The return to work phase is less the end of lockdown and more the beginning of a new world of challenges for employers. Some will be unexpected. The Health and Safety Executive has already stressed that a safe workplace isn’t so much about compliance, providing physical barriers, screens and markings for social distancing, but creating a place of psychological safety. There might be an overt compliance to rules, it says, but that doesn’t mean people feel safe: they have to be able to trust their employer and their colleagues to be doing the right things.
Employees are going to be feeling fragile. They might need to use busy public transport and streets just to get to work. Then they’re going to be around co-workers and customers with very different attitudes to social distancing. So organisations need to be ready to demonstrate they are not machines just designed for outputs and efficiency, but are thinking about ‘being human’. Business leaders at the CIPD’s Festival of Work last month all pointed to the future imperative of this idea. Natasha Adams, chief people officer at Tesco, for example, discussed how the spread of virtual working and online communications had put far more emphasis on the need for human leadership and human qualities. There's a general recognition of how the lockdown experience and ongoing fallout has made people at all levels feel vulnerable, and that leadership styles and organisational culture can't go on the in same way.
More human workplaces are a nice idea – but what does it mean in practice? At the most fundamental level of how organisations go about their business, it’s about good conversations. Listening to staff with patience and empathy; making sure that despite all the limitations and precautions, workplaces are still a social centre. Managers in particular need to be equipped with the skills to maintain levels of trust and good relationships between their team members. People working remotely or around more of a blend of home and workplace time makes that more difficult. We call it having ‘conversational integrity’. Managers are alert to themselves and the value of good, open conversations: how they are listening, understanding and remaining self-aware.
These skills matter so much more when their direct reports are feeling at risk in different ways – physically, mentally or financially – and coping with uncertainty and stress. They're more likely to lash out at colleagues. The post-pandemic context means more reasons for workplace grievances, grey areas over what measures employers should be introducing and what’s reasonable to ask from employees; prickly responses to new responsibilities and threats from redundancy. This is not the time for micro management but for building trust and relationships.
Organisations of every kind are looking at their levels of resilience, what they need now and to make them better able to respond to future crises. Many will be thinking in terms of their cost base, potential adoption of AI and autonomous systems, their adaptability. But ultimately resilience is still dependent on the people involved – how they work together and deal with change and stress – and the culture of conversations, relationships and dealing with conflict should be top of the list for attention.
Arran Heal is managing director of CMP