Return to work: the toughest management challenge of our age?

19 May 2020 -

Return to work: the toughest management challenge of our age?Employee engagement will be the key in the treacherous months ahead…

Matthew Rock

Just before prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that the government would be loosening lockdown restrictions and encouraging those in England who can go back to work to do so, the CMI asked its members for their views about returning to work.

The results were striking, and suggest a huge challenge for managers in the coming weeks and months, one that will require considerable leadership skills, adaptability and judgement.

In the survey, many members voiced concerns about their own health: “I am personally fearful and so are other staff,” said one. Using public transport came through as a huge cause of concern. “The prospect of being forced to ‘get back to normal’ is causing unnecessary stress,” said another. The difficulties came through in another comment that “a lack of trust among managers of their staff's productivity at home is likely to drive them to push their staff back to the office.” All this could lead to tensions between employers and managers keen to get quickly back to normal, and employees (and managers) who are unhappy about returning to work. “I foresee employee relations issues if staff are compelled to return,” predicted one member.

The picture is made even more complex by new CMI/Engaging Works research into managers’ happiness levels. Between 23 April and 6 May, CMI polled practising managers on their workplace happiness.

In a startling result, the study found that workplace happiness has actually increased since January 2020 across all managers, whether at the office or at home. The highest scoring of the two EW “six steps” were for empowerment and instilling pride.

The polarising effects of Covid-19

These issues were the backdrop to a recent CMI (virtual) roundtable, which brought together senior leaders from the software, healthcare, building services and education and training sectors.

Maggie Buggie from the software company SAP said that “we are delivering 100% of our business remotely” and that internal employee ‘pulse checks’ have shown many employees happy working under these new arrangements. Andy Rayner, HR director of Travis-Perkins, said that, while lockdown had been a major transformational challenge for the building services firm, a huge amount of change had been achieved in a short timeframe.

However, these representatives of CMI Companions, partners and employers said lockdown has exposed that many people are disadvantaged when it comes to working from home – particularly women, younger people and those with dependents. “There are clear haves and have-nots,” said Maggie.

The Covid-19 pandemic will not be “a great leveler,” said Sean Williams, CEO of the leadership and training academy Corndel. “It’s actually accentuating divides.” Toby Peyton-Jones, a portfolio non-exec director and business adviser, said that “there will be polarising effects: people who are able to work from home are likely to be the most well-off in society.”

Managing the return

So how should managers and organisations respond in this complex environment, in which many employees may feel either disadvantaged, pressurised or simply afraid? John Acornley, chairman of the healthcare software firm Desuto, said that “in some ways I hope this process takes a while because we need time to embed new ways of working.”

Toby Peyton-Jones said that society will not tolerate blatant unfairness coming out of the crisis and that organisations need to take a “social enterprise approach... after all, the country has been paying their wages”. This period has encouraged greater empathy in management, said Maggie Buggie, and she sees a lasting shift of organisational emphasis from ‘customer-centric to employee-centric’. Andy Rayner encouraged all managers to try to “bottle the spirit of community collaboration” that’s come out in the crisis.

While individual managers should be focusing on employee wellbeing, Buggie believes there will come a time when their stewardship responsibility will need to move “to incorporate tough messages.” She said that 2021 may well be a time of significant restructuring and reimagining across business.

Right now, “we’re in a bit of limbo period,” she cautioned.

Sean Williams concluded the conversation: “Never waste a crisis,” he said. “A crisis gives leaders permission to reinvent the future in ways that aren’t constrained by the past.”

For more content related to the Covid-19 crisis, please visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.