reading between the lines
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Engaging staff in a world without officesSubscribe to de-cooded
Many business commentators would agree that three of the main responsibilities of a leader are to:
- Set and communicate the company’s strategic vision – why it exists, what it is aiming to achieve and how.
- Define the organisational structure and governance – laying out organisational design, key roles and responsibilities, spans of control and decision rights.
- Build organisational capability – critically starting with a strong leadership team which sets the tone from the top for mindsets and behaviours (culture) to attract and retain great talent.
But under COVID historical norms are being disrupted, and even with a possible vaccine on the horizon many of the changes witnessed over the last nine months are likely to persist. One of the most likely casualties of these changes will be the office environment, as companies move to a more hybrid office/remote working model.
Speaking to clients and colleagues, many have observed how their daily lives have been impacted. The camaraderie of the office lost, the decompression time of the commute from office to home gone, and what was back in March an extended period of “working from home” is now beginning to feel like “living in the office”. Life seems to have morphed into a dawn to dusk series of back-to-back Zoom meetings where paradoxically people feel under more scrutiny but also invisible and unheard.
Autumn is typically the time of year when businesses carry out their annual staff survey, measuring, among other things, staff engagement. So, what results should leaders expect? After months of lockdown and relative isolation, intuition suggests engagement will have declined as staff feel distanced from their colleagues and invisible to their leaders while working longer and harder. This comes at a time just when leaders need their people to be on the front foot and thinking proactively about how business models and practices need to adapt to remain competitive in a new landscape.
So, COVID now calls for a fourth leadership responsibility – to acknowledge and recognise staff. To assure them that although they are out of sight they are not out of mind; that their adaptability to a new working modus operandi is understood and appreciated; that their continued commitment is valued; and that their fortitude in the face of challenging personal circumstances is recognised and respected. But with offices doors locked, face-to-face contact curtailed, and staff scattered to the four corners of the ethernet, how can leaders convey their appreciation and reassure staff that each individual is acknowledged and recognised?
As with so many questions in business, there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer, no silver bullet which resolves the issue once and for all. Every business is different, and the solution for each business will vary. However, we believe every leader should be asking themselves the questions…how has life changed for our people this year, how are they feeling, how do they know we care and value them? If reflecting on this causes concern, then plan some remedial action.
With the aim of stimulating a debate to determine what actions are right for your business, here are some specific suggestions:
- Ramp up your mentoring programme so a greater number of junior staff have exposure and feel visible to senior managers.
- Stress to line managers the importance of having regular 1:1 meetings with their reports to just check-in and ask how they are, particularly if they do not interact with them regularly in the normal course of business.
- Encourage teams to hold weekly “no agenda” meetings to simply share how they are feeling and how their households are coping with lockdown. Perhaps a Monday morning breakfast or Thursday evening glass of wine to just “shoot the breeze”.
- Hold more frequent but less formal townhall meetings where particular emphasis is placed on calling out and thanking staff.
- Recognising that people may be getting swamped by back-to-back Zoom calls, place a moratorium on meetings one day or afternoon each week.
- In an attempt to de-clutter people’s diaries, challenge meeting organisers to make meetings shorter and reduce the number of attendees by, say, 20%.
- Appreciating people are working harder and longer, for the month of December agree that the working week will formally end at 15.30 on Fridays. Some companies are giving staff an additional day’s holiday each month through lockdown.
- Make alternative arrangements in place of the Christmas Party – perhaps send vouchers or offer staff the choice from a range of gifts.
- Encourage team leaders to have virtual team Christmas parties and give each member of staff a spending allowance.
- Leaders send handwritten Christmas cards acknowledging what a tough year it has been and thanking people for their hard work and commitment.
These are merely suggestions to stimulate debate. Of course, some of them might be completely inappropriate for some businesses. Others may feel a bit corny, but do not forget the power of leaders showing the humility to admit they face a challenge and do not have all the answers, even though they are trying. Yet some might form the kernel of an idea that could blossom into a great action.
The fact of the matter remains – staff engagement is critical. This has been a super-tough year for many, the props and support mechanisms of the office have been washed away, people are working harder and longer, and they may feel isolated and invisible at home. So, leaders should be asking themselves…how do my people still know I care about and value them? Because if your staff don’t feel you care about them, why should they care about your business?
After a distinguished career in executive leadership positions in financial services, Julian Cripps is a now member of the Coode team who focus on advising leaders in creating effective teams and more human-centred workplaces.
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Coode Associates supports and advises companies on leadership development, organisational effectiveness and shaping culture. If you’d like to know more about our work, we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.