Nick South is a Managing Director & Partner at the Boston Consulting Group and leads BCG’s People and Organisation practice in the UK.
A year ago, as we flipped - almost overnight - into a mass social experiment in remote working, there was genuine concern in many organisations about whether remote working would work at all – let alone how it might work for a sustained period of time. Despite all the challenges, we quickly discovered just how much was possible.
A year on, mass remote working has become the daily reality for many. We saw organisations “advance ten years in two weeks” through the innovative use of technology. We discovered that employees could be as productive as in the workplace, at least for some activities. Of course, we also uncovered the negative impacts of remote working, such as the blurring of boundaries between work and home life – and how challenging the work life balance could be for many remote workers, such as care-givers and parents, especially when combined with home-schooling.
With the vaccine rollout now proceeding at pace, this is a critical moment for leaders to reflect on the lessons of the pandemic for their organisations, and decide what to take from the experience to shape the way their organisations operate in the future. For every risk there is an opportunity – and there are five key areas to focus on.
1. Reimagining the customer experience
Many of those used to engaging customers face-to-face are understandably keen to get back to old ways of doing things. Many customers are equally keen – but not all. Some have discovered unanticipated benefits from more video calls and Turnvirtual interactions.
Business leaders need to re-engage with customers, understand how they want to interact going forward, and think creatively about the future customer experience. For example, what is the new blend of digital and physical customer experience, and how do we make this a frictionless and personalised experience?
2. Bolstering productivity
Mass remote working revealed many areas where employees felt they could be just as productive or more working remotely as they could be in the physical workplace, for example, when working on many administrative or managerial tasks. However, the experience also highlighted the areas where we are typically more productive working alongside colleagues in the workplace, particularly on collaborative problem-solving.
Future working models need to recognise the advantages and disadvantages of different locations and ways of working for different types of activity, and the implications of this for different roles and teams. Working models also need to continue to harness the benefits of digital technology that have been achieved over the last year. The key question is how we rethink work models to ensure employees are conducting the rights tasks in the most suitable environment, supported by the right tools and technology to enhance productivity over the longer term.
3. Supporting your people
One of the biggest concerns around a sustained period of remote working is the impact on informal network-building and the individual learning and development that comes from, sometimes quite random, interactions with others. A recent study found that communication with 'strong ties' has risen from 44% to 54% since the pandemic, but interactions with 'weak ties' and new connections is down by over 20%.
On-the-job learning has also taken a hit, whether it’s a formal apprenticeship, shadowing a colleague or informal mentoring. In response, businesses have embraced online learning tools and launched enhanced training programmes for managers on topics such as how to foster virtual intimacy and psychological safety. Some have experimented with match-making new hires with experienced employees to support network building.
As employers think about a future of more ‘hybrid’ working, applying new ways to support professional development will be critical. For ambitious organisations, the way in which this is undertaken can serve as a key differentiator for attracting talent.
At the same time, employees’ physical and mental well-being has been a constant concern over the last year, particularly as the period of remote working has continued. This will need to be a key area of pro-active focus as hybrid working increases, and requirs a highly empathetic style of leadership that is sensitive to individual situations, challenges and needs.
4. Prioritising company culture
When you can no longer walk the halls, chat with peers by the coffee machine or get a feel for how people are doing just by being around them, it becomes much harder to protect and reinforce organisational culture. In the first lockdown, many firms went into overdrive launching Zoom activities, from coding for kids to team Zumba, to create a sense of community and support employees. Many observed that this period was “a great equaliser” as we collectively struggled to unmute ourselves on calls.
But one year on since the first UK lockdown, it has become harder to sustain the positive impact of the initiatives that worked at the start in the face of rising Zoom fatigue, and questions are being asked about how to preserve and strengthen culture and belonging in a world with increased hybrid working. Organisations leading the way in this area are using a renewed focus on purpose to galvanise teams and empower employees at all levels to step up.
Similarly, leaders are reflecting on the elements of the remote working experience that helped to create a more inclusive culture. For example, a number of professional services firms launched emergency leave policies to support working parents. How might we apply more inclusive thinking to other employee policies and benefits? How can we clearly communicate our company purpose in a way that helps employees feel connected to the firm no matter where they are working?
5. Driving sustainability
Lockdown proved to many organisations that it was possible to successfully engage clients and colleagues remotely. At certain points of the lockdown global pollution levels reached all-time lows and businesses saw the potential for bolder net zero commitments in the coming decade.
With previous assumptions about the necessary volume and types of business travel being challenged, and as organisations explore the potential for more hybrid working models, there is a real opportunity to fuse individual working preferences with less travel-intensive working practices – while at the same time tapping into different pools of talent.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has been a roller-coaster for leaders and their organsations. We are certainly not out of the woods – but as vaccines are rolled out, we are heading in the right direction. For all organisations, it is important to reflect on what they have learnt over the last year and to think creatively about how to turn potential risks into new opportunities to improve the way we work for good.
This requires us to think holistically about the issues, re-imagine how we meet our customers’ needs and fundamentally re-think how we foster purpose, connection and commitment within our organisations. Those that think imaginatively, experiment boldly and move quickly will be well-placed to reap the rewards in the years to come.