Flexible Work: from the new normal to the new necessary

A powerful crisis communication strategy is essential to good leadership during this time

Flexible Work: from the new normal to the new necessary

In the modern-day workplace, the four walls of the office are evaporating and we are all the better for it.  Not only can flexible work arrangements be accommodated without hardship to employers, research has shown that they actually improve productivity, efficiency, creativity, engagement and retention.  Importantly, flexible work arrangements also create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Despite this, employers have historically been reluctant to accommodate flexible work.  In January 2019, only 68 percent of employers in Australia offered some form of remote work, according to Indeed.  Employers have generally been concerned about perceived negative impacts on productivity, culture and morale.  Many believed that employees working from home would be disconnected from the workplace and abuse their freedom.  Ultimately, these concerns indicate fear and a lack of trust. 

Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most, if not all, employees are required to work from home.  Whilst challenging, employers can grab this opportunity to iron out the kinks of flexible working and experience the benefits of these arrangements for when life returns to normal.  Let this be an opportunity to displace fear and trust issues and ensure business stability.  Frankly there is no other option - flexible working is no longer the ‘new normal’ but rather the ‘new necessary.’ 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it necessary for many businesses in Australia and around the world to implement effective flexible work to reap the benefits of business continuity in times of crisis.

Flexibility with rules
While there should always be flexibility, a baseline structure is essential.  This helps ensure everything gets accomplished, productivity is maintained and employees are accountable. Clear priorities help avoid distraction and distress. 

Tell employees when they are expected to be online and available (according to business demands and their responsibilities), decide how and when meetings should be run and your team’s preferred modes of communication (email, phone calls, Zoom and/or Microsoft Teams). 

On the flip side, have a system for indicating when team members prefer not to be interrupted. For example, setting the ‘do not disturb’ function in Skype sets clear boundaries. 

Trust with key deliverables
When there is disruption to ‘business as usual,’ trust is especially essential.  Assess the overall accomplishments of employees, rather than micromanaging and scrutinising activity levels.  Leaders should focus on high value outputs and key deliverables that will get the business through this period.

Communication is key
A powerful crisis communication strategy is essential to good leadership during this time. Effective communication eliminates fear and builds trust. Leaders should follow the three C’s: clear, consistent and concise.

Provide updates in a timely fashion and ensure your staff know where to find additional information or ask questions, such as a centralised forum.  Answer questions authentically and do not be evasive. This will breed suspicion and mistrust, leading to dysfunction and possible claims in the future.

Be aware of overloading your employees with information. It is possible to over-communicate and unintentionally stir up more stress! Aim to share only helpful information and key decisions made by management that will affect your employees. For example, notifying staff about the latest number of COVID-19 victims is clearly unhelpful, but sharing facts about prevention from credible sources such as the World Health Organisation and the Australian Government Department of Health is useful. 

Crisis task force
Clear and concise messaging cannot happen without a team dedicated to communicating about the company’s situation and approach. Have representatives from HR, health and safety, legal, finance and operations who can consult with their teams and ensure that messaging is consistent across the organisation. This enables the contemplation of all angles and will also avoid mixed messages. 

Values-based leadership
In times of uncertainty and change, it is vital that leaders emphasise what is at their core - the things employees are already comfortable with and know well. Reinforce how your businesses’ purpose and values apply to the new working arrangements.  This will help with delivering difficult messages and implementing unfamiliar policies.

For example at Hall & Wilcox, we live by our five: ‘Hallmarks’: Evolve always; Respect respect; Better together; Be remarkable and Stay true.  Not only do these inform all decisions we make, but we let our people know this in both formal and informal communication from our management team.

Become a ‘virtual community manager’
Being a manager in person and being a manager virtually are two very different things. The key to managing staff virtually is mirroring the physical workplace wherever possible. Instead of sending feedback via email (where tone may be misperceived), consider a video chat or a phone call.  This is especially the case if it is negative feedback.  Human connection is built by face to face communication and lets your employee know you are interested in their progression and wellbeing.

Mental health
Feeling isolated or working extended hours are some of the hazards that come with working offsite. Isolation is at the core of mental illness.  It has been associated with increased risk of depression, cognitive decline, anxiety and substance abuse. 

Apart from isolation, there is also the stress that comes from change generally. Employees are being asked to completely change the way they work overnight and on a personal level, are also unable to see friends and family.  Change is difficult at the best of times and it is amplified in a global crisis. For juniors, there is the issue of reduced guidance and training while for senior employees, there is the risk of taking on too much and failing to delegate effectively.  

Employers should check in regularly and ensure their mental health policies extend to external working environments. Provide information to employees about resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Lifeline, Beyond Blue or MensLine Australia. The National Mental Health Commission has also launched the #InThisTogether campaign, which provides mental health and wellbeing tips such as taking a break, exercising and seeking support when you need it.

In addition, implement strategies to maintain team culture and foster morale. Working from home means informal interactions can’t happen in the way they ordinarily would. To combat this, consider options such as a virtual coffee catch up or a team trivia session. The Age releases a quiz every day that when run over Zoom, can be a great way to lighten the mood and connect with your staff. 

Remote work on a grand scale: a forced trial run
The COVID-19 public health crisis is a mandatory trial run for remote working on a scale never seen before. This is an opportunity we can use for growth and development, to shape the way we work in the future.  We can engage the next generation who crave flexibility and inspire loyalty by leading them through this difficult time. 

It is no longer a question of ad hoc ‘reasonable adjustments’ for individuals - mainstreaming flexibility is the future. Our mindset is the first step to removing barriers and making it work. Frankly, there is no choice now but to make it possible.


Fay Calderone is a Partner, Hall and Wilcox

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