The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly transformed working practices and cultures. Before the pandemic, around 5% of the UK workforce worked mainly from home. In this post, Jane Fawkes, Deputy Principal and University College Secretary at the University College of Estate Management shares how the University has adapted to future ways of working following the pandemic. This post is the second contribution Jane has made to MyGovCentral, her first piece was an interview earlier this year discussing staff wellbeing.
Future Ways of Working
Like all employers, as we have eased out of the pandemic over the last six months, one of the continued challenges the University College of Estate Management (UCEM) has faced is how to achieve the balance between requiring all employees to return to their pre-pandemic way of working, which was mainly office based, or adapting to some sort of hybrid working arrangement.
The subject is one that can often be very polarising in people’s preference, between those who believe the best way to achieve productivity is to be office based again, and those who cannot contemplate moving away from working at home, either mainly, or in part, and reference how effectively it has worked over the last two years.
The key findings that UCEM has learnt as we have navigated our way through the different approaches to future ways of working:
- Involve your employees in the conversation- this is a key part of gaining engagement
- You will never get it right for everyone- difficult decisions will have to be made
- Hybrid/flexible working is now a core part of staff recruitment and retention
- Wellbeing of employees is still an issue- this cannot reduce in significance post the pandemic
UCEM offers online undergraduate, postgraduate and degree apprenticeships for the built environment. Our main office is based in the centre of Reading, and as an online University is utilised by staff only, as our students are remote.
As a Senior Team, over several months, we discussed different approaches that could be taken for staff to return to some form of office-based working. This included:
• Expecting all employees to return to their contracted place of work – i.e., be predominantly office based
• Requiring all employees, who used to be in the building 5 days a week, to return to the office for a minimum of three days per week
• Accepting the current ‘as is’ situation with employees having choice of where they worked, which could be at home for any number of days or in the office for any number of days
The risk factors that UCEM were working to mitigate through this process were:
• How to ensure continued performance and productivity of employees
• Staff retention of employees choosing to leave because they do not agree with the ways of working, which is a particular risk in the current recruitment market
• Community and Culture- How is this developed/maintained in a virtual/hybrid world
• Knowledge management – How is this transferred between employees when the ‘osmosis’ of learning that occurs through sitting with others no longer occurs
During the pandemic in May 2021, UCEM surveyed its staff with the purpose of providing a flexible working environment in the future, providing options of fully office based, fully remote, hybrid heavy (3 days or more in the office) hybrid light (2 days or less, assuming the contractual place of work is the office).
This approach, whilst good for employee engagement and choice, meant that not all the risk factors were mitigated, as most employees opted for hybrid light or remote. It also masked an issue connected to wellbeing, as whilst people felt it was most appropriate to be at home for their wellbeing, the reality was that returning to an established routine of being in the office, and seeing others, actually improved some employee’s wellbeing, which they were not expecting but recognised the value to them.
In January 2022, the Senior Team talked through the different approaches to mitigate the risks, of which the initial decision was to require employees to be in the office for a minimum of two days per week. The aim of this was to start a gradual return to the office, with the aspiration that as more people came into the building, more people would recognise the value, (including the value of the ‘water-cooler’ conversations), which would lead to a shift in the balance between remote and office-based working.
The reality was that this did not generate full employee engagement, as well as causing divisions within Teams and between Teams. Reasons varied but some examples are, days that staff were required in the office, issues with childcare arrangements, and a sense from some employees that this was reneging on the previous survey that was issued in May 2021.
The continued concern over performance, wellbeing and staff retention remained, and it was recognised that a change in approach was needed.
One of the issues in deciding the best approach going forward was how to avoid decisions being personal. The Senior Team went back to the first key risk factor- how do we ensure the performance and productivity of employees?
It was agreed that rather than viewing the individual, the most appropriate way forward was to consider the role first, and the requirements for the role. So, if you were recruiting for this position as a Line Manager, what would you expect in terms of office-based/hybrid/remote to ensure that this role is effective?
All Line Managers were required to undertake a designation process of all of the roles within their team. Guiding principles were provided to ensure consistency in approach across the Line Managers, and this also involved the Line Managers talking to their teams to discuss what was most appropriate to ensure the optimum working situation both within their team, and between teams.
Employee Representative Groups were also set up, with the specific purpose of engaging staff with the mitigation of risk and on the following; future layout and technology within the building, communication and culture of the institution, and knowledge management considerations.
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