Rethinking the workplace - Friday 27 November 2020: Q&A from the session

Please see the question and answers from the Rethinking the workplace webinar.

*Not exactly a question, but hopefully this may be of interest….

The East Riding of Yorkshire Council, working with all the Humber region Council’s, has worked with the University of Hull, on a new study into the effects of remote working, funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Find the information and toolkit on Hull's website.

Question Answer
How relevant is the research from the early months of the pandemic now? Since then, various factors might have changed things. For example, kids going back to school, remote working IT being embedded and learned, and teams having over time developed their own remote working practices, norms, and cultures?

It's a very good question, and I know that research is continuing to be updated. IES is currently doing some work for the ESRC on homeworking, with the results out soon.
Personally, I think both the research on homeworking prior to, and in the early stages of the pandemic, are useful as they highlight some insights to consider as we move into the next phases of homeworking/the pandemic.

For example, the research suggests that homeworking can boost productivity but only where certain conditions are in place i.e someone is adequately experienced/trained, has a suitable private space/equipment to work in/with, and have broadband access. In the pandemic, this hasn’t been the case for all workers, especially those on lower incomes, younger people starting off in a career, renters etc. This then perhaps poses choices about who, and on what basis, homeworking is suitable for, and what supports need to be in place for productivity gains to be realised.

Equally, the evidence suggests that most people do not want to work at home all the time (although some do). I think lots of people have perhaps assumed a hybrid model will be best, but it does seem that is what most people want. Big question then is how to make this work in practice. We know, for example, that in performance management, visibility of employees can impact performance ratings, so how to guard against increasing bias due to more work being done at home by some (and maybe not others).

Also, the research shows that there is a selection effect when it comes to homeworking and productivity i.e people who feel they have been more productive due to homeworking are more likely to say they wish to continue homeworking in some capacity. This is a really valuable insight for HR as it counters the view that businesses need to increase monitoring of staff working at home, something which has been linked to damaged trust, engagement, and ironically productivity.

Hope that helps. Thank you for the question and your interest.

I've seen surveys suggesting that employees also feel they can escape a lot of work when homeworking. Have you seen any solid evidence employees exploiting homeworking in this way?

I haven’t. I’d be interested in seeing those. One point I would make, though, is that the survey I mentioned that showed an overall neutral impact on productivity, and increases in productivity for around a third of workers, is a large-scale, nationally representative, independent survey of several thousand workers. In research terms, it doesn’t really get any more rigorous than that.

My reason for saying that is clearly there is the possibility that some workers look to escape work when homeworking, but I suspect that that may have happened in different ways in the office – being visibly present doesn’t mean people are working. But, based on the evidence I’m aware of, it’s not consistent with large swathes of people shirking.

I’d add I think the risk is actually the other way. That people will overwork. Evidence suggests people are working longer hours and boundaries between work and home may be blurred. Also, there is a lot of job insecurity and we are in the middle of a recession, which might tend to encourage people to work harder for fear of redundancy etc
The research suggests that some people were less productive in the pandemic because they had less work to do, which cannot be a psychologically comfortable position to be in right now.

Thank you for the question and your interest.

To what degree does employment policy need to adapt so that the sector can remain attractive vs get left behind by other sectors?

Very interesting question. I think, as Rob was saying, this might be an experiment in progress. Clearly, greater flexibility seems to be something that can work for both the employer and the individual, although it is also something that needs to be balanced to meet their respective needs (and these are also likely to change over time). I think there is a policy aspect, but whenever we talk about flexibility, the policy only provides the parameters, the boundaries which constrain action, what they are less good at doing I think is influencing practice within those parameters. I think that needs highly skilled ‘people managers’ and HR support to make more flexible working work from a business and employee perspective, and for that to be reflected in a positive employer reputation.


On the ‘escaping work’ question above… any suggestions for how we combat the perception of this by managers?

In Hammersmith & Fulham, we’ve had a lot of feedback from staff AND managers who feel they’ve been more productive working from home and Covid has helped bust myths around productivity. It also provides flexibility for staff to do their hours within a flexible timeframe – balancing work and life in a way which helps them be the most productive – working around the school run etc.

We’ve also introduced a new ‘Appraisal lite’ as part of more regular conversations to discuss productivity and get the balance right, monitoring staff on outputs. The challenge now is how to provide the most productive atmosphere (balanced with wellbeing) for individuals and their teams.

Rob - It is perception in the majority of instances, but this is also possibly due to the way that managers manage. The only way to combat this is to help develop the new skills in managers of managing remote teams, managing agile teams or a hybrid workforce.

Really interesting presentation from Dan. I'm interested to hear ideas on what we can do in practice to avoid the perception/fact of a two tier workforce

In some ways, a divide in the workforce with respect to homeworking is inevitable. There are some jobs that cannot be done at home. That said, the risk I think is that jobs that could be done at home/close to home are not offered on that basis either because people in those roles do not have the right environment/equipment and the organisation is not willing to fund it, because of cultural precedents, or some other reason. So, think of flexibility as a default i.e are there reasons why this job, or parts of this job, cannot be done remotely? And if there are parts that can, how can we support that? For example, in post-Covid times, if someone wants to do some of their work from home but doesn’t have a private space to work in, could there be organisation support for some employees to use co-working spaces which are popping up in various places.


Much of the recent productivity research is based on opinion surveys. E.g. asking "do you feel more productive working from home?" Could it be that people feel more productive in the short-term because they're at their desk and screen all day, while forgetting that productivity in the longer-term also comes from collaboration, learning, sense-making, etc?

It’s a very good question, and I think points towards future challenges around how to optimise a hybrid way of working.

The research suggests that increases in productivity have arisen from increased time spent working, but also increases in output per hour due to the availability of a private space i.e less interruptions, enhanced ability to concentrate etc. Something many in an open plan office may have desired for a while.

What perhaps is less evident is whether opportunities that may further enhance productivity are being missed. These might be relatively small things, for example, someone realising that someone else has a connection or information that may help them with their current task, or bigger things like formal efforts at large-scale innovation.

I have heard commentators say that you can innovate just as well virtually, but I’ve also anecdotally heard that virtual world can erode emotional trust and make people feel less open to sharing information, challenging status quo, all of which is bad for innovation.

Personally, I suspect it is easier to innovate virtually where there is also some face-to-face time in the mix too.

Carbon is interesting, as there are potential carbon and economic shunts. reduced commute for some (not all), lots of individual heating costs; shifting centres of gravity for life decisions - gyms, where we do our chores - local to home vs town centres. lots of domino effects from the shift in working practice. There are a number of benefits for the environment from increased working from home, including a reduction in carbon emissions created by transport from commuting, however, there may be some disbenefits including the increased use of gas boilers over the winter and other household appliances which require energy. On the LGA and UCL Net Zero Innovation Programme, Durham County Council and Durham University are looking into the effects of increased working from home on the environment. Further information over the coming months will be found on Universities and councils: partnership working towards net zero | Local Government Association
How might we help remote workers compensate for losing the bumping spaces, accidental conversations, and the other serendipitous encounters they used to have in the office? Particularly with people outside of their immediate team or collaborators?

Sadly, there is no real replacement for those conversations you have while waiting for the kettle to boil but it’s important to build in time with colleagues outside of meetings and with others outside our immediate teams.

  • Through our staff resilience work, we’ve been encouraging more wellbeing and stay connected activities – encouraging managers to build in team building and social activities including huddles, team lunches, quizzes etc. For example, staff can sign up and be assigned a ‘coffee buddy’ from another section of the organisation.
  • We’ve also promoted our ‘Ideas Welcome’ online suggestion box to encourage staff to submit ideas and innovations.
  • We’re increasing our comms efforts to broaden staff understanding of what’s happening across the Council, for the first time, we’ve shared our regular departmental newsletters across the whole council, increased usage of Yammer and we have produced our staff online magazine with some of the headline news.

Rob - In a hybrid environment, the workspace is still there to have those encounters. It is just repurposed for more collaborative encounters rather than space for individual contribution, so in fact, you could say there is more opportunity for this.

How can we support staff and especially new starters to feel connected to the organisation when remote working is the norm?
  • We’ve been reviewing our corporate induction sessions (previously run in person every 2-3 months), replicating these online to introduce a group of staff to the organisation, but also to other new starters. We’ve also got a new induction for managers including a buddying system.
  • We’re ensuring staff have their IT kit delivered in advance of their start date and have a new starter checklist which includes meeting the team as soon as possible.
  • Through our new ‘Appraisal Lite’, we’re having more frequent conversations about performance and productivity, giving opportunities to ensure new staff understand their role.
This is a question for Rob, what do you see as the different skills set needed to lead people remotely? A real understanding of team dynamics, great communication skills, coaching, listening, engaging, knowing how to use and exploit the technology to address all of these. Also, to ensure that in a hybrid environment, all of these are still relevant.
What do you think are the key skills for managers now?
  • Managers increasingly need the right attitude more than they need the right skills as agility is equally increasingly important in the workplace.
  • Managing an emergency/crisis
  • Managing remote workers effectively also key; communicating, influencing, persuading, emotional intelligence. Also, time management, coaching and mentoring, goal setting
  • Getting the best out of our technology
  • Managing staff engagement, wellbeing and resilience
Are you looking to replace flexible working policies with agile working policies and replace current staff contracts - as some may seek a pure home working contract and even hybrid working can affect some staff contracts? We have reviewed all existing HR policies at St Helens and now have an overall hybrid working policy. Contracts may be reviewed based on individual roles.
Also, how can we prevent "presenteeism 2.0" which is people being present in meetings but not actually being productive.

There are great tools which come with Teams and Zoom which can help make meetings more interactive, helping to keep staff alert.

In H&F, where we use Teams, and we’ve started doing more polls or breakout rooms during meetings to keep that engagement higher. It’s also important to not forget to translate basic meeting management online – it’s easier in person to see who hasn’t contributed to the meeting than it is online, but it’s still important to do, as is checking in on whether a comfort break is needed with longer meetings, making sure everyone in the room has a purpose and can make a contribution and ensuring staff feel able to challenge whether or not they should be at a meeting and can add value.

All basic but important stuff.

What will the locality delivery model look like in practice, if known? Currently still being developed – we are creating a service delivery model, aligned to our integrated health and social care delivery model, that brings services closer to residents and their needs.
Is there any softer activities which are on-going around lesson's learned? Thank you We have identified in St Helens, as part of our cultural transformation, whole organisation 'Town Halls' with the whole workforce to get regular feedback, over 150 cultural champions are championing how we work differently, a new focus on wellbeing to address resilience issues and different learning and development experiences such as our 'netflix' of learning.
How do we change the meetings culture whether face to face or Teams? By perhaps focusing on creating the right culture and role models; taking lunch breaks, challenging whether meetings are necessary, checking the agenda first, attendees (am I needed) and duration (is outlook automatically set to 55 min meetings?) Making use of chat functions and the telephone rather than having everything as a meeting is also key.
Rob - great presentation and I love the experimental and iterative approach your taking. Was it a challenge getting senior leaders and others on board with this approach if they are more used to planned, pre-determined, PRINCE2 style change? If it was, how did you go about tackling those challenges? I think the approach we took in response to the pandemic helped. Remove the red tape, get on and deliver, shared goals, helped get senior colleagues and others on board. Lots of show and tells, and a focus on initial discovery (e.g. let’s just find out what works and doesn’t). Light touch governance is applied and a focus on agile project delivery.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw evidence of managers trusting staff more, and staff were responding well to this trust. This was partly because managers had no choice but to trust their staff. How might we make sure this trust is sustained?

For some managers, particularly in teams where there wasn’t a working from home culture pre-Covid, it may have been difficult (and stressful!) for them to imagine how they would
monitor and manage staff productivity remotely.

Yes, to an extent managers had no choice but to trust their staff, though some may have initially employed more stringent check-in or logging requirements but the length of the time staff have been working from home now is what will bring the longer term trust – the majority of H&F staff have not been back to the office for 8 months, and we’ve settled into a rhythm of sustained high productivity and low sickness levels.

In Hammersmith & Fulham, we’ve had a lot of feedback from staff and managers who feel they’ve been more productive working from home and Covid has helped bust myths around productivity. It also provides flexibility for staff to do their hours within a flexible timeframe – balancing work and life in a way which helps them be the most productive – working around the school run etc.

We’ve also introduced a new ‘Appraisal lite’ as part of more regular conversations to discuss productivity and get the balance right, monitoring staff on outputs.

Kim - would it be possible to see a copy of your ‘WoW staff guide’? Saved on the website
'@Kim - interested in the work you've done to identify residents needs or preferences around opening hours and whether residents are seeking more remote/digital options to access services. When Covid hit, we were already in the early stages of a review looking at our front door and physical resident contacts including purpose of customer centre visit and opening hours – moving to an 8-8 7-days a week, starting with a trial late evening day once a week. Covid learnings will be key here – we’ve continued to help in person those who need it, but residents are certainly using more remote/digital options to access services and we’d like to encourage those who can to continue to do so.