 18th, with diversity and recruitment experts from nine organisations to discuss whether coronavirus has transformed attitudes to agile working and how it can be embedded in the months to come.

The roundtable was hosted by Gillian Nissim, founder of workingmums.co.uk, who spoke about the organisation’s commitment to sharing and promoting best practice in diversity and flexible working and about the need for employers to come together to talk about the challenges they face with regard to the pandemic.

Employers spoke about how many had been quickly thrown into remote working, having often not been particularly agile before, and were keen to be more proactive about agile working, rather than reactive, so that they can make enduring changes. Others had been doing flexible working for some time, but wanted to learn more about how they can improve agile working, which they felt needed to be clearly defined. Some employers were having to recruit rapidly in response to the coronavirus and because of social distancing and a reduction in office space over recent years many had to work from home. Others worked with career returners who need support. Some feared shift patterns had become more rigid during the pandemic, making them less agile.


Remote working

Employers spoke about how, post-lockdown, they were rethinking how they worked and trialling different ways of working using technology, both internally and externally and focusing on building individual relationships.

Contact centres and how to support remote contact centre workers was one issue that came up. One employer spoke of how they had handled the response to the pandemic in their contact centres, initially working in hubs to mitigate the spread of illness until they quickly realised that they would have to move to homeworking. This was done within a couple of weeks. There were some teething issues around IT, but it had been generally successful. Having a roadmap and a strong business need helped focus minds. Contact between teams was maintained through whatsapp and chat functions and managers did regular check-ins so people were not isolated. They were now managing a phased return to work for those in other parts of the business who couldn’t work from home, based on critical business need and people’s confidence about returning to work, based on surveys. They were prioritising those who needed to return, for instance, those who felt very isolated, had IT issues or were living in shared accommodation and finding homeworking difficult.

Another employer which had run a homeworking contact centre pilot before the pandemic spoke of their positive experience and what they had learnt. They had tried to foster a team spirit from the offset and had moved everything online from recruitment to training, using a remote trainer, Adobe connect and Zoom. Contact centre workers had chat running the whole time and senior supervisors used Skype for Business to get an overview of the issues that were arising.  They put in an escalation support desk so that managers were not overrun with questions and so that employees had a point of contact if they needed immediate help, given they couldn’t see if a manager was busy when they were remote. As part of the response to the pandemic, they had had to scale back head count and change their operating hours so there was less flexibility in shifts that were available, however.

Other customer-facing employers had tried to maintain regular working hours so there was not too much change for customers and had redeployed staff who could not work regular hours [for instance, due to childcare issues] to data inputting and administrative tasks. They focused on understanding what people could and couldn’t do and whether flexing hours would help or if hours had to be reduced.

Some employers, such as those in the retail sector, have not been able to work from home, although their head office teams have been able to do so. One employer spoke of how working from home had gone from being frowned upon to being accepted as an effective way to work. The change to working from home had been quick and sessions had been run for line managers on motivating and managing remote teams. The managing director had hosted a session for furloughed workers every week and the message was clear from senior managers that having children present was okay, that people do not have to pretend that they are working as normal and that they can only do their best in the circumstances they face. The flexibility and trust shown had been rewarded with increased productivity. The business had had “a light bulb moment” and it was now important to figure out how to embed that.

Other employers echoed this, saying they had seen no drop in productivity due to homeworking even though it had not been widespread before lockdown. Clients were in a similar situation so there was more understanding generally about flexible working.

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Surveys

Many employers had surveyed their staff to check how they were doing. Asking employees for their views brought interesting responses. On the whole, older workers wanted greater agility, while younger employees favoured working in an office environment; others favoured a hybrid approach and felt coming into the office a few days a week would help their mental well being and provide a change of environment. That meant employers had to be flexible to different employees’ needs at different times and embed agile policies in an overall culture and organisational strategy. They also needed to be clear what agile working meant and that it was not just about working from home.

As lockdown eased, it was important to maintain good communications, to ask how people felt about coming back, how they would come back and prepare them, providing a realistic view of what working in the office would be like and how different it would be from what it was before the pandemic.


Parents

Employers said they had seen a surge in joiners to parent and carer networks and these showed the diversity of parents’ experiences depending on their circumstances, the ages of their children, whether they were single parents and other criteria. Many were exhausted.

There was general concern about possible burnout from parents working double shifts. One employer which had recognised early on that the pandemic was an endurance test for parents, was aware that offering flexi hours in the evenings and weekends could lead to exhaustion and felt it was better to simply accept lower productivity when it came to working parents and lower expectations, which helped to relieve stress. That has meant talking to line managers and leading from the top.  It has also meant working with its parents network and partnering with a mental health organisation to target useful information to parents and carers at different times of the day, including furloughed workers and including a session on children’s well being. Over 200 employees participated in 18 sessions. At the start people were not very forthcoming, but by the end parents and carers were sharing experiences about what they were facing.

Employers generally said parent networks or channels for parents were vital. Some said their networks had grown significantly as a result of interaction during lockdown.


Line managers

Several employers spoke of the first weeks of lockdown being very difficult for line managers. One called it a “baptism of fire” as they switched to remote working, with HR having to support them a lot. Managers had to learn as they went along and it was a huge joint learning experience. Employers supported this with guides on remote working as well as surveys that highlighted where employees were struggling. Some line managers were really under pressure and, while they could manage in the short term, they needed ongoing support.

Support was given to encourage them to listen to employees with empathy and care and to focus on relationship building and asking employees what might help. One employer spoke of the need to focus on team accountability so all the strain did not fall on managers. Team members needed to be encouraged to care for each other and to be aware when colleagues were having ups and downs, which applied to everyone.  How employers cared for their people was more important now than ever, which included preparing for the longer term impact of the pandemic and ensuring staff took time off and that managers kept in regular contact which was vital in a fast-moving situation.


Key takeaways:

    • The importance of focusing on people and their needs is crucial
    • Be clear about what is meant by agile working
    • Communication is vital – check in with employees more regularly than usual as things change fast
    • One size does not fit all – talk to employees and find out what they need
    • Support line managers to learn how to motivate and support remote teams with guides and other material
    • Think about the impact of remote working on different ways of working, for instance, if people are used to instant access to a manager for urgent support, but can’t see them and they might be busy, they need a system for getting that support
    • Conduct regular employee surveys to check on employees’ different needs at different times
    • Building relationships and trust is vital for productivity
    • Be realistic about what coming back will be like and prepare people
    • Senior leaders need to make it clear that they understand the kind of issues employees may be struggling with, for instance, having children in the room at meetings
    • Lower expectations of parents and carers as this relieves the pressure on them
    • Consider tailoring mental health support to parents and carers
    • Support parent networks
    • Encourage line managers to listen with empathy
    • Foster a team spirit where each member of the team looks out for each other to relieve the pressure on line managers

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Participants:

Department for Work and Pensions

Pitney Bowes

PepsiCo

Enterprise Rent-A-Car

Volkswagen

Enterprise Holdings

Morgan Sindall Infrastructure

WH Smith

Schneider Electric

FDM Group


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