The importance of culture and the softer, people management skills have never been more in the spotlight than they are now. From my position as people and strategy director at Orbit, that’s a good thing, and the silver lining to our current situation. But will companies continue this approach as we exit the pandemic? I’d like to think so.
Last year accelerated a lot of changes to the way we work. Companies who’d long talked about the unfeasibility of agile or remote working for their business were forced to embrace it, and with it came a whole new set of challenges.
Soft management skills
Long have we talked about the importance of the softer management skills: of authentic leadership; thinking ‘people-first’; inspiring and engaging teams; using coaching and mentoring to get the best from your people; and taking a holistic view of a person, considering what’s affecting them personally as well as professionally to maximise productivity and performance. We’ve read about this, seen TED talks enthusing about it, but now these skills are not just best practice, but ‘must practice’.
After decades of management which, in many cases, leans more to the autocratic end of the spectrum, our current situation requires managers to adapt and learn quickly, brushing off those training course-led new skills, and trying new techniques to support and engage employees.
The pandemic has taught us the importance of humanity in management; of paying attention to each other and understanding that we all need support sometimes; and that we don’t all need to be working under the same roof to be a productive ‘team’. Companies who were already on this journey will have benefitted from being so, and those who weren’t have been forced to get on board.
The future is about balance
Having introduced agile and flexible working in 2018, Orbit was already on this track, but the pandemic caused us to accelerate our journey. We realised that this worldwide change in office life created an opening for permanent change so we took the opportunity to ask our employees their views on how they want to work in future.
As a result, we know that we’re not going back to the same ways as before. But we’re also not about to become permanently remote workers, with many people missing the atmosphere and structure of the office.
In response, we introduced our ‘work smart’ programme, an ongoing commitment for office-based employees to be able to choose to work from home for three-days a week or more, as their role allows.
There are many benefits to this approach for our employees, giving them the freedom and flexibility to work as they need, but there are benefits for the organisation too. It removes geographical recruitment restrictions, so we have the best talent pool to draw from and enables us to consider smaller, collaborative team spaces over large offices, resulting in a reduction in overheads and our carbon footprint. Consequently, we’re now in the process of opening a new office hub in Maidstone, where staff will be encouraged to meet and collaborate, but not work full-time.
Beyond Teams and Zoom
We know that we need hearts and minds in our business, and you can’t do that just using Teams or Zoom. Some people work well on their own and only need minimal contact with the business, while others, including graduates, apprentices and new employees, need more contact and flexibility, and the ability to experience and learn from office culture.
The truth is that we’re still discovering what agile really means. We’ve been office-based and home-based; what we need now is to find what works for us as individuals.
We all often talk about agile ways of working, but in my mind, agile working is more about businesses and organisations being agile and adapting to their employee’s needs, instead of employees having to adapt to meet those of the business. That’s the approach we’ve taken with ‘work smart’, and we will continue to adapt and be agile as work-life evolves.
But it’s not just about where and how you work. Now, more than ever, teamwork and team spirit are vital to keep colleagues engaged and motivated, so we’re already budgeting for more social activities and events, and more collaborative away days and team activities to retain our culture and team spirit.
One positive aspect arising from enforced remote working is that it has allowed some people to step into the limelight, lifting and carrying teams when it’s needed most. These people who’ve come forward and helped the office culture will be important to businesses going forward. The most exciting thing for me is that these people, the team champions, leaders and managers of the future, may not be the colleagues you’d expect, and this may well be the ignitor for real change at C-suite and board levels.
But the true cultural challenge is yet to come, where our leadership styles, policies and operating models need to adapt as we take the best from home- and office-based working. We need to offer people choices and adapt to their needs, and create engagement, understanding and buy-in to what we’re working together to achieve.
It’s going to bring the skills of managers and more experienced staff to the fore, create new opportunities and roles, and an appreciation of different skills and talents. Ultimately, it will require integrity, trust and authenticity in leadership.
The pandemic might be an unwanted catalyst, but the result could well be the change we need.
Craig Wilcockson is the group people and strategy director at Orbit Group.