Over the past few years there has been a growing demand for more flexible work arrangements – and then came Covid-19. Very quickly most of us had to work from home full-time and adapt to remote working. Now with people increasingly returning to the office, it is clear flexible working has become the new “normal” and it is a huge incentive to attract talent and maintain the workforce.
At Marana we adopted flexible working practices a number of years ago and along the way we have learned how to make it work for us. We are now working with clients to make their adoption of flexible work practices a success for staff, teams and the organisation and its customers and/or clients.
To start with, it is important for organisations to meet the legal requirements. The Fair Work Ombudsman outlines these on their website https://www.fairwork.gov.au/tools-and-resources/best-practice-guides/flexible-working-arrangements.
Beyond complying with legal issues, our recent experiences with clients suggests the following approaches make flexible working positive for everyone.
1. Decide which flexible options the organisation and its work can support and then develop a Flexible Working Policy and communicate it to staff. For many organisations, it may not be possible to have everyone work from home all the time and it’s unlikely you cannot have some of your staff work flexibly. It is important the Policy outlines who can apply for flexible work and what arrangements can be adopted, how to apply, what the decision-making process for an application will be and how it will be monitored and reviewed. The Policy helps managers and staff understand the process and the reasoning behind decisions made and assists in achieving a consistent approach.
2. Have a transparent flexible work assessment system that can review which parts of the job can be performed remotely and which in the office or workplace. It will be important to consider the deliverables or outputs of people’s work and the customer’s or client’s needs in this. It is essential for you to have coverage for client-facing work.
3. Check whether you have the systems and technology to support the arrangements you want, including methods for knowledge transfer and training. Staff may need additional hardware for working remotely and some may require additional strategies and support when poor internet connection impacts productivity. This is especially the case for some parts of regional NSW – staff often tell us about their “technology rage”!
4. Ensure staff have a remote workspace that is ergonomic and fit for purpose. We have heard stories of people in share accommodation working whilst perched on the end of the bed. In other cases, clients are telling us about muscle tension and hip pain as a result of sitting for extended periods of time. Develop a checklist of what is required for safe effective working and discuss with staff what set-up they have and what you are prepared to provide.
5. Ensure that you have a Work-from-Home Security Policy that clearly outlines the rules regarding the use of devices and internet security guidelines. Importantly, the Work-from-Home Security Policy should provide guidance on how to work in a home environment that may be shared with others. We have heard about clients where the nature of the work is very sensitive requiring careful consideration of what can be seen on a screen and/or overheard in terms of conversations. One client has told us when working and discussing something in a public venue, they were approached by a member of the public saying “you shouldn’t be discussing that type of thing here!”
6. Good people management skills are critical. Flexible working requires managers to have strong facilitation skills, being able to coach and delegate effectively, give feedback, communicate through multiple media, and focus on outcomes and performance measures rather than on time spent in the office. This may require some management training or coaching so that People Leaders are confident in their ability to manage and/or supervise the team working remotely.
7. Trust and empower staff to do their work without constant monitoring. If people understand the organisation’s goals and have clear performance expectations, where they work is less important. This does, however, require People Leaders to set and/or clarify expectations, facilitate regular feedback and encourage staff to perform at their best, which creates a high performance team culture.
8. Ensure you have role model leaders at all levels who work flexibly and show it can work.
9. Ensure staff don’t miss out on knowledge transfer opportunities whether it be training, coaching and job opportunities just because they are not in the office or workplace 5 days a week. Where you wish to address any performance issues, it is vital to keep in touch to build skills and confidence. Regular coaching and one-on-ones can be conducted live online using tools like Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Miscommunication and misinterpretation are more common online and it is important to recognise the value of making the time to travel and engage in face-to-face dialogue.
10. Create opportunities for the team to all come together in one place and ensure time spent together is efficient. Some staff may have to alter their normal arrangements, say for child-care or drop off and pick-up of children, to come in for a team meeting, so ensure it is productive and their effort in changing their routine is worthwhile. Discuss and agree what type of team social activities can work for people.
11. Agree on your team methods of communication and how you will know where people are, say in case of a problem needing their input or an emergency. The use of shared calendars and/or online tools can be great for this. What are the boundaries around people being contacted – when is it too late or too early? What constitutes “time pollution” or “over-working”? Agree service standards for how quickly emails or texts might be answered to avoid frustration and misunderstandings.
Marana has been supporting clients with “Working Flexibly for People Leaders” and “Working Flexibly for Teams” workshops delivered face-to-face and Live Online. We’ve seen that when flexible arrangements are in place and work well, everyone benefits.
Other sites for reference: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/general-industry-information/working-home
Stephen Bevan of Lancaster University did research as part of ‘Work After Lockdown’ in the UK and discusses his findings, He found among other things that 90% of people reported the same productivity in lockdown as before, however there were some mental health impacts of working remotely which will need addressing. (Remote working: why some people are less productive at home than others – new research (theconversation.com).
What have been the main issues organisations have had to manage in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Most organisations were able to adapt to the challenges exceptionally well. This was, in the most part, attributed to collaborative leadership and a willingness from staff to learn and adapt quickly. In the early days of the pandemic, we received some calls from clients, checking in and we were a sounding board for some. Hearing how they were facing the challenges was inspiring especially in regional areas of NSW, where clients were in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of bushfires and floods.
Leading up to COVID-19, some State Government clients were moving towards flexible ways of working in agile shared spaces and were negotiating the hurdles that this change presented. COVID-19 created some sense of urgency facilitating a faster transition. A positive outcome for organisations and their staff.
We work with organisations who have staff predominantly working in the front-line interacting with customers. At an organisational level, clients were having to navigate the government guidelines which were changing regularly. Staff were then having to quickly adapt their interactions to ensure both physical and psychological safety, whilst also having to enforce regulations, deal with non-compliance issues and manage customer expectations.
Whilst everyone was digging deep, the challenges were more evident around October. People Leaders were expressing their concerns that they and their staff were exhausted. Then in December, with the second wave, lockdown and restrictions, people had to cancel much needed holiday breaks. This has presented some challenges in early 2021. Some staff are still very fatigued and are finding it hard to “switch-off” in a constant “switched-on” culture.
What advice do you have in terms of skills needed by employees to thrive in the current work environment?
Policy and process development will be important for organisations to develop comprehensive strategies to define what flexible and or agile working tangibly looks like. Clear policies and guidelines on the options available to staff are essential. It is important that People Leaders collaborate and facilitate how to make flexible working conditions support the needs of the team and the individual. It will also be important for staff to be clear about performance expectations and what over servicing / working might look like to support staff well-being.
This is especially important for some organisations, where I’ve seen that if flexible working is not available, then high calibre staff and job candidates will move to other organisations where flexible working conditions are available. Research suggests that we will not return to pre COVID-19 working conditions and the flexibility of working from home in some form is here to stay. For this to work, it is important for leaders to have strong facilitation skills, demonstrate emotional intelligence competencies and embrace coaching as a leadership and communication style. Adopting a truly collaborative style in place of an old school hierarchy command and control approach is essential and it is vital for this to be role modelled at all levels of an organisation especially at the director and executive levels.
Well-being and mental health continue to be areas of importance in 2021. Employees working from home have to confront the lack of practical boundary between work and personal time. Most work/life balance survival tactics come back to the basics and People Leaders will be required to actively take responsibility, be empathetic, support accountability and check in with staff well-being as an integral part of their role. Some senior leaders have commented to me about “returning to normal” in the context of productivity. COVID-19 has been a catalyst in helping some people realise that the pace they were operating at pre COVID-19 was unsustainable. It is going to be important for people to be permitted to establish boundaries and find time for both work and family and friends. People are pulling back from just what is profitable and focusing on what is worthwhile.
As Director of a small business, what did you do in 2020?
On a personal level and as a director of the business in 2020, I was very mindful of focusing on my physical and mental well-being. I ensured that I got into nature, exercised, walked, reached out to my support network and gave myself the headspace to be able to work through the challenges ahead.
It was important to be patient and process what was going on and what direction Marana needed to take to best assist our clients. Having the headspace to think strategically was important and if I needed this, I thought that some of our clients may value this too. Our first step was to reach out to all our clients, to let them know that we were there for them when they needed us. Many clients also appreciated the space while they navigated the challenges ahead.
I also used the time as an opportunity to work on my own development. I participated in some courses that had been in “Quadrant 2 (Important and Not-Urgent)” for a while. I spent a lot of time reading, researching, developing Live Online content and joining international forums (at all hours of the evening) to collaborate with the learning and development community and find out how global organisations were moving forward in a COVID-19 world. It has been great to be able to share this information with leaders and participants in Australian organisations as they navigate this new world.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
My biggest passion outside of work is skiing – particularly in Japan. It’s been heart-breaking not to be able to ski this year. I promised myself that I would not look at the snow report and I failed! Travel restrictions have encouraged me to continue to explore NSW and over the last year I have enjoyed everything to do with getting outdoors whether it be hiking in the Blue Mountains, swimming down on the South Coast, panning for gold at Trunkey Creek and exploring our beautiful regional towns.
I also love cooking and most recently I have enjoyed experimenting with food over fire. I’m partial to an open flame and my Instagram feed is dominated by food enthusiasts! At the end of a busy week, my ideal night is spent with friends enjoying a good meal and a glass of Pinot Noir.
Tell us something about yourself that we may not know?
I’m an avid Landline-ABC watcher. On a Sunday, you might find me glued to this show. Sometimes, living in the city, we can feel removed from what is happening in regional Australia which is why I love Landline. I grew up in the countryside and I enjoy hearing about what is happening in regional Australia especially related to agriculture and primary industries. I think it appeals to my inner country ‘Akubra’ wearing self!
There seems to be ongoing change for many of us at the moment. For all of us there is a change of government that some will like and some will not. A number of our clients are implementing changes to the way they deal with clients and customers and others are undergoing restructures. At a personal level we currently have a friend changing jobs and another who has made some big changes in their career. One of us has moved from a spacious house to a smaller unit and another is looking at buying their first property. Interestingly even when we seek out and drive some of these changes it can take some time to readjust and at times be frustrating and unsettling. When change is forced upon us and is not what we wanted it can be pretty tough to cope with.