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Should it be left to businesses to experiment with new operating models?

What will working practice look like post-lockdown? Working from home gives opportunity for a reset. Unfortunately, it has been a long enough break for companies to be struggling to re-establish purpose and culture, but too short for meaningful thought on the future. Should it be left to businesses to experiment with new operating models? The importance of working life within the nation’s economy and health suggests a wider debate is now needed. Might the post-lockdown world merit a national conversation?

Employees want a Goldilocks plan of not too much and not too little remote work. But beyond that, agreement ends and the challenge begins.  The right mix depends not just on employee preference, but the reality of managing teams in a hybrid model. Some collaboration and sensitive conversations are best done face-to-face. Teams and Zoom tend not to foster the intense meetings and casual conversations that are needed for some areas of work.  Yet where concentration matters, remote working is best and video conferencing can save a lot of unnecessary travel. A regular cadence of, say, teams rotating within the same offices on different days of the week, may help employers to plan and employees to schedule their own home life responsibilities.

If the logistics of all of this is daunting, there is even more challenge in managing feelings. There may be a perception that staff with more time in the office are favoured for promotion or additional responsibility. Studies suggest this fear is well-founded; it will take exceptional efforts to address, and to reassure remote workers. It cannot help employers that many employees feel that working from home has left them feeling disengaged and lacking inclusion.

Work has a big role in mental health, likely to emerge as one of biggest post-lockdown concerns in Society. This may involve more management interaction with those working from home and other ways of understanding the additional stresses remote working brings. Currently when almost all work is remote, there is tolerance for the unique circumstances of the lockdown, viewing the stress as common to all. But future support for hybrid work as the norm must mean developing a better understanding of individual pressures and health needs. Staff surveys and online social events may not get an honest representation of how each employee really feels.

The role of work in the health of the nation means that the new working practice is too important to be left to employers alone.  And it has implications for care for children and the elderly.  A return to work will bring change; it matters for all that this runs alongside individual ability to reschedule home life.  Regional policy is affected, too.  For the first time there has been a reversal of the move into cities.  London’s population is set to decline for the first time in more than 30 years.

Remote working as a norm with properly supported hybrid work, has the potential to invigorate communities around Scotland and reduce overheating in urban centres. If more flexible jobs are actually advertised from the outset - rather than being viewed as some sort of privilege after a period of employment - skilled jobs could be pushed out from the cities. And big employers can actively promote this re-energising of suburban and rural areas with procurement and strategic planning. The public sector is a major employer with the buying power to help develop suppliers with the potential to be anchor institutions in small communities. In a world where labour is likely to be tighter post-Brexit, larger businesses may indeed need to plan their workforce more strategically to survive.

The need for companies to re-think how they need to attract and retain workers comes alongside a renewal of purpose and culture.  Many companies recognise that their culture has unravelled a little over the last year - as new priorities took over, work changed and personal interaction stopped. It may be take longer to re-establish. And this must fit within a reassessed corporate purpose. Society’s values have been re-set, with changing customer tastes and public priorities. Government will undoubtedly direct more environmental initiatives, and encourage companies to pay more attention to the impact they have on the world. All organisations should also prioritise resilience, recognising that the pandemic’s challenges have not ended. That will mean shorter supply chains, more local purchase and acting sustainably.

Many organisations sense that their productivity has been lower under remote working. In services -  the largest part of the economy - this is hard to measure. Staff may be working longer hours or digital deflection be shielding companies from customer complaints. For a period of time, the default option of many customers is to continue services, paying the same rate, but inevitably there is a re-appraisal if needs change or service value falls. Getting the hybrid working model right may be more important than companies think. It may only be when lockdown ends that the customer loyalty shown during exceptional circumstances starts to fade, and competition gets back to normal.

In theory, legislation could impose some social priorities on companies. But could add to the burden on business just when they face other challenges to their survival.  And it takes time, possibly missing the opportunity of the moment. There is a risk of unintended consequences with piecemeal legislation, when the best result might be to work harder to make all these objectives join up and to identify a clear way in which companies should contribute to that.

Also, for Scotland, much to do with business and employment is reserved to Westminster, suggesting a different approach to join up some of the responses that might integrate new business practice with goals. Increasingly, businesses recognise their responsibility to the community, which provides their customers and workforce. Indeed, for some organisations, addressing problems in society is central to their purpose. There is much to be gained by a consensus approach. Change might be quicker and better integrated with other change brought by the pandemic, if organisations use what power they have to adapt in a way that also brings greater good.  Employers can help employees achieve a good work / life balance, assist better access to smaller communities, and support mental health in particular. Lockdown unwinding presents a unique opportunity to reset business models, at a time when Society’s needs have also changed. A national conversation maybe the best way to develop employment practice that works for all.

A version of this article was published in The Herald on 16/04/2021.