Returning to the new workplace: what can we expect?

4 March 2022 by Alistair Ross

5 minutes (1190 Words)


It’s a question on everyone’s mind at the moment – what will the “new” workplace look like once restrictions are lifted?

La Fosse asked Daneal Charney, HR Executive in Residence at MaRS Discovery District, for her thoughts on what tech companies can do to prepare, as well as some predictions for the longer-term impacts of Covid-19.

The discussion was full of interesting insights, but here are a few of the key takeaways:

Do you think people will want to return to working in an office full time?
The short answer is no. I read a recent study which has found that just 8% of people want to return to work 5 days a week. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to go into an office at all – the same study found that just 8% would want to be at home full time. The majority of people want their weeks to be split between the two.

I think this is in part driven by immediate concerns around safety. But also, it’s indicative of the broader landscape. Prior to Covid-19, flexibility was gaining increasing importance in the Employee Value Proposition. This trend has been fast-tracked by the crisis.

Flexibility is therefore poised to become even more key for talent attraction. And I don’t just mean location or hours, but really asking the question – what does the perfect environment for success look like to you? Is it working from home three days a week, is it starting early and finishing by four so you can pick up your kids? And how can I, as an employer, create this for you?

Study shows that 75% are equally, if not more productive at home. Would you agree with this statement?
I think certainly on an individual level, which is what most of these metrics are tracking, some people are more productive in a remote environment. But I’d suggest this is unlikely to translate to a team or cross-functional level without the right training and support.

If we look at early adopters of remote working, like Github, they have a lot of structure in place to facilitate remote working at an organizational level. They have a remote manifesto, they prefer formal communication over informal, written communication over spoken, and are a results-only organization. They have constant feedback loops and prioritize intellectual honesty.

Remote work requires cultural changes and new ways of working together. You can no longer manage people by walking around the office!

In the short term, what implications are there for tech companies making a decision on their upcoming return to the workspace?
In the short-term companies will have to balance employee preferences and needs with business necessity.

Companies are taking varied approaches. Some are looking at this as a staggered “pilot”, where people will have the option to go in without the obligation, with guidelines about social distancing. Others are holding off making a decision because there is no urgency to return to a physical space. In fact, going back into an office presents a risk to business continuity which many companies cannot afford in a downturn.

Previously, it was a privilege to work remotely and you could only do so if you demonstrated a certain level of performance. Generally this meant it was not an option for new employees, those in training or those with performance improvements to be made.

Will any changes cause threats to company culture?
Several studies have shown that Affinity Distance may be more important to a team’s success then Physical Distance. This measures how close emotionally and mentally your team feel to one another. Teams that have high Affinity Distance are likely coping with remote working much better, because they don’t need to be physically close to trust and support one another.

However, I think it’s still key that companies are making space for non-work-related interactions. A lot of the teams I’m speaking to have created “virtual watercoolers,” spaces in which employees can go to just chat or support each other with non-work channels (for example a Slack #parenting channel). Even if you stop investing in your office, when social distance measures are lifted, I think non-work get-togethers will always be a crucial investment for teambuilding.

Given many companies are proving they can be successful working remotely, can employers broaden their talent reach by recruiting remote/international talent?
Definitely! Right now, when companies say they’re sourcing the best talent, they generally mean they’re sourcing the best talent from their local pool. But remote working means that the talent can be from anywhere – so the quality is elevated.

This isn’t just a matter of location. Remote working enables businesses to be more inclusive of diverse talent pools – like people who have mobility issues, or new parents who require flexibility. I recently saw a company who were specifically targeting their hiring campaign towards new moms. I think there’s a huge opportunity here for both businesses and candidates to have more choice.

Are there any key roles in which companies should consider hiring to assist with the challenges we are currently facing?
I think we’re less likely to see new roles, and more likely to see roles becoming more fluid, particularly in start-up environments. There are new problems to be solved, which means there are opportunities for those who are ready to jump in and solve them. Employers may give preference to current or prospective employees who have experience doing their function in a remote-first company.

I think those working in HR will also see an expanded accountability with a renewed focus on employee wellness, safe working environments, employee privacy and managing international employees. For example, Precision Nutrition, a remote-first company, has a member of the HR department who is responsible for employee health and wellness.

What do you think will be the long-term implications – particularly for businesses who are thinking about making the transition to remote working permanently?
If businesses are serious about the transition, there’s a lot that needs to be done on the journey to becoming remote-first. This is fundamentally a cultural shift that requires new ways of working. For example, remote works best when context is explicit & clear at all times, operational norms are agreed on and designed intentionally, and values create guiding posts for decisions.

Front line managers carry the biggest burden with the transition to remote. They need to re-think how they support their employees, give constructive feedback, have difficult conversations and monitor employee progression to goals. All of these tasks require different skills in a remote environment. Yet only a minority of companies recognize this change and provide training to help managers with this role change.

Businesses will need to be prepared to transition their employees formally to a remote environment. This starts with the awareness of what it takes to be successful longer term.

Daneal Charney is a Top 25 Human Resource Award Winner and Growth Coach for start-up executives. Her fascination with tech began with her first leadership role in 1997 for Intel Corporation China and has strengthened during her last 10 years working for Toronto’s most innovative start-ups.

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