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The future of work: 10 leaders share their views

Nicola Sartori Nicola Sartori

As business leaders turn their thoughts to business recovery and returning to work in the office, we brought together six CEOs and four CFOs to share their reflections on the past three months and think about what opportunities the future might hold. Nicola Sartori summarise the key learnings.

While recovery will be a slow process and finding ways make staff feel comfortable about returning to work is challenging, many businesses have dedicated more time during lockdown to communication, learning far more about what's important to their customers and employees. The leaders joining our conversation said they were now focused on taking these learnings forward.

During the conversation, there were three key priorities that came through for UK business leaders over the next three to six months:

1 Returning to work

Across all industries, companies are starting to activate plans for employees returning to work in the office. The leaders who attended our conversation said they were focusing on the wellbeing of their people and the logistical considerations as they begin to emerge from lockdown.

Everyone agreed that the health of employees is paramount, and staff are not only expressing concerns about their safety in the office, but also the risk posed by their commute. Attendees said that the main concerns of employees in returning to work were:

  • the safety of using public transport in the absence of a vaccine
  • ongoing childcare commitments caused by the closure of schools
  • losing the new-found flexibility they've found in working from home.

Business leaders are painfully aware that decisions they make around returning to work will be scrutinised, highlighting the importance of employers listening to their people. Attendees reported different levels of concern from their own in-house surveys, with results varying across sectors.

For example, according to two CEOs in the technology, media, and telecom (TMT) sector, as few as 5-30% of employees want to return to the office before October, while a CFO working in real estate suggested that capacity levels were likely to remain below 100% until 2021. It's a challenging situation, and leaders hope attitudes to the office will return to normal, but many also recognised that the 'new normal' will likely require they offer more opportunities for working from home.

The practicalities of returning to work were also an issue for leaders. While all attendees had trialled social-distancing measures in the workplace, successful implementation depended on employee adoption and how well the changes worked for the business. Many employers continue to encourage working from home while introducing capacity restrictions in offices, ‘induction and orientation days’ to help re-acclimatise teams to the workplace, and the option to return on a voluntary basis.

Business leaders now recognise the need to be more adaptable to their employees’ desire to work remotely, and technology is key to achieving this. Being seen to do the right thing is also important for employee loyalty and so, until safety can be assured, the choice of returning to an office is likely to remain with the employee.

This choice may be affected by office location. For example, one business leader said that employees’ ability to and appetite for returning to work in the office varied based on location. US coastal states have seen a greater infection rate and workers were more concerned about the return to the office, suggesting that the exposure and risk level of a location is having a substantial impact on wider business considerations.

2 Company culture

Some businesses are starting to observe the impact of being absent from an office on the company’s culture. An office promotes serendipitous creativity and represents the ‘values and principles' of the business. Attendees feel the work environment and shared learning are key, especially to the younger generation.

The leaders were concerned that transitioning away from the physical office may present challenges for attracting new, younger talent where socialising plays a pivotal role in their development and motivation. And in the long term, working virtually may diminish the sense of culture, particularly as employees inevitably join and leave.

Read more: Leadership and home working - a new kind of workplace >>

Communication is an increasingly important driver of culture now. As we entered lockdown, it became evident to some businesses that their workforce was not equipped with the right tools to communicate with employees effectively in a suddenly online world.

Many CEOs we spoke to identified communication as crucial to supporting staff and, in particular, those who need to return to work from furlough. Businesses across the tech sector, for example, have rolled out innovative virtual sessions around wellbeing, health, community and entertainment – for example virtual DJ sets for employees – to help retain a sense of community.

3 Agile working

It was unanimously felt by business leaders that this period of working from home has led to higher levels of productivity. For some, this presents the option to move to a more-agile model in the long term.

Businesses have taken different approaches to setting up their workforces at home. Some have offered support by providing office chairs and screens, while others have focused on this as a temporary situation.

As leaders anticipate growing health concerns associated with inadequately equipped home offices, they begin to ask: will employers be responsible for equipping their workforce with desk chairs, printers and laptops?

Technology has become an enabler

The sudden shift to working from home has accelerated the move to digital and highlighted the opportunities that technology presents. We've seen a transformative change across the events landscape, from virtual awards evenings to webinars. For the technology sector, this is offering the opportunity to diversify their products to cater to the ‘new normal’, making way for future revenue growth.

Technology continues to help businesses become viable, sooner. Film companies, for instance, are using smart-stage LED screens when filming, eliminating the need to ‘shoot on location’. New approaches will help the industry remove the reliance on travel to physical locations, saving both money and time in the future.

While the ‘drive for digital’ is climbing higher up on the agenda for CEOs, this poses a challenge for some sectors. The real estate sector, for example, has had to introduce new departments to support a greater emphasis on technology. Roles such as data architects, software engineers and data analysts are now being created in sectors that were previously not associated with tech, like real estate and travel.

Remote skills transfer

The retention of skills raises further challenges. Prior to lockdown, businesses spent over half of their training budgets ‘in the classroom’. However, learning and education has rapidly migrated to digital platforms. The CEO of an educational technology company commented that over 70% of what we learn takes place informally ‘around the water cooler’ fuelling concerns that much of what we learn and the transfer of skills is inherent to being in an office.

The challenge for EdTech providers will be how to informally transfer learning online and encourage the greater adoption of cost-effective eLearning platforms. Leaders will also need to think about their approach to knowledge sharing and skills transfer, dedicating more of their time to colleagues.

Read more: How to adopt remote and agile working in the long term >>

Maintaining the momentum

COVID-19 has presented the opportunity for many businesses to trial the realities of employees working from home. All 10 business leaders at our roundtable had been impressed by the level of productivity of their business and employees during lockdown, challenging some of the previously held ideas about remote working. Maintaining momentum outside of these unique circumstances would now be key to continuing with the changes caused by COVID-19.

Establishing technology to measure the productivity and motivation of staff will be crucial for business leaders. Getting it right means going beyond putting new communication tools in place to create a system that fosters company culture, builds trust in these new ways of working, and invests in the technical infrastructure to support training and professional development needs.

For help understanding and responding to the challenges of returning to work, get in touch with Nicola Sartori.

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