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Give more power to your people as they return to work

29 Jun 2020 By Sarah Jackson

Now is a good time to remember the importance of handing staff control, says Sarah Jackson – it will help your business survive Covid-19

We are living through a forced experiment in working from home. As the UK gradually opens up again, some organisations will retain majority home working for the foreseeable future, while others are beginning to bring staff back onsite. I have been thinking about how to make the most of the moment, whatever your industry and wherever your people work. I can see a one-time opportunity for a leap forward in performance and innovation.

Time to rethink and reset

The majority of the UK workforce is employed in roles that cannot be done from home. The furlough scheme has enabled many of these workers to be retained during lockdown. The challenge now is to bring people safely back to the workplace. For those businesses that can reopen – or that have been open throughout – now is a moment to rethink and reset. It is forced on us, as working from home has been. Social distancing means you have to think about the layout of the workspace, and almost inevitably in most settings this will mean that fewer staff can be onsite at the same time, and that fewer can arrive and leave at the same time. You may also be thinking about how to reduce your people’s exposure to risk if they rely on public transport to get to your premises.

Give employees more control

If this is your situation, you’ll be thinking about staggered start and finish times, about new shift patterns and project-based teams. Your head may be wrapped in a cold towel, and your desk covered in spreadsheets and lists as you try to work out how to deploy people. This is the moment to remind yourself about what makes flexibility so effective. That magic ingredient: control.  

I think back to an inspirational charge nurse I once met, managing a mental health ward that no one wanted to work on, faced with constant staff turnover. Her solution was radical at the time (and in many organisations still is): she turned the staffing rotas over to the team.  They completely reorganised their working patterns, to accommodate their various commitments and responsibilities outside work. So simple, but the effect was extraordinary.  Levels of violence on the ward, patient on patient, and patient on staff, dropped. People queued up to work there. 

At the time, I promoted it as a great example of the power of flexible working. But now I’d say it was the power of control. The flexible working was simply the delivery mechanism. It’s an old example, but it shows the way. Your people have had no control for more than three months. Surveys suggest that people are very worried about returning to work, and have no confidence in their managers. So turn this on its head.  

Uncertainty is the killer.  You may worry that without all the answers you will add to the stress and anxiety your people are feeling. But honesty is more important. Professor Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist who advises the Scottish and UK governments, talks about the importance of ‘procedural justice’, which he defines as being treated fairly, being listened to and being reasoned with. The temptation – for a government, or for the leadership of a business – is to say as little as possible, in case people panic. But if we have learned anything from this crisis, it is that people do not panic when they understand what is needed.  

By trusting your people with the information they need, you will better engage their support for the steps you will take now and in the future.

Get creative with the practicalities

Let them know as much as you do about the physical set-up, and what you are doing to ensure their safety on your premises. Consult and involve your people in any changes you plan. Don’t be afraid to share uncertainty and to make changes as other things change.

When the option to furlough part time is introduced, this may be the chance to test reduced hours working, with an open mind, without career penalty, as a way of actively supporting and retaining people, especially parents and carers. In the same way that we have discovered that remote working can be done, and people now do not expect to lose it as a regular feature of their working lives, the same may be discovered about part-time hours.

This truly is a moment when some creative thinking about how we work could advance a generation. Empower your people to rethink work so that it goes with the grain of their lives. Enable them to share their uncertainties and concerns with colleagues. Build confidence and engagement, to fit your organisation for a post-Covid future where business survival will depend on the most engaged, innovative and creative people.  

Sarah Jackson is visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management and chair of Parents in Performing Arts

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