Embedding the practices we have learned to love
The break with the past is nowhere more evident than in the breaking of the habits we do not wish to re-establish after the recovery
How then to embed the practices we have learned to love during lockdown? First, it is worthwhile to reflect on all those things which have not been missed and which we need not restore. Think of these as the transactional tasks and potentially non-value adding tasks which people will no longer accept at one of three levels:
one for which they may be unwilling to take a health risk;
one for which they may not be able or willing to pay in the future;
one for which they may not be willing to travel.
Each of these elements has a direct, and potentially very high, cost for the individual against which they will weigh more consciously the benefit. Any task of a transactional form-filling nature will likely fall into this category and need to be considered as an opportunity for elimination and/or re-design/virtualisation.
This also points to the need for fair process; the people currently engaged in doing this work need to see the logic of the change and be supported through it. This should not be seen as a “turkeys voting for Christmas” problem, nor should it be seen as a managerial ‘no go’ area. We need a mature level of discussion to eliminate these tasks, to prevent them being brought back onto campus and to think about how to re-deploy the people freed from this work for other priorities (hint: there are many). Service levels in many cases could do with radical improvement, the staff released from non-value adding processes may well be needed to field a multiplicity of new demands on the organisation. Sensitive but rigorous handling of such issues is an essential requirement.
Second, there will be virtualised and remote work that can continue as it has under lockdown. While the dislocation of lockdown is disruptive, some functions have continued without being seriously affected. If you work privately and quietly in a study or single office, the transition to home-working has probably been comparatively easy to manage. While it is certain that some people do not have home offices or home environments which they are willing or able to convert to permanent business use, many people will have scope for this. Accordingly, based on a degree of personal preference, the organisation should support the establishment of home offices.
As a practical matter, the organisation has a legal duty of care to ensure that workstations for home-working are legally compliant with relevant workspace regulations and to support employees with the cost of new equipment and reasonable adjustments. Options here may include:
Establishing a formal home office either by a room conversion or a garden building. This could be as simple as a basic workstation (desk, chair, shelving/bookcases) or fully fitted furniture. Costs may range from less than £2,000 for furniture only to perhaps £10,000 for a fitted office and £20,000 for a suitable garden building. Options would both depend on personal preference, acceptability to the homeowner, and affordability to the organisation (options such as interest free loan schemes could be considered as has historically been the case for transport costs);
Likewise, working closer to home could be supported by covering the cost of a subscription to a co-working space local to the employee but remote from campus. This may be suitable for any staff members with a long commute and/or those who do not have scope or appetite to accommodate a formal home office (there are work-life balance issues to consider among other things). As high street retail continues to suffer now more than ever, local provision of co-working spaces may become a very credible option to bring footfall back into hollowed out town centres. Taking opportunities to support some staff by facilitating access to co-working spaces could be a viable option. The regeneration effect could be considerable and Universities may find there are genuinely appealing investment opportunities (although there is a need for caution and careful appraisal of such opportunities – they may not all contain win-win propositions).
As a further measure, institutions could seek to support staff with a wider range of equipment better suited to their needs and to promote greater interoperability between systems (although standardisation has its attractions in terms of scale economies, we must recognise that home-working fundamentally increases the personal dimensions of the decisions).
Third, there are, of course, roles that must inevitably return to campus and which cannot be delivered remotely. These become the critical focus of Covid-secure working practices. They again must be viewed through the lenses of risk: i.e. those experiences for which people are: (a) willing to take a (limited) health risk; (b) going to value in the future; and (c) willing to travel.
The best approach here is probably based on seeking to find a reasonable balance for each individual in terms of their preferred working style, home circumstances and capacity/willingness to accept and ability to accommodate the demands of home-working and the costs of the change. For those who can accommodate a home workstation or home office set up with adequate workspace, proper furniture and room for equipment and storage, the advantages may be considerable in reduced travel time and opportunities for a better work-life balance. Supportive HR policies on flexible working will probably need adaptation but will contain the essential principles and practices already. An important balance to strike is in determining the optimal loading between different staff groups. At one end of the spectrum there will be home-workers who need not attend site at all and at the other there will be many who must return to site to be effective.
The following spectrum illustrates the range. Those in complex peripatetic roles will likely be the dominant group and, accordingly, flexibility and support for a range of solutions will be needed. Significant tolerances in approach will be essential and may extend to a willingness to support multiple technology platforms provided they are compatible and inter-operable with other users of core systems. Permissiveness in supporting different approaches will be essential as the organisation will be encroaching on the home life of the employee much more than before. Equally, the employee will have a greater need to self-support than ever before given the range of demands on the organisations. This balance of rights and responsibilities on both sides will be one of the most complex and sensitive to navigate (and manage on an ongoing basis). One thing is probably worthwhile to acknowledge: “one size will likely fit none”.
Creative experience, serendipitous contacts, relationship building are all areas where there is considerable risk that changes to working practices and remote working will radically alter the functioning of the organisation. Recruitment and on-boarding practices for new staff need to go well beyond traditional interviews and inductions; serendipity cannot be relied on, nor the ‘osmosis’ of just being around the office, which has always had a critical role in how we assimilate knowledge and build effective working relationships. More formal codifying of the ways things are done and more programming of activities and events that help relationships to form and develop will be critical. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37 Signals (the founders of the firm behind Basecamp project management software), captured many of the essential challenges in their 2013 book Remote: Office Not Required. It is a good read and insightful about many of the practical issues and solutions which are tried and tested in many organisations already. Many aspects of social programming associated with innovation districts may become much more mainstream now.