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'None of us ever thought this would happen': How managers will have to re-learn how to do their jobs post-Covid

“That Industrial Revolution idea of being in the same place for eight hours should be put aside now. That time is over.”

“THE LEGACY OF this will be huge. I don’t think we fully realise it yet.”

Maura Quinn is cautious on what the world of work will look like for employers and employees when the dust settles after the pandemic.

The CEO of the Institute of Directors Ireland told The Journal that “none of us ever thought this would happen” but that when the pandemic arrived last year some businesses were much better equipped than others to handle the shock to the system that it brought.

Quinn said: “When people talk about governance, their eyes can glaze over because it can sound boring. But it can be vitally important.

“The firms that had business continuity plans in place – the kind they’d have put in place if their premises burned down, never thinking there’d be a pandemic – have fared much better. Some companies had done it but others hadn’t. Some were stunned by it all. But the ones who had were ready for that move to remote work.”

The move to working from home that came so suddenly meant that managers had to adapt quickly to the new reality before them – how do you manage a team of people that you don’t get to see in person?

There are a number of approaches and, experts argue, a change in mindset is required for some managers to equip themselves if remote working in some form is to stay the norm into the future. 

“People don’t sit at their desk and work solidly for eight hours straight and then leave,” Janet Benson told The Journal last week. 

People are human, she says, and sitting at a desk for hours on end doesn’t signify someone has gotten the work done.

Benson is the corporate and adult learning lead at Learnovate, a research centre based out of Trinity College Dublin, with over 15 years industry experience. She was also a remote worker before the pandemic started, and among the relatively small number of people across the country that had prior experience of it before March 2020. 

For Benson, remote working during a pandemic has been very different to remote working in the before times. “I hope people don’t feel like this is the way it always is,” she said. 

She said her office went fully remote last March and began to “live what we recommended to clients and members”.

“When people are working at their kitchen table, in their bedroom, they can start to feel like there’s too much of a bleed into home life,” she said. “Even if it’s the physical space. I learned it’s vitally important to separate that out.

There are so many benefits to remote working and we should be looking now at what we should keep in the future.

Karen O’Reilly is another who has been on the remote work train while most were still waiting at the station. 

In 2016, she founded Employmum – a recruitment agency aimed at flexible and remote working roles. Now called Employflex, O’Reilly told The Journal there was a lot of resistance to flexible work before the pandemic. 

“I was looking for flexible work myself to be able to spend time with my children,” she said. “Employers weren’t really open to it. I realised there were a lot of women like me, so I started out then. 

[Employers] would’ve said we don’t have the technology, or there were fears over security, or insurance, or they might not have trusted their employees and feared productivity would suffer. There was that sense that managing people remotely would be a headache. 

O’Reilly said her work in previous years involved educating employers around the benefits of remote working and how it could benefit their organisation. 

She said: “That resistance was there. But it turns out everybody could do it. All of those arguments that companies had were debunked last March. Even during a pandemic, it can work.”

Managing people remotely

O’Reilly said that it was important for managers to recognise that their methods used before don’t necessarily translate well when workers are working remotely, or when there’s a mix of some in the office and some at home. 

“It’s a whole new way of managing people,” she said. “Pre-Covid, the traditional situation was managers looking over your shoulder, and training new people by having them sit beside a senior. With that taken away, you’re going to have to learn to communicate with staff in new ways.”

In one example, she said it was important that managers measure work by the end result, and not by the person sitting in the office the longest. 

This was echoed by Benson, who said that some companies are “still putting value in the wrong things”. 

“You have people who come in and sit at their desk for eight hours,” she said. “But what do they actually do? Some might not do a lot. There needs to be an emphasis on outputs.

And remote working doesn’t impact output. It can actually make it better. That Industrial Revolution idea of being in the same place for so many hours should be put aside now. That time is over.

On the issue of output, Quinn said that from her conversations it’s clear that productivity hasn’t been much of an issue when it comes to remote working over the past year.

A recent survey from CIPD Ireland found that nearly three-quarters of businesses said productivity either increased or remained steady during remote working.

And, when announcing a move to more permanent flexible working in January, financial firm Revolut said that a survey of their teams found that 92% of employees said their individual productivity hadn’t changed or, if it had changed, this change was positive.

Quinn said that companies would have to ensure that staff are properly resourced to work from home as that continues into the future, especially when there’s a mixture of home and office-based working.

“Managers are going to have work really hard to ensure integration between home and office workers,” Quinn said. “They’ll probably best be served in a hybrid model. In situations where people have to come in at least a couple of days a week, you can still foster that creativity and spark you get from working together in person.”

In such new models, O’Reilly said it was about employers finding the most equitable and fair system to judge someone’s work, that may not be by the same metrics as before. 

Judging someone you can’t see purely on results might ignore the experiences of the staff doing them. For example, in a time of massive upheaval in all of our lives, is it all the more impressive that a worker can keep up the same standards as before? Or simply acceptable? Managers may need to reassess how they approach these questions.

Focusing on output, rather than the time spent to get there or the flexible arrangements needed for it will be important. As will being able to speak effectively to teams whether they’re working remotely or in the office.

“Communication is vital,” O’Reilly said. “You don’t have that organic chat as in the office anymore. You can’t see someone in person to see how they are, and how they’re getting on. 

That’s why you have to ask them for feedback on a regular basis. That’s really important in this ‘new’ world of work. One-on-ones. Check how people are getting on. See what they need, and find the best ways to improve the situation.

She said it was important to have procedures in place to communicate with employees, and provide regular feedback. 

The Employflex boss also said that she’s helped a number of companies in the past with flexible work audits to see how well they’re adapted to remote working practices.

O’Reilly said it has been the case where the view of management on how flexible the work situation is can be a “completely different story” to what workers feel is the case.

She said that this potential perception gap needs to be addressed by companies in future as workers could become disillusioned without proper communication.

Benson emphasised the importance of the link between manager and employee to fully understand where a staff member is coming from and their priorities to get the best out of them. 

“We have to be in the human development business,” she said. “It’s not having a manager who knows everything. It’s someone who can be flexible, learn, and admit mistakes. They have to be willing to do that and accept it in others.

We see managers who don’t necessarily learn about the exact roles that people under them perform. They have to do it. We have to see leaders who really want to learn, and show that empathy for people who work under them. It shouldn’t be about always being on. 

Quinn also said that while there are upsides from working home, it was important for employees to be able to switch off. 

“If you’re commuting, you can do that switching off on the train or bus home,” she said. “That’s harder when your work and home are the same. You could be responding to that email at 8pm sitting at home when you shouldn’t have to and perhaps wouldn’t have before all this. That’s something managers need to be aware of and factor in.”

Other areas that managers and employers must consider is the culture of a workplace and the development opportunities. 

“If you’re a company where extremely long hours is applauded, that’s not family friendly, for example,” O’Reilly said. “If companies want to retain the best talent out there, they need to look at culture and messaging.”

A key part of that culture will be that sense of empathy, according to Benson.

“In management, employees want to see someone who represents them,” she said. “People can be isolated, stressed. Whether they’re working from home or not. Employees need to feel that support coming through. It’s something leaders need to take into account and be proactive on. 

Companies can be good at this but often reactive. Only addressing issues when the problem arises and has gotten too much. Organisations can feel their staff are replaceable and they’ll just get someone else if something goes wrong. It’s the places that invest in a person’s well-being and focus on the employee as a human being that can do well in future.

An example of this could be parents being allowed the flexibility to fit their work in and around the childcare and schooling needs they’ll need day to day. 

“It doesn’t matter if they have to take a couple of hours here and there to sort that out,” Benson said. “It’s about setting expectations around the output, not the time a person spends to do it.”

Another aspect that managers will need to take into account, according to O’Reilly, is career development. This is particularly the case when there is a mix of people working from home and in the office.

She said: “You shouldn’t be punished for working more days at home than someone else in the future. A career and development plan should be the same if you’re in the office five-days-a-week or not. That really needs to be looked at. 

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Benson also cited that idea of a “distance bias” where a person who can be seen in the office day in, day out may be viewed more favourably for progression opportunities than someone working remotely.

“That can’t be something that firms should let happen going forward,” she said. 

Expectations

Benson said that a key message going forward will be to emphasise that companies can offer a work-life balance to people that can be of tangible benefit to them. Doing so will help to create a better environment for them to flourish. 

“In the past, it’s been the case where companies have sold a work-life balance idea that’s kind of like ticking a box,” she said. “What people want to see is a real work-life balance.

The pandemic has made us reassess things. With the kind of flexible working ideas we’re seeing, that is something that can offer that real work-life balance. And the employer will benefit as you’re bringing more value to a business when you have that extra energy. 

O’Reilly said that in the working world after Covid, there will be a certain expectation – particularly among younger workers – of flexibility.

“If there’s two companies, and they’re offering similar pay and conditions, and only one is offering flexibility – that’ll be the one they go for,” she said. “There will be pushback in the future if there’s not flexibility.

A person will feel they’ve proven over the last 12 months that they can meet deadlines and attend meetings remotely. So they’ll ask ‘why not let me have my two days from home’.

It will be essential to find that balance, however, according to O’Reilly. She said it’s important to be aware that some people will be hoping to go back to the office and that remote working shouldn’t be forced upon them either. 

“I’m hearing a lot of people talking about the hybrid model going forward,” she said. “It’s about figuring out how to do that for each business. It has to be well-thought out to figure out the best way forward.”

Quinn said from her conversations it was a clear a great many are missing the office, and fostering that atmosphere and culture again will be important – even if it’s more of a hybrid model in future. 

“Everybody I talk to misses that human interaction,” she said. “No matter how sophisticated the tech, it doesn’t replace that human interaction. That’ll be something people need again when this is over.”

O’Reilly said that it would be important for employers not to set policies in stone once they begin returning to the office. Instead, trialling new systems for three months and then tweaking if necessary could be a better way forward.

“A company’s bottom line is what’s important at the end of the day,” she said. “But if the work is put in to find a way to make it work as best as it can for everyone, the employer and the employees will benefit.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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