RBC Wealth Management’s HRD: ‘Home working will not replace the office’

Flexibility is key – but to what extent?

RBC Wealth Management’s HRD: ‘Home working will not replace the office’

As the world moves from emergency response mode to a maintenance model, it seems as if COVID may finally be on the way out. Vaccines are here, offices are tentatively reopening, and employers are finally starting to think about their future plans. But let’s not forget the toil of the last few months. HR leaders put in long, difficult, hours to help businesses pivot their strategy in response to the virus – learning a myriad of lessons along the way.

HRD spoke to Vanessa Gilardi, head of HR at RBC Wealth Management, who revealed how her company dealt with the COVID chaos calmly and explained why she believes WFH will complement the collaboration in the office environment, but not replace it.

Read more: COVID-19: Top priorities for HR leaders revealed

“Over the past year, our people priorities have shifted to support the new realities of our employees and their families,” Vanessa told HRD. “However, there was certainly no textbook for responding to a global pandemic, and we are still experimenting and learning as we go. Putting the challenges aside for one moment, it has been an excellent opportunity to test our business agility, especially when you consider that 90% of RBC’s 86,000 employees across the world transitioned to a remote working environment in a matter of weeks. Our technology has proved to be extremely resilient, and so have our people.

“Despite this resilience, each of us has been affected by this prolonged environment in some way, so we’ve put even greater focus on protecting and caring for mental and physical health by expanding benefits, and offering access to support, training, live events and membership to the Headspace app. We also encouraged teams to have much more frequent ‘check-ins’ to make sure colleagues weren’t struggling or feeling isolated. For example, in the British Isles, we invited all employees to attend small, informal ‘How are you doing?’ discussion groups to share their highs, lows and learnings. Providing a platform for colleagues to open up, be vulnerable and learn from others was an eye-opening experience for many and helped reassure people that they were not alone in the way they were feeling.

“For those working with young children at home, it has been a particularly challenging time and we’ve offered a wide range of support to families, such as emergency childcare leave, more flexible working arrangements, virtual learning camps for kids, and events with external partners to discuss themes around resilience and mental health.”

By acknowledging the struggles employees have gone through over the past year, leaders give them permission to be open – to bring their authentic selves to work. Mental health has seen a massive decline over the past few months, as teams report feeling overworked, underappreciated, and totally burned out. As Vanessa explained, taking the time to check in with your employees, asking them if they’re genuinely okay, makes all the difference.

Read more: McDonald’s Twitter thread is a lesson in empathy

“COVID-19 is far from ‘just’ a health pandemic,” added Vanessa. “It’s also a social and economic pandemic that has significantly impacted how people and businesses operate. We are working through a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty which tests our resilience every day. But I feel incredibly inspired when I see the impact our teams are having not only in support of clients, but in support of one another and our communities.

“We learnt early on that it was important to continually check employee sentiment through regular pulse surveys to help inform our HR strategies. This also provided a forum where everyone felt safe to speak up, albeit digitally rather than face to face. It’s not easy to talk about personal matters or painful experiences, but this is exactly what’s needed to bring change. I hope this environment of authenticity and vulnerability is here to stay so we all feel able to bring our whole selves to work and we further break down the stigma of discussing mental health. I’ve seen countless examples of leaders and people managers becoming more approachable by virtue of being more connected digitally and everyone being in the same boat. And, as an unintentional consequence, I believe that we’ve broken down some generational silos for good – something that will benefit younger generations in the workforce in particular.”

Looking to the immediate future, employers are split as to return to a fully in-office or go hybrid. Recently, JPMorgan Chase & Co's chief executive Jamie Dimon said working from home doesn’t suit employees who crave the ‘hustle’ – and that exclusively remote models simply don’t ‘work for young people’. While remote work quite literally saved the day for many businesses – will it ever really replace the office?

“As we emerge from the pandemic, RBC is focusing on work practices that are built for the future,” continued Vanessa. “I fully expect flexibility to be a key theme for us rather than a one size fits all approach. Working away from the office is likely to be far more common after the pandemic, but home working is not going to replace the office. We know that some people prefer the office setting, and some parts of our culture are best enabled by the collaboration and interaction that can only happen when we’re together.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to work efficiently and effectively in a fully remote environment during the pandemic. Returning to premises will certainly change some of the dynamics, so we need to take the best of both worlds and use these learnings to ensure employees feel engaged, supported and effective regardless of their work location and arrangement. And whether interactions are face to face or digital, we will continue to lead with empathy, listen actively and develop an inclusive environment where trust and collaboration are at the heart of our culture.”

As for the future, it’s yet to be decided. The one thing we have learned from this pandemic is how to adapt and evolve quickly to unprecedented events – a skill that many employees have honed to perfection. For RBC, at least, the future looks bright.

“We will continue to actively support our employees through this transition back to a new model of work,” added Vanessa. “Are employees going to feel comfortable in the office environment? What will social interaction etiquette look like? Will there be a stigma around working remotely versus time spent in the office? Clearly there are many things we just don’t yet know, including the long-term effect this pandemic will have on us. However, what this time has clearly proven is that we should continue to have a change-ready mindset.

“After a year like no other, we remain absolutely focused on supporting employees’ wellbeing, mental health, resilience and professional development.  Worldwide, employees are reflecting on how their employer has treated them during the pandemic and their future career choices will almost certainly take into account the care and support they have received.”

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