The pandemic has accelerated the evolution of the workplace, perhaps years before many organisations were ready to take the leap. But as we begin our recovery from the pandemic, businesses will have a big decision to make. Do we want to return to a ‘tweaked’ version of normality or are organisations prepared to map out a bold new vision for how we work and better use the physical workplace?
Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, David D’Souza, Membership Director at CIPD, Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive at Demos, and Rachel King, People Director at Camelot, as we explore how business can reimagine and modernise three key elements of work: the physical workplace, working practices and working relationships.
Nigel Cassidy: Business life after lockdown, how to build back better and avoid slipping into old routines, I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.
Now if we’re honest I reckon most of us have at least some of what psychologists call return anxiety, crowded transport, face to face meetings, wearing masks, making small talk. More to the point are our workplaces safe? A year since our old way of working came to a screeching halt it’s goodbye and maybe good riddance to the 9 to 5 but what will replace it? In many ways it’s being left to people managers to organise what we keep hearing will be our new hybrid working lives, trying to build on all that initiative that flexibility, the trustworthiness, all those human and digital skills which got us through the last year. So stay with us as we home in on the future from a physical workplace for working practices and how we collaborate.
With me the chief of the cross party think tank at Demos, who's indeed been thinking hard about our working lives after COVID, she's Polly Mackenzie. Hello.
Polly Mackenzie: Hi There.
NC: And bringing her experience in the media, technology, retail and hospitality sectors it’s Camelot’s people director, Rachel King. Hello.
Rachel King: Hello there.
NC: And from the home team one of the UK’s most influential workplace commentators the CIPD’s membership director David D’Souza. Hi.
David D’Souza: Hello.
NC: So let’s start with the big picture and with Polly Mackenzie. We’re at this kind of inflection point aren’t we with everything changing at warp speed, what do you reckon we’ve learnt so far about the new working world, not least from that rather abortive return we had last year?
PM: Thanks Nigel. So I mean it’s complicated and I think all the different workplaces are approaching this in lots of different ways. Some barely opened their offices at all whereas some pushed, encouraged and tried to get people back into the office. I started buying the newspapers to try and lure some of my staff back to the office in the Autumn last year, we now have a large pile of newspapers lying unwanted in our empty office. But what we know overall is that most of the people who were able to change their workplace and work from home over the course of this pandemic year quite liked it. It’s not everybody of course, we will all have examples of somebody who has no quiet space to work at home, it might be domestic violence, it might just simply be that there's no decent chair, all sorts of different reasons, and especially young people more likely to not be happy working at home but nevertheless on average people liked it and they do want to go back to the office, a bit, sometimes they’re reluctant about the commute. And they’re expecting that most employers will flex to offer those kind of hybrid options. And including more flexibility around working times, not just working places.
NC: Okay well we’ll talk about the practicalities of getting so many people back in a moment but let’s just go to David, you’ve said, it’s time to stop this everybody in or everybody out debate, what do you mean by that?
DD’S: I think there's been some very lazy commentary in this space over the last year. So you've had some really polarised arguments about whether everyone needs to be in an office for it to be successful, or everyone needs to be working from home, or whether the future’s hybrid. And actually this should be a conversation about mature use of flexible practices. That's where we need to get far better, far more inclusive in the way that we work. And the other thing that needs to be not left behind is a focus on people who don't have a choice over their location about where they work. And some of those interestingly will work in organisations where other people do have a choice so this is a real crisis point for us in terms of needing a mature approach to what we do next, whereas in fact what you see in the media quite often is a very polarised, quite outraged approach to the conversation that really isn't helpful. This shouldn’t be a people on one side and people on the other, this should be about how do we come together to solve actually a societal problem that impacts most people because work matters.
NC: And I mean quite a range of responses we’ve had to all this I mean from those tech employers telling their people they can work from home forever to Goldman Sachs all but ordering staff to get back to their office desks just as soon as possible. And then I suppose there's the people in between who've just, as we’ve already heard, kind of soldiered on regardless in public facing roles or there's of course also the people who may be secretly quite enjoyed having most of the workplace to themselves if they came in on their own. So let’s look at the future of the physical office, or at least the people aspects of it, Rachel King, at Camelot you've got what 500 – 600 of your 900 people on two main sites, so tell us how you’re approaching this kind of phased migration back?
RK: Thanks Nigel. I think, as you referred to, last year we had a bit of an aborted attempt to get people back into the office. We’ve worked really hard to get our offices COVID-safe and have really invested a lot of time and effort in reworking the floor space, taking out desks, making sure that we absolutely comply with COVID-safe regulations and last year we started fazing people back in, in slightly larger numbers.
NC: What proportion can you squeeze in?
RK: We can get just under half our people back in, in a COVID-safe world but actually we didn’t have the demand at that time for people to actually want to come back in, so people were very sensible and we actually prioritised people who were struggling at home because either they haven’t got the greatest environments at home, or there are elements of their job that are actually just quite hard to do at home in a remote way. We prioritised them. So we’ve worked really hard on COVID-safe environment. We’ve got a bit more to do but it is really great. What we’re grappling with now is what does the future look like in terms of physical space and what's the optimum use of physical space. But I think to David’s point it’s much more complex than are you at home or are you in the office, because we’ve had people working in our buildings throughout the pandemic and they’re just as worried about people coming back into their very safe personal sort of physical space during that time, so we’ve got to be very thoughtful about them too.
NC: You were also telling me beforehand that collaboration, which is what people keep telling us the office is going to be primarily for, actually takes more room than somebody just working in their own cell.
RK: Yes I mean we don't want people to come back in and sit at their desks and do their emails and dial onto calls, we want people to come back in and we’ve talked a lot with our people about what’s the most value you get out of the office. And that's actually collaboration, it’s face to face contact, it’s those serendipitous moments where you’re in a queue for a coffee and you see somebody who you didn’t have a scheduled planned meeting with but you’re going to have a chat with them and other things will come out of those conversations. So all of that by chance environment that we’re really missing and the opportunity to get back face to face. I actually popped into the office last week to do something that couldn’t be done in a virtual way and I just felt so energised personally by seeing some real people. And that gave me a lift for the next couple of days of working virtually at home.
NC: What do you think about that Polly? I mean it does raise this question what is the purpose of the physical workplace?
PM: I think, I mean we’re certainly picking up lots of stories of people reconfiguring their workspaces. As Rachel says, you know, you mostly don't want people, unless it’s the only safe place or the only private space where they can, whether it’s working on secure data or can just sit there and concentrate all day, you mostly do want people to come in for collaboration. And what we’ve done with our office is a kind of microcosm of what much bigger employers are doing is we’ve taken what used to be a small event space and we’ve converted that into a couple of rows of desks and taken what used to be the rows of desks and turned it into a big event space with big tables, lots of whiteboards, chalk pens and you know, it’s a collaboration space. It’s enabling people to come and do the think tanky stuff and I'm sure that lots of employers will be thinking about that. Or it’s the physical manifestation of how you generate ideas and so often add value, and that is so difficult to go home. You know, I'm sure we’ve all tried virtual whiteboards or electronic post-it notes, none of these things work really do they? Nothing is quite as great as a highlighter pen.
NC: I saw a Deloitte report for Liberty Global on the future of work and they talk about collaboration, innovation and celebration, as three things that you could do in the office, David D’Souza, all this takes an enormous amount of management and this is being put on the shoulders of people managers, the HR department, but it’s actually fundamental to how organisations function.
DD’S: Yeah there's nothing more important than helping the talent in your organisation flourish and have the best environment for doing that and that's environment in the broadest sense, the people around them and the physical environment around them. The advantage that we have is that actually this has happened for years and so some organisations have worked purely remotely for years, some have done mixed method for years, so there's a bank of research to draw on and a bank of examples from organisations and in fact what we’re going through at the moment is relatively atypical because people are having to cope with a pandemic in the background as well. So Polly’s got some great stats, we have at the CIPD as well, that we’ve done regular polling, but the pinch of salt that I’ll add to any of that polling is that you're asking people in the middle of a crisis when they can't see friends and family and when lots of their liberties have been compromised or removed for public necessity. I think what will happen when we open up a bit more is that we’ll get some people rushing back in and then actually they’ll settle into kind of a calmer equilibrium in the middle. But the point around management is really, really important because we know that trust is absolutely key to getting people to work in this way and historically managers have tended to like to be able to see the people around them to feel that somehow just being near them is giving them some kind of performance by osmosis through their natural inspiration. And we’ve seen that from a group of CEOs, I need you back in the office because I bring fire to it, this is where the drive happens, and we’ve just got to be a lot more mature in terms of creating trust.
NC: When you say that you’re kind of slightly putting it on senior managers, just wanting to control where people are but Rachel King there is a point isn't there that when you have those random encounters with people who you maybe don't directly work with that's actually valuable and you were telling me before that people have lost that working from home.
RK: Yes we’ve definitely noticed the sphere of people you actually interact with is much, much smaller. So I'm spending a lot of time with my executive team and a lot of time with my direct team and there are so many people that I would normally contact and bump into that aren’t in my schedule and our lives are much more scheduled and we just don't have that free time. So some of the things we’ve been doing is creating a few more random encounters or putting in odd random telephone calls to people that I might normally bump into that I don't otherwise, and just say, hello I'm just giving you a ring, how are you? What’s happening? And once they get over the initial shock and think, oh my goodness why is the People Director ringing me, actually those are interesting moments where you just say, how’s it going and what are you working on that's a priority at the moment? So we’re trying to recreate those.
NC: Okay so let’s move a bit from how we’re going to use the physical office in the future to working practice, collaboration, all the stuff that goes on wherever you are and Polly Mackenzie we know that everything’s changed here, a lot of knowledge tasks have suddenly been automated, so workers certainly we know now need to be good communicators, we need more exacting skills and everything, how do you see that whole thing changing as we go back to work?
PM: I think definitely we need to have a shift in how people are managed and supervised, lots of managers have relied for a long time on just being able to see who's working hard and evaluating people that way. And this system of not being able to see people creates a pressure which some people are kind of using an outlet for that pressure is surveillance software and webcam monitoring of their staff, but I think more managers are thinking more creatively about what is it that I actually need from somebody? What are the outputs and the outcomes I expect? And how do I manage for that? And I think that's really welcome.
There's lots and lots of practical challenges though including chairing meetings. So chairing a meeting on Zoom is really quite different from chairing a meeting in the office and both are different from chairing a meeting which is hybrid. Now most of the people I speak to in HR would much prefer that you don't really have hybrid meetings because the danger is it creates a sort of second tier, anybody who's in there virtually isn't really in the meeting and they get left out, but the reality is that then you might have lots of people who are in the office who are then forced to sit around a desk with their headphones on, completely closed off to recreate the virtual environment for the people who are outside. And exactly how you manage that, genuinely difficult. So how do you coordinate who's in the office, who's out of the office, because if you get everybody to come in on say Mondays and Wednesdays you lose the benefit of flexibility but you also lose the benefit of being able to downsize or reconfigure your office because you've got the same peak need for desks and chairs but without it always being full. So honestly at this point it just feels like we’re in, as David said, a sort of period of experimentation and learning and the more HR people, people directors can share those learnings and insights and experiments, because lots of them will go wrong, I think the faster we will learn.
NC: David what have you observed about how people can best be managed in this new environment?
DD’S: I think organisations have come to terms quite well over the last year with the immediate management of people. I think it started off with just replicating what everyone was doing in the office virtually, and we know that that doesn’t work and most organisations learnt quite a tough lesson there. So you're seeing some of the more mature processes that Rachel’s talked about, so being more mindful of how you create time and space for people. I think the biggest challenge is actually some of the longer term issues that we’ll face around things like people development and connection and identification of talent, because they’re a lot harder to do potentially, remotely than they were in person and we need to be really careful about things like share of voice, development opportunities, because lots of things naturally people would have picked up by sitting next to someone. Joining a company you learn about the culture by sitting there, seeing how people interact around you and when you've got a problem knowing when it’s a quiet time to ask the person next to you. We’ve lost that, we can replicate some of that digitally but there are definitely some challenges there. And as I say talent identification I think is the biggest challenge. How are you going ensure that you’re promoting the right people in an environment like this and not just the noisy voices?
NC: So Rachel King how are you approaching managing people and ensuring that there is more collaboration but of course you get the job done?
RK: Well we’re trying to look at it as a balance. So trying to assess productivity and also create those moments of collaboration and I think it’s partly accepting about the way you organise work, so you need to leave spaces in meetings. We need to schedule meetings slightly differently, we need to leave gaps between meetings and think about how people plan their day. So for example with my team we have a much less packed agenda on a meeting that we might have had in the office but actually in the virtual world we recognise that we need to build in time for the informal discussion. I've actually experienced a hybrid sort of set of meetings throughout the pandemic in parts of the unlock of the lockdown and I was the one at home and a lot of my colleagues were in the office and some really basic things like making sure the acoustics and the technology in whatever building you’re in enable the person remotely to really participate well and the initial meeting banter that happens you’re not excluding the people that are looking in if you’re not careful. So lots of the things about dynamics.
To David’s point about how you bring people in and on board them, we’ve hired about 145 people throughout the pandemic and we’ve created some of the on boarding experiences in a virtual way to try and help people get to know the company even though we’re all virtually working. And I think we’ve done a really fantastic job on that but there's still something missing for people who join the organisation. And I've got a couple of new people in my team, one of whom I met last week and I’d never met her in person, had no idea how tall she was, so that was an absolute delight to meet somebody and just get that very human picture of somebody that you just can't do and perhaps a bit of extra connection. So I think there are some practical things for us and definitely how do you replicate that we’re all sitting at a bank of desks and I can overhear things and I'm learning from the person next to me? We haven’t cracked that.
PM: So sometimes when we collaborate on a document we’ve been using Discord, which is normally used by gamers who are playing in a virtual world is we just open a Discord server and it’s as if you’re sitting next to the office and you can hear the other person tapping away or moving their coffee and then you can kind of share those random opportune thoughts about the…
NC: And can you use a weapon if they annoy you?
PM: Absolutely, absolutely and there's elves and stuff, no, that would be fun. But it just really helps. It’s funny how recreating those, the microscopic feeling of the office can help you feel that you’re collaborating and I know there are new technologies opening up to do those sorts of things or to, whatever, generate random coffees for you to have or to try and replicate that, but I think as Rachel says, in the end the watercooler moments mostly have to involve an actual watercooler.
NC: Because I mean David it’s almost as if organisations have suddenly been stress-testing their ability to blend people and technology, things that some have said they should have done years ago and suddenly they're doing it and actually the technology is found wanting sometimes?
DD’S: I'm not sure the technology is found wanting, so to Polly’s point there are lots of use cases where people have been utilising technology to collaborate effectively.
NC: Well it’s available but they don't have it.
DD’S: Yeah I mean you only have to look at something as impressive a project as Wikipedia to know that people can collaborate and produce something incredibly impressive without, but organisations are slightly different to just being about the work because longer term they’re about social capital, they’re about relationships, they’re about culture, they’re about a whole range of things that then drive that productivity. So lots of organisations went from being ten or 15 years behind the curve to being where they need to be in terms of tech, quite rapidly over the last year, that brings the learning curve in terms of how to use those products and the integration of them with the way that people work but we need to remember that it’s not about the technology that's an enabler, it’s about how the organisation chooses to be with its people, support its people and ultimately help them to be successful on the organisation’s behalf.
NC: So David do you want to say any more about productivity and how we achieve that with a very different way of working?
DD’S: Well I think the key is to focus on the outcomes that people produce rather than the amount of times they're present. So you’ve seen it in offices for years which is the last person to leave is the person that's believed to be most effective, but Bill Gates used to have a lovely saying which is, if I want something complex done I’ll give it to the laziest person I know because they’ll find the easiest way to do it. And I think we need to refocus in organisations on what people are producing not just how long they are there because actually whether it’s in an office or whether it’s at home it shouldn’t be able how long you’re logged in for, it should be about what you’re producing and developing for the organisation and how you’re moving it along.
NC: Is that something you've seen in any of your research Polly? A lot of people complain about presenteeism.
PM: I think it’s really important. There's a lot of concern about being remotely monitored and spied upon. Somehow it is much worse to have a sense that your boss is tracking everything you’re doing when they can't see you than it is for them just glancing across the desk and seeing what you’re up to. And so the way to build trust is to focus on measuring people’s outputs. And really harnessing the benefits of people being away from the office, not having to commute, most people actually will give a bit of that commuting time back to their employer rather than taking it for themselves, but in return they might want to do an hour before breakfast or an hour after they’ve put the kids to bed, and just be a bit more flexible in the middle of the day and I think that can benefit all of us.
NC: And Rachel King do you have to sometimes remind senior managers about this trust people thing?
RK: Well we’ve actually got a different issue and we’re having to remind our people to sort of give themselves some time. We’re actually finding people are working longer, they’re logging on earlier, they’re logging off later and they're actually already using, in many cases, their commuting time. So on the wellbeing point we’ve given a lot of guidance to people to say we’re not watching you, we’re not expecting you to necessarily work the normal day. And for those people that have got children of school age they’ve had a very, very practical issue over the last few months where they may well be two adults in a house, both working full time, with young children in the house, trying to manage childcare. So we’ve had to say to people, think really differently about your work day and talk to your manager about how you might need to schedule that so you can get your output delivered but you can do it in a completely different way. Of course there are people, some of whom their jobs can't be done like that, they’ve got quite a fixed schedule, they might be taking phone calls, they might be in a warehouse environment, so they don't have that control over their work, and again that creates not a one size fits all that we need to manage really carefully from a cultural point of view.
NC: David mental health in the workplace is something that comes up in a lot of these podcasts, we know the last year has tested families and homeworkers, in some cases to near breaking point, I did see one large bank commissioning a sudden mental health audit, I mean is that good or does it just suggest they weren’t actually doing enough as this has played out?
DD’S: So a couple of points, first of all I would say again it’s not just about home workers this has to be about the whole system and everyone working in the economy, organisations weren’t good enough in terms of their duty of care in the main, towards people in terms of mental wellbeing in particular, so wellbeing in general. I think what we’ve seen is some leap forwards. I think what’s really important is what we keep and hold from this point onwards, and it’s genuinely not about initiatives, it’s not about have you bought an app. That's symbolic of the fact you’re prepared to invest but actually going forward it’s about job crafting, it’s about balance, it’s about genuine inclusion for people, so understanding the circumstances going on in their lives. I think we’ve seen a rapid maturing but again it’s still not where it needs to be in many organisations, and for the organisations that have progressed there are probably going to be some quite turbulent economic times ahead, we need to make sure that actually that isn't lost and we continue caring. One of the things that we have had is we’ve all had a shared experience, we’ve experienced in different ways, but a shared experience that every CEO of an organisation will have known someone who's been ill or they will have lost someone, and that helps with the empathy and the treatment of people down the line. When work goes back to normal quite often what you see is that empathy gap between leadership and the people doing frontline roles and we need to keep that closed.
NC: And Rachel what conversations are you having with people?
RK: It’s really interesting because I think we were in a lucky position that we had put a lot of the foundations in place around good mental health, or recognising mental health is part of our responsibility as an employer. And I remember right at the start of the pandemic when we got together as an exec team and were really in that moment of oh my goodness who thought we were going to be facing into this? And what it enabled us to do as a senior team was explicitly check in on each other, so for the first time we started our meetings saying, how is everyone? How are you? And we’d go around the room saying, do you know what actually I'm struggling and this is why, or actually I'm having a good day, how can I help you? We would never have done that on a regular basis in the past. So it has become a bit more of our language. Now albeit we don't do that every time now but we still remember it and still somebody can say, actually here’s the thing on my worry list at the moment, and we’re much more connected. We’ve been really explicit with our people that their wellbeing is our number one priority. We worry about that first, keeping people safe, and secondly it’s then the operational resilience and performance of our business. And we’ve kept that as a thread.
To David’s point when do you stop putting that as a priority for your people? And how do you take that forward? So it has really made us think differently. Personally on an audit I think lots of people would feel quite suspicious if their employer suddenly started doing a wellbeing audit on them, so it really has to be framed in the culture that you have created so that people understand the intent behind it. But I think this has given us an opportunity. We’ve also opened up a lot more conversation about diversity and inclusion through the pandemic, so actually recognising that we’re different and having different experiences, reacting differently and that has helped us have a lot more conversation and progress those conversations over the last 12 months.
NC: Okay and this has become tradition now, let me just get one more thought to finish from each of you, maybe starting with Polly looking at making the new world of work, work basically and be more effective and better for people.
PM: I think what Rachel’s saying is really important that wellbeing and productivity aren’t in opposition actually, you know, happy staff are much more likely to be successful and effective at work, and whether that's worrying about their financial wellbeing, their mental health or just the practicalities of their living circumstances, it is actually in employers’ interests and I think because we’ve been exposed to each other's homes in this really intimate and extraordinary way so much over the last year we’re able to see that and make that pivot. People who have been remote working are more likely to be volunteering, they’re more likely to have strengthened their relationship with friends and family, they’re more likely to be exercising more, they’re more likely to be eating better. Across the board this flexibility, and I think it’s flexibility of time as well as place, is really, really improving the lives of lots and lots of workers and so long as you can be adaptive and flexible and recognise, you know, some people do need to come to the office, there's a real opportunity there to make work a place of meaning and effectiveness and not just a suck on your wellbeing that's for the sake of a pay cheque.
NC: And David D’Souza.
DD’S: The challenge for me, and it’s maybe an unfair challenge, is one about congruence, so it’s about do things line up. So if you've taken a strong stance around inclusion over the last 12 months when you get a survey back saying nine in ten people are happy working this way, do you focus on what the one in ten person needs? Because actually you may find that actually that's a group you’re completely underserving. Likewise when you’re thinking about wellbeing are you thinking about apps and interventions there or are you thinking about the construct of jobs? You can't have a strong stance of wellbeing and remove two people from a team and ask it to perform at the same level as before. I think we need to be really mature about what we’re asking. And the narrative that we send out needs to reconcile with the reality that we provide people. So everything’s been thrown up in the air, we’ve got some agency over where it comes down, that's brilliant and an incredible time for the profession but that's what we need to focus on.
NC: And from what David says Rachel that’s not just about how you do your job as a people manager but that's about how you reflect to your senior managers what’s possible and what works.
RK: Yes I think for us it’s to the earlier point of trust and adult tone. So we have a way of working at the moment that has been successful, this is now another phase where we’ve got to demonstrate we still have trust in our people that we can work with them in a new way and we’re going to create the way forward, thinking about whether it’s the nine in ten are happy working one way or the one in ten that has got a different view, but how do we craft that future, which is more complex, that needs to build on all the things we’ve learnt and done really brilliantly in the pandemic but address the things that have been less successful. So it’s a sort of, for us, phase two of ways of working and again we’ll be tested in how we do that. And I'm thoughtful about organisations quickly moving to developing a set of rules for the workplace versus a set of guidelines to help guide managers think practically about how you make it work. We’ve got record levels of engagement so how do we keep that record level of engagement as we move into this next, more complex, phase and how do we get the balance right when, to Polly’s point, some things won't work, and how do we learn from that in a really good way?
NC: Well absolutely I mean without being melodramatic it does strike me from what we’ve heard from our guests today this really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build back better. And it took a pandemic to break down the resistance to change and what a lost opportunity it would be if that resistance to change is allowed to return.
Let me thank our excellent guests this month Camelot’s Rachel King, Polly Mackenzie from Demos and David D’Souza here at the CIPD. As always lots of resources on how to fast track workplace change on the CIPD website. And please subscribe to the podcast if you don't already. Until next time it’s goodbye.
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