How to work with your people to shape the ‘new normal’

Tuesday 13 April 2021
We got an in-depth briefing from deputy MD at Hitachi about developing a ‘hybrid’ working model in collaboration with staff
Person carrying briefcase and face mask into office

In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland we are seeing lockdown restrictions ease, with non-essential retailers beginning to reopen and people in Scotland, for example, encouraged to ‘stay local’ rather than stay at home.

As this process beds in, many businesses are looking to their futures and asking: how can we transition back to the workplace; how might this work in a post-Covid-19 world? Most organisations want to take a hybrid approach to working, with a split between office and home-working – but implementing this is a seriously complex issue.

We spoke to CMI Companion Stephen Pierce CMgr CCMI, who’s deputy managing director and chief HR officer for Hitachi. Like many companies, Hitachi wants to change its approach to working in a way that works for both the organisation and its employees. Companies know that such transformation is achievable – most of them implemented it quickly in March 2020 – but this next stage will take serious thought.

“Think about it as a Venn diagram, with the organisation’s needs on one side and the employee needs on the other. Where those needs overlap is what we’re aiming for,” says Stephen. Here, this seasoned leader shares his views on how to work with employees to reach workable new working models.

1. Engage with employees

Employee consultation is a key part of the Hitachi leadership team’s approach. Hitachi staff received an extensive survey through which they could provide their views on how the office-remote working balance should work.

“We're doing it and learning as we go along,” says Stephen. “There isn't a textbook for this. But we went into the Covid-19 remote working situation without a textbook, and we learned and we got through it.”

2. Take it steady

There will be a number of key stages needed to reach the new normal, says Stephen. Managers and leaders should keep in mind that returning to work will be a slow, iterative process compared to the overnight transformation that was necessary in March 2020.

3. The consultation stage

Hitachi’s first round of consultation brought on a result that Stephen believes is reflective of most organisations. “A very high proportion of people say they want ‘hybrid working’. By that, they mean two or three days in the office every week and two or three days at home – a roughly 60/40 split.”

Companies should also monitor government changes to guidelines and, as part of this, prioritise employee wellbeing. Some people really want to get back to the workplace because their mental health has suffered as a result of lockdown isolation.

“When we've surveyed [our people] on wellbeing, a sizable number of people have said their physical and mental wellbeing is less good than it was when we were in an office,” Stephen says. “The last year has taken its toll on everybody in some way.”

There are push and pull factors to this in the short term; there are still risks from Covid-19 when people return to work as not everyone will have been vaccinated by the time workplaces open up again.

“In that period, we will have a fairly light touch,” says Stephen. “Offices are open if you want to come back, we might ask people to come back, but it will be socially distanced with a huge amount of care taken.”

4. The clarity stage

As the risks from Covid-19 eventually fade, companies will enter a new stage, in which they develop a greater understanding of what hybrid working will mean in the longer term. At this point, managers and senior leaders will need to start putting more of a structure to hybrid working as it relates to specific teams and disciplines.

“People don't quite know what they're voting for at the moment,” says Stephen. “So it's all very well to say we want hybrid working, but how will people view it a year from now? Will it still be the same?”

This stage will involve experimentation, Stephen reckons. Managers must get used to the idea of failing fast, and of agile, iterative change, across all departments. “This is a massive change programme. It will be challenging and uncomfortable for many organisations, because most do not like failure,” he says.

This experimental phase will require communication, transparency and active listening. “There's clearly a role for managers in that; every manager has to manage their team and their organisation in a way that allows them to deliver.”

5. The establishing stage

The final stage – once organisations have a more solid idea of hybrid working – will be about ensuring that managers learn from the process and that staff needs and company purpose are at the forefront of all decision-making. This means thinking about company operations in the context of social and environmental impacts. It may well result in a new cultural outlook for organisations in which purpose trumps presence.

For example, why make employees travel for business meetings when the same result can be achieved with a video call? Not travelling would save costs for the organisation, improve staff work-life balance and reduce carbon emissions? “It isn't just about how do we work in our office; it's how we interact with others beyond our office,” says Stephen.

Covid-19 has kickstarted a learning journey for organisations, says Stephen. It will take a year or so to really establish new working models. “Unfortunately, pandemics have a long tail,” warns Stephen. “We've got to keep managing our organisations through the challenges of today, and prepare for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. That’s a key requirement for successful managers over the next couple of years.”

For more advice and insight into the management challenges of managing through Covid-19, check out our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.