Shelley Frosdick, Group Managing Director at The PHA Group
A new year has started, but in many ways it feels the same. We’re well into our third lockdown with all the social restrictions we’ve become accustomed to over the past year, and for many employers that also means a continuation of remote workforces. With little change expected in the next few months, the short-term planning for many businesses is much the same in 2021 as it was in 2020.
However, with the vaccine roll-out accelerating, there is hope that some sense of normality may be resumed in the not too distant future, and businesses must begin planning ahead with a long-term strategy to compliment the short-term one.
Last year was an incredibly challenging one for most businesses for a variety of reasons. Almost every sector was impacted by the pandemic to varying degrees. But businesses nationwide have shown admirable resilience and dynamism to adapt. And as a result, some positive developments emerged in the way we worked last year. In 2021, it will be important to continue some of these key improvements to ways of working made during the pandemic – from the use of technology to the rise of flexible working.
The rise of remote working
2020 was the year of the video call – ‘You’re on mute’, ‘Your camera isn’t working’ and ‘I just need to get the door’ became phrases repeated thousands of times! It helped bring separated colleagues and businesses together from their homes and will continue to be a popular mode of communication in 2021 and beyond, with advancements in the technology helping to improve user experience. Microsoft Teams for example was popularised by many businesses – including The PHA Group – for its videoconferencing software. But the platform also offers file storage, workspace chats and application integration. As a result of its versatility, it’s likely to be a permanent internal and external communications tool even after we return to the office.
This could have ramifications for other ways of working. For example, it could open the door to increased global collaboration. At The PHA Group, we have been able to work much more closely with our partner agency in the US, 5W, by setting up group video calls and generally making their workforce more accessible to ours. Whilst we will re-start our physical exchange programme as soon as allowed, creating regular virtual exchanges throughout the year will become a key part of our training offering to encourage closer working relationships between our teams. It’s important to take positives from a year of so many challenges and fostering closer working relationships with our global partners will definitely be one.
Additionally, it has also facilitated the rise in remote working, by increasing the already growing trend of staff potentially working from anywhere in the world – provided there is a good internet connection of course! A survey of just under 1,000 firms by the Institute of Directors (IoD) shows that 74% of businesses plan on maintaining the increase in home working. For example, in May 2020, Twitter announced it would allow staff to work from home ‘forever’. Similarly, at PHA we introduced a new flexible working policy that gives all staff the opportunity to work remotely for up to 10 days each month. Myself and my co-MD Stuart were always keen to adapt our flexible working policy and the success the business saw from remote working during the early days of the pandemic gave us the reassurance that pushing ahead with this new policy that offered so much more flexibility for our staff was the right decision. Giving staff the choice of where to work shows our trust and desire to allow everyone to find a way of working that’s right for them. We will always have an office as we see so much value still in the importance of in person collaboration with colleagues and clients. But what we want to achieve is balance and a happy, connected team.
After the successful trial of remote working in 2020, it is crucial that businesses put in place structures to ensure it stays high on the agenda post-pandemic. Offering flexible working shouldn’t be seen as a perk but a way of working that should be made available to all.
The future is flexible
The popularisation of remote working at the hands of the pandemic has also opened up greater awareness of the benefits of flexible working, particularly for work-life balance.
In a survey of over 6,000 workers by academics at Cardiff and Southampton universities, nine in ten would like to continue working from home in some form. 70% cited reasons of productivity behind their decision, saying they were able to get as much or more work done while working from home. While others point to the benefits they’ve experienced in their personal lives, for example enjoying the simple pleasures of being able to exercise or do household chores more easily around their working hours. While other benefits also include more serious commitments such as childcare. In a 2019 government report, almost a third of women and a tenth of men in the UK with a child aged 14 or under had needed to cut their working hours because of childcare issues. But many parents now report that ‘working from home has made childcare easier’.
Now that many have seen the tangible benefits working from home can have on their home lives in terms of allowing a greater flexibility, and employers have seen how these benefits have had a positive impact on their employees, it seems this 2020 trend is here to stay.
The 2020 annual report by CIPD (The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) and SimplyHealth entitled ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work’ makes clear the detrimental effects of the pandemic. In a survey of over 1,000 HR and L&D professionals, it found that “nearly two-fifths (37%) have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, while three-fifths (60%) report an increase in common mental health conditions”.
If they didn’t know before, then 2020 has surely opened up the eyes of businesses to the important connection between productivity and happiness. Employee wellbeing initiatives such as healthcare support, access to independent expert advice, team treats and an inclusive and supportive culture have become an important way for businesses to make staff feel more motivated and more connected to their employer and colleagues.
Once again, 2021 will be a year of disruption but also one of progress. Businesses must continue to build on the lessons of 2020 to find short-term solutions to the current restrictions, while also using them to create a better future working environment post-pandemic.