Over the past month, we have been able to slowly shift our attention to looking forward towards a post-COVID working environment. For Housing Associations, ’normal services’ have resumed for the customer, but pivotal to those preparations have been the HR community. HR Directors are leading business discussions on returning to work, COVID safe offices and how longer-term working environments and practices might look going forward. The Black Lives Matter movement has also brought equality and diversity to the front of mind for business leaders’ and so HR agendas. We discussed these key topics with HR Directors across the sector and ideas for the next phase of colleagues returning to work.
From a HR perspective, the COVID-crisis has highlighted the relevance and importance of people and their roles within organisations, irrespective of their job title. The last four months have been all about people; doing the right thing by, helping and listening to people - colleagues and customers. This has meant that attitudes and approach have been more important than ever. From a Housing perspective, the HR Directors we spoke to commented on the change of perception internally towards front-line staff and the fantastic work they have been carrying out. The difficulty, however, has been maintaining an engaged front-line workforce as they feel that their roles, at times during lockdown, have become a lot harder than those working from home. To prevent the potential impact of this to the organisational culture, one Registered Provider produced a number of short videos of different members of staff from different areas of the business to talk about their experiences in lockdown to promote a feel of ’one team’.
Organisations have been forced to leverage and maximise the resources and the communication tools which engage our people and learn to fully empower them – a forced but very positive action. The crisis brought so many issues to the forefront at such speed - removing the usual luxury of a ‘normal deliberating period’, particularly when it comes to digitalisation. Executive teams have had to trust their people and give them more autonomy to respond, which has resulted in true working agility. Despite this, there have been obvious downsides with some employees feeling they were losing out on personal connections and a sense of disconnect from the organisational culture. Interestingly, the downsides of working from home were felt most by younger employees, due to a combination of factors including inadequate working space, poor connectivity and distractions from housemates. To address these and to improve employee well-being, organisations have implemented online well-being platforms and ’tea break moments’, where cross-organisation groups speak twice a week in an attempt to break down some elements of isolation.
The power of communication
A positive to take from the pandemic has been the effective use of communication tools. Throughout the forum, the HR Directors commented that Executive team have been more visible than ever before, and as a result, staff feel more connected to the leaders than prior to lockdown, in turn driving the engagement agenda. One commented that their senior leaders have been visible through Q&A video sessions, as well as being open and empathetic to people’s worries during the crisis.
Another key point was how a company’s values, culture, purpose and mission are more important than ever, and they should be brought to life through different channels. With a high level of anxiety, leaders should provide employees with as much stability in their world of work as possible. With different means of communications, it could be quite easy to become ‘channel happy’ and, whilst each has a place, make sure there aren’t duplicates and don’t make it hard for people to find the information they need.
Return to work
As pointed out by the HR Directors we spoke to, it is not the physical preparation of the office space that is the real challenge – it is the human one. The important aspect to think about when helping employees returning to work is not to rush it and to give options. The ‘employee’ has changed (regardless of the generational differences we were once obsessed about) and what they want from their workplace is what businesses are grappling with. Naturally, there is a worry for employees, returning into an office space. One HR Director mentioned how a video showing employees carrying out ‘dummy runs’ with what measures are being taken and what the office would look like has helped in allaying fears.
Several of the HR Directors commented that there must be a balance between returning to a physical office and promoting agile working post pandemic. Employees need to understand that what we have had to do over the previous months isn’t agile working, it was forced home working. One HR Director has been trailing different technology to promote agile working whilst maintaining an office environment using platforms such as SOCOCO, which creates a ‘virtual physical space’ using avatars.
Many commented on the importance of moments in the office, including chance meetings and ’water cooler’ chats, which have been removed by everyone working remotely. Yet, simultaneously, an office-less company could achieve many changes including a greater focus on productivity (rather than presenteeism), the emergence of hubs and ‘virtual working’ models and less office-first thinking.
Diversity in the sector
In light of recent events, diversity has become higher on organisations’ agenda than ever before. In the Housing sector, there seems to be an ‘upside down pyramid’ when it comes to diversity; we have a real diverse front-line workforce. However, everyone agreed, there is a lot to do from a senior leadership perspective. For instance, in a recent survey only 4.5% of Executives identified themselves as BME. One HR Director discussed the principle of reverse mentoring which flips the pyramid theory and allows the leadership to learn from their staff. Conversely, another HR Director discussed the importance of cultural intelligence and to be explicitly open and authentic in their approach to improve as an organisation.
From a recruitment perspective, we discussed the potential importance of the ‘Rooney Rule’ to ensure diverse shortlists but to also to drive a diverse appointments panel to ensure equality and diversity throughout every process.
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