The past 18 months have ushered in the world’s biggest experiment in remote working. The Covid-19 pandemic meant firms of all sizes were forced to transition to working from home almost overnight, drawing on only relatively recent advances in technology.
Now, as the world slowly starts to return to more normal conditions, businesses are starting to think about how to structure themselves, factoring in both the needs and desires of employees with their own considerations around workplace culture, productivity and cost.
“The workplace is undergoing its biggest change in a generation and businesses are grappling with how they operate in the future,” says Janine Chamberlin, UK country manager at LinkedIn. “Over the past 18 months, employees have shown that they can be trusted to work productively from home, and now they want greater flexibility around where and when they work.”
A recent survey from LinkedIn found that nearly half (49 per cent) of UK salespeople would prefer hybrid working – where some time is spent in the office and some at home – in the future, compared with 38 per cent who want to work remotely, and just 12 per cent who would prefer full-time office working.
This has inevitably had an impact on all areas of a business, not least the critical sales function. “The pandemic has completely normalised virtual conversations and virtual selling,” says Nick Gallimore, director of talent transformation and insight at performance management software company Clear Review. “The benefits to the customer or prospect are significant, as they no longer need to be physically present, and the benefits to the seller are huge, with the time-saving alone on not having to travel as much meaning they can spend more time selling.” And time saving is important: sellers report spending barely a third of their time actually selling, so their time is now more precious than ever.
But face-to-face selling will still have a role to play, believes Leeson Medhurst, head of strategy at office design firm Peldon Rose. “The first contact we have with new clients is often over the phone or via email, but meeting them in person is hugely important,” he says. “When it comes to any kind of sales role, it’s important to keep in mind that ‘people buy into people’.”
The shift towards remote or hybrid working has also created challenges for businesses, particularly in ensuring the work environment remains fit for purpose. Telecommunications firm NTT, for instance, has reviewed and redesigned its office space to support more collaboration and connectedness, and is using technology to help ensure the optimum mix between office and remote working for employees.
“We’re using platforms that allow us to know exactly how the office is being used, including who’s coming in and when,” says Marilyn Chaplin, chief HR and sustainability officer. “Our workforce can then plan how to make the most of their time spent in the office to ensure productivity.” Offering
more distributed ways of working, though, has enabled the firm to attract a more diverse employee base, she adds, “from full-time employees to gig workers, across generations and cultures”.
Having people working remotely on a more permanent basis can require some adaptation. Software firm Commvault realised the planned nature of video calls was eliminating the kind of spontaneous conversation or calls that would ordinarily occur in an office setting. “We encouraged more spontaneous calls and conversations between managers and team members,” says Marco Fanizzi, vice president and general manager EMEA. “It required a series of mentality changes to be made to the format of everyday communication to help put people at ease, such as removing the need to have video running.”
There are also concerns over the impact of a blended model on employee wellbeing. “We don’t fully understand the impact of long-term hybrid on the employee experience,” says Gallimore. “Meetings which are currently happening 100 per cent remotely will feel and work very differently when 50 per cent of the people are in the room and 50 per cent aren’t. Going into a half empty office might seem a little depressing for some. This is something employers may wish to consider when setting parameters of hybrid working.”
Simon Blake, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, points out the importance of staying in touch with staff members working mainly from home. “Checking in with regularly with everyone, not just those who are visible, ensures you keep connected and create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to express their opinions,” he says.
Any concerns, though, should be set against the benefits that many people have derived from more flexible working arrangements. “All of a sudden people are working where they live, and have realised that it can all be done differently,” says Irene van der Werf, people manager at remote team recruiter Omnipresent. “Some people are simply more productive if, for example, they take a longer lunch break. I see candidates not asking but expecting employers to offer flexible working hours.”
In fact, the combined effect of the pandemic and subsequent “new normal” could be to put more power in the hands of employees. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, 71 per cent of UK workers want the option to work flexibly and remotely to stay, and 28 per cent expect to leave their employer this year unless this is the case. “If businesses go back to the old ways of working nine to five from an office, employees will vote with their feet,” warns Dan Fish, chief people officer at Invosys.
Organisations, though, need to strike the right balance between ensuring they have the optimum set-up for their employees and remaining productive, efficient and, ultimately, profitable. “Flexibility and balance are the two key factors,” says Dean Rowland, director of digital marketing agency Receptional, which was an early mover in bringing people back into the office and developing a hybrid model. “Over the next few years, we’ll see new tools, new ways of working and new expectations from our people. It’ll be a case of adapting and remodelling until you find the right balance for your business and its talent.”