We have been helping companies to pinpoint the pain they are feeling, and what they need to do about it. We hear a number of consistent themes at the moment, when businesses talk about their people:
What do we do about flexible working?
Do we let our employees to continue working from home?
How do we safely bring people back into the office?
What are the implications of making people come back into the office?
Can we save money if we cut the size of our office?
One the one hand, some businesses are working on a staggered approach to getting everyone back to the office. On the other, we know countless companies that have already got rid of their offices and will review whether they get an office again next year. Some of this depends on what type of industry they are in, some on the culture, some on the leaders involved, some by whether they have been able to afford to keep hold of their office. At present, a huge amount of time, energy, and effort is consumed by trying to work this out. We've come across many different approaches; an ideological one dictated by the leaders; a financial one decided by the purse strings; a pragmatic one led by those responsible for health and safety, and a cultural one influenced by feedback from employees. Most use a combination of factors and all of these are valid, but there is another perspective that seems to have been largely ignored. That is using data to influence the approach. There are four important elements we think it is helpful to consider before jumping straight to a solution:
What is the ultimate question you are trying to answer?
What criteria to use to work out the best plan?
What are the options?
What evidence can you use to support this decision?
The ultimate question At the heart of this conundrum, like most people related issues, is something more fundamental - how do I want to match the needs of our business with the needs of our people? This thread should run through everything employee related. When you put flexible working into this context, it should help to re-frame how you think about the problem. Suddenly, it is not just about the office overhead, technological capability, duty of care, whether you trust people when they are working at home, or whether people can work effectively when they are not physically sitting together. It is about balancing needs: How can my business perform successfully whilst doing the best for my people? Organisations will answer this differently - for some the needs of the business will massively outweigh those of the employees in the short term. For others, it will be more balanced. In the long term, you'll struggle to find a successful business that doesn't consider looking after its people important. How you answer it will be impacted by the situation your business is in, the skills required, your culture, and your leadership. This process and context should frame the challenge whether you are focusing on flexible working, recruitment, training & development, engagement, internal communications, employee value proposition or indeed anything else.
What are your demands? Once you understand your ultimate question, you can start to work out how you are going to evaluate potential answers. There will be a number of criteria that you can take into account. Some elements will be more important than others - you'll need to work this out too. How would you rank financial considerations, safety, culture, collaboration, communication, face-to-face interaction, commuting stress, and day-to-day management amongst all other things in order of importance?
It is worth bearing in mind that people have got used to working from home, so in that respect, the genie is out of the bottle. It is unlikely that many will return to pre-2020 working practices if they don't have to. It is also important to understand that a one-size-fits-all plan is not going to cut it. People have different expectations, home set-ups, commuting lengths, personalities, teams, and commitments.
Finally, remember that companies have expectations and requirements that haven't gone away, and if anything have become more acute. What are your options?
This is the part where you come up with the ideas. You shouldn't limit yourself to traditional thinking; this is a new problem that no-one has had to solve before. However, companies are doing lots of different things so it is worth having a look around. This is not the place to discuss in detail how to generate a list of ideas. However, on a broad spectrum, you are coming up with all options that cover everyone in the office, to everyone working from home and everything in between. It might be different teams on different days, pods, projects, half days, or staggered starts. You could come up with a strict or fluid policy. Insights and evidence It is a universal truth in order not to be railroaded into a decision that suits the most vocal or most senior person, evidence is vital. What insights can you find to help support making a good call? None of this is easy, but it is essential:
What are the financial implications of different policies?
What is the spending or saving on technology, office space, travel?
What is your spending on meetings under different circumstances?
What is the incremental cost of organising and administering your policy?
Understanding the benefits is normally harder than working out the costs, but if anything, it is more important. For example;
How can you evaluate the well-being benefit for your people of not having to commute everyday?
What are the impacts on communication, innovation, and creativity if people can't be together face-to-face? How can you quantify it?
How can you measure the quality of delivery to customers or clients under different scenarios?
These questions are often at the heart of the conundrum that businesses face: it is much easier to understand cost than value, so creating a business case and demonstrating a Return On Investment is notoriously tricky. However, this shouldn't dissuade you. There are plenty of data-points that can be used and many inventive ways to work this out.
Taking this four-stage approach can improve the impact and effectiveness of your flexible working policies. It should help balance the needs of everyone involved. Each business is unique, so it's unlikely your solution will be identical to others. It is imperative to get a broad group of people working on it. Diverse perspectives are more likely to create better ideas, a thorough examination with evidence should help you make better decisions.