Over the last few weeks, we have seen many of the lockdown restrictions released allowing more businesses to reopen. It is beginning to feel like life is returning to normal particularly as our favourite pubs and restaurants begin to open their doors again. However, the future remains very uncertain and we are left wondering what the new normal will look like. It is quite likely that what we find on the other side will not resemble the normal that we have been used to in recent years.
Most businesses have had to make significant changes to working practices in an incredibly short space of time. But which, if any, of these changes are here to stay? It is a matter of understanding which of these innovations, if adopted permanently, would benefit our clients, our strategy and our teams in the long term, and which, whilst necessary for limiting the impact of the virus, would ultimately inhibit economic growth and the wellbeing of your employees.
No doubt the biggest change has been the mass transition to working from home. Whilst there has generally been more flexibility towards remote working in recent years – indeed at Morrisons we have a team member who for some time has been working from her home in Spain – a shift on a global scale in such a short timeframe has not been seen in our lifetime.
Other changes we have witnessed include
- Face-to-face meetings replaced with virtual meetings, webinars and video calls
- Dramatically reduced business travel
- A stronger focus on employee wellbeing and supporting the community
- An emphasis on more frequent and transparent communication
- Renewed focus on working with local businesses and suppliers
- Improved workplace hygiene.
- A shift away from marketing events to digital marketing and webinars/podcasts.
Are these changes here to stay?
Whether these new working practices become a permanent feature of the business world depends on many factors. When we look at remote working for example, there are several arguments being made in favour of this becoming the new norm, or certainly much more common. Many feel they can work more efficiently from home, by better structuring their day, having fewer distractions, taking more regular breaks and generally being more productive than when working in a traditional office environment. Huge savings have been made on the daily commute as well as less stress of commuting. There are many other benefits to employee wellbeing including greater freedom to structure our days and build in good habits such as regular exercise and of course spending more time with families, partners and children.
However, working from home is not right for everyone and there are many that have been left feeling lonely during lockdown. For them, a return to the office will be a welcome break from this isolation. We also cannot forget that whilst it has been necessary over the past few months, working from home is not the most convenient option for those who do not have dedicated working spaces at home or the correct equipment. Many also must share these spaces with partners or housemates who are also having to work remotely, or with children or family members who are not at school or not currently working. Lastly, it is worth considering if the temporary switch to working from home has seemingly been so successful because it was viewed as just that – temporary. Before everyone rushes to offload their office spaces, they may want to consider that 6 months or a year down the line when the pandemic is over, perhaps a vaccine is available and the novelty of remote working has worn off, we may want to return to a more structured working routine, based in an office.
We should also not forget the potential impact remote working has on collaboration, creativity, compliance and supervision, internal relationship building, training, culture, and identifying those who are struggling and being able to support them.
There is little doubt that businesses will want these new practices to remain particularly as winter brings the threat of a spike in infections and further lockdowns. Business leaders would be foolish to try to return to their previous “normal” too soon.
It would be similarly short-sighted for business leaders to dismiss the emphasis that recent times has put on employee wellbeing and community engagement. Concern for your employees and the communities within which you do business is completely compatible with commercial success, indeed I would say, they are fundamental to business success. Our relationships and personal wellbeing are more important than ever, and communities are moving forward with a keener awareness of local values. Ensuring that you continue to invest time and resources into your people and communities will improve employee engagement and your efforts in the community will not go unnoticed as people look to support more local businesses.
Embracing the change
There is a Chinese proverb which says, “when the winds of change blow, some build walls others build windmills”. The most successful businesses will be those who catch the wind by embracing change and re-shaping their businesses to be more successful in the future. I would fear for those who try and build a wall around themselves to resist change.
Ultimately, it seems inevitable that several of the temporary working practices introduced, will be incorporated into the ways we do business going forward. Many of these changes have been happening slowly for years, but the pandemic has accelerated the rate of change and what would normally have taken many years has been achieved in a few months.
In terms of practical steps to start cementing these changes, I think that building a strong bond of trust with our team is essential so that they are empowered to be productive wherever they are.
We must ensure that we move forward in a way that ensures better business resilience and continuity, but above all we must maintain the flexibility and adaptability with which we have had to work so far this year and learn from the challenges we have had to overcome.
We have seen in the UK what it has been possible to achieve when embracing change in the face of adversity, working together and thinking innovatively. It will be interesting to see what further innovations will be possible if businesses do continue to embrace this challenge in the future.