Where to from here for HR? A distributed working model

The current working environment is successful due to the behaviours and rituals that organisations built pre-pandemic

Where to from here for HR? A distributed working model

As COVID-19 rates subside across Australia, attention is turning to what workplaces will look like in a post-pandemic world. One thing is certain – office life will look different.

For human resources professionals, plotting a course through the next 12 months is vital. Ensuring employees are safe, connected, and productive will require constant attention and an understanding that operational rules have changed.

When COVID-19 emerged as a significant threat in early March, businesses around the world rushed to embrace remote working practices. Armed with laptops and mobile phones, many employees found themselves suddenly based in a home office or conducting video conferences from the kitchen table.

Creating a distributed working model
It’s clear, however, that workplaces won’t simply revert to operating the way they were prior to the pandemic. Distancing requirements and threats of future outbreaks mean a standard return to ‘the way things were’ may simply not be possible. Now is the time to determine what position and direction your business will take to harness the benefits that have emerged and to understand if the current employee culture can extend to a distributed team.  

As organisations set up employees at home and braced for a dip in productivity, something incredible emerged: a workforce that could remain productive while at home and within a global crisis. Certainly, there were some organisations where employees could not complete their role at home, however, the general knowledge worker has proven this theory defunct.

Pilot first
The near future is a perfect opportunity to pilot a distributed model of working. With employees already at home organisations can take advantage of the current situation, which has the added benefit of reducing employees’ apprehension about returning to the office.

For most organisations, six months will be an adequate length of time to trial a new working arrangement. Start by choosing a start date that aligns with the normal work state – perhaps now that children are returning to school and the immediate threats of community transfer have reduced. The duration of the pilot should reflect business cycles. It should also be long enough to show a trend over time, but short enough to prevent social norms from developing which make changes harder to implement.

Measure what’s important
Like any pilot program, metrics of success must be determined. The two that stand out as the most valuable are productivity and engagement.

Engagement metrics should include the key areas of relationships with managers and peers, wellness, happiness, and alignment with the business. Engagement can be overlooked for productivity or cost metrics, but they will play a vital role in the ongoing success of your model.

Create a dashboard that clearly communicates the ongoing results. This way if productivity or engagement does vary, managers and employees have the opportunity to respond and help make suggestions on what to iterate.

The social aspect of the workplace must also be remembered; the informal links that bind people to an organisation must be maintained to ensure that connection remains. Consider having your office support employees become virtual culture champions, driving initiatives throughout the organisation to foster those lasting bonds.

Be deliberate
The current working environment is successful due to the behaviours and rituals that organisations built pre-pandemic. They will only sustain for a certain period, so be wary of resting on past success.

In your pilot include the use of employee change groups and steering committees to help keep the pilot on track. Design guidelines that outline the environment employees should work in, the behaviours you want to see demonstrated, and how managers should interact with their team. These will help create guard rails to impact behaviour.

Be deliberate in your positioning and don’t suddenly change what your organisation deems to be important. Many companies run very successful fully-remote teams - when you create your pilot, understand where you want to fit on the scale. Will you be fully remote? Will you have an individual-outcome focus? Or will you be team-outcome focused? Do you plan to bring employees or teams into the office for face-to-face time?

Remote working was steadily on the rise before COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly pushed those that were unsure straight into the deep end. HR professionals have a unique opportunity to design and drive a pilot that could transform the way their business operates. As long as you are deliberate about your approach a distributed working model can be a sustainable and beneficial model for businesses and their employees.

Jacqueline Anderson, HR Director, Nintex

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