Date posted: 21/10/2020 5 min read

Why managers need better people skills in the ‘new normal’ of work

The coronavirus lockdowns may be easing, but we won’t be losing the ‘remote’ part from our working lives just yet.

In Brief

  • Post-lockdown, it’s expected many workplaces will move a hybrid model, where people work from home about three days a week.
  • When people are working from home, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure they are safe.
  • Excellent communication skills are vital when people are working remotely.

By Fiona Smith

Sceptics of flexible working have always scoffed at claims we are more productive when working from home. As far as those office-bound hardliners are concerned, it is all a case of wishful thinking.

It appears they are not entirely wrong.

Some people will work more effectively on their own, away from the workplace – but it depends on how long they are away, the kind of work they do, the environment they have at home and their personality, says Jon Williams, co-founder of Sydney-based management consultancy Fifth Frame and former global leader, people and organisation, at PwC.

However, if they have to collaborate, need social interaction, or home life is too noisy and distracting – then home-based work can be tough.

When productivity starts to suffer

All these reports of increased productivity in the early weeks of the pandemic are a product of that “can-do”, “we-are-all-in-this-together” spirit that comes to play in a crisis, explains Williams. People were working very long hours, fuelled by necessity and the fear of losing their jobs.

However, things change when the novelty of crisis has worn off.

“Everyone thought working from home was great for the first four to eight weeks,” says Williams.

“Many of them found they could get on with their tasks because they were not being interrupted and people genuinely found they were more productive.

“Once they got past that initial period, however, the slow degradation of relationships and the lack of those hallway conversations started to impact the productivity of those who have longer-term, more complex, work.

“When you are physically remote, those relationships fade to the point that people stop supporting each other. And, at that point, your productivity starts to suffer.”

“When you are physically remote, those relationships fade to the point that people stop supporting each other.”
Jon Williams, Fifth Frame

Will the hybrid model of work be the ‘new normal’?

The consensus view among workplace experts is that once COVID-19 has been dealt with – or we have learned to live with it – people’s working patterns will have undergone a permanent change. It’s expected most workplaces that can accommodate it will have a hybrid model, where people work from home about three days a week.

Before COVID-19, the people who worked this way were mostly doing it because it suited them. About 24% of employed people in Australia reported “regularly” working from home before the pandemic, but for most (71%) it was less than 10 hours per week.

Post COVID-19, the hybrid model is expected to be much more widespread, with more days working away from the office. People who would not have chosen that style of working will need to adapt.

This change will have massive implications for organisations, including:

Real estate – less floor space will be needed overall, but more will be required around each desk to ensure social distancing.

Scheduling – people will need to plan their weeks carefully to ensure they’re in the office to collaborate when needed.

Management – leaders will need new skills to be able to communicate effectively, mentor, supervise and coordinate remotely. The most crucial role in organisations will be that of the immediate manager.

Performance assessment  – managers will need to rely on more outcomes-based measures.

Culture – organisations will need to find ways to maintain the culture when people are physically remote.

Why managers will need better people skills

Some challenges will be met by investing in new technologies. One start-up well placed to fit into this new landscape is Pyn, a human resources tech company backed by alumni from Atlassian.

Pyn is a software service that acts as a kind of cheat sheet to good management. It sends prompts to managers whenever an action is required, such as setting up meetings for a new staff member, sending a “welcome back” email to someone returning from leave, or creating a template for conversations about performance.

Pyn co-founder Joris Luijke says the post-COVID-19 world will ask a great deal from managers – many of whom are not naturally good communicators.

“If you have remote workers in your team, you have to be on the same page because misunderstandings can have a huge impact on team productivity.

“If you don’t understand the last message of the day from your employee, who lives in a different time zone, you have to wait for a full day to sort it out,” he explains. “Written communications in an asynchronous world are really important.”

Luijke has led HR at tech companies including Typeform, Squarespace and Atlassian and says fully remote companies that exist today are accustomed to having every single process written down. As a result, they look for excellent communication and writing skills in new hires.

“Their business depends on it. It needs to be a real key strength,” he says.

Most businesses whose workers have moved home during the pandemic are discovering that 90% of their people do not have the skills at the necessary level, adds Luijke.

In a hybrid workplace model, there’s a danger people who work remotely will be at a disadvantage because it is so much easier for their office-based colleagues to communicate face-to-face.

“It is easy to lose track of a person who is out of sight,” he warns.

Is your organisation too lean to survive?

Futurologist and author Rocky Scopelliti says leaders will be thinking about organisational resilience in a post-COVID-19 world.

In the early months of the pandemic, they will have been struck by the qualities of organisations that were able to pivot and “turn on a dime”.

“Organisational survival is no longer a function of the size of the organisation or its access to scarce resources,” says Scopelliti, author of Australia 2030 – Where the bloody hell are we?

“In 1920, the average life of a Fortune 500 organisation was 65 years. That is now down to 15 years, and I would predict that this decade, we’ll see that decline to below 10 years.

“It’s the capacity of an organisation to adapt which becomes the predictor of its capacity to survive in an uncertain world.”

Scopelliti notes that a lack of resilience was evident in organisations that have “pursued efficiency over the capacity to adapt”.

“The world has profoundly changed. We have profoundly changed. And now is the time to actually reset and prepare for a world that will increasingly become more and more uncertain.

“Now is the time to look at all those systems, procedures, policies that, under stress, didn’t cope.”

Staying safe and healthy at home

When people are working from home, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure they are safe.

Deb Sutherland, who chairs the occupational health group at the Australian Physiotherapy Association, says an implementation guide should set out the responsibilities of the employers and employee.

“If you have a policy and a guide, signed by both parties, then you have an agreement. It is the same as working from the usual office,” she says.

“Some people have taken to working from bed, but there’s really no such thing as working well from lying down. If you do, we insist you put a wedge in behind your back and your knees need to be bent and your laptop is on there. But it is absolutely our last preference.”

People should also spend time moving around during the workday, perhaps when talking on the phone, to keep their circulation going.

“People who never really interrupt their sitting time have a higher rate of depression and anxiety,” Sutherland says. “Mental health is very important in this because people just aren’t switching off. The work is always there.”

How to ‘do’ hybrid right

Inclusive meetings

Ensure everyone has a screen on, whether they are in a conference room or their kitchen. This helps avoid the feeling of having an “in crowd” and “out crowd”.

Mental wellbeing

Make sure people have the support they need now and continue that commitment into the future. Train managers to recognise the signs of struggle and give them the tools they need to find help.

Collaboration technology

People need to know how to use technology effectively.

Upskill

Provide training in digital fluency, adaptability, leadership, and creative problem solving – essential skills for the future.

Rethink space

How will people be using the office? Provide places for those to come to work for uninterrupted thinking time, or those who come to meet and collaborate with others.

Source: Deloitte

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