The outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 was, in modern times, unprecedented. And it required an unprecedented response from education institutions around the world.
Now, over six months on from the emergence of the global pandemic and with many institutions preparing for the start of a new and potentially uncertain academic year, it is useful to gauge how students feel about their institution’s response to COVID-19 to date.
How have institutions performed on communicating key information to their students throughout the event? How successful was the – in most cases, very rapid – transition to online learning?
What should institutions be aware of in terms of student experience as they navigate through the COVID-19 era?
The Money and Pensions Service is delighted to announce an open procurement process for an initial £4 million of funding in 2020/21 focussed on telephone and digital debt advice provision.
This funding – for organisations not currently in receipt of MaPS mainstream debt advice funding – will be aimed at increasing the capacity of high-quality, free-to-customer debt advice by recruiting and training additional debt advisers in England. It follows, and is informed by, an early market engagement process run in July 2020.
All organisations that meet the eligibility criteria are invited to apply for the funding using the link below.
During the pandemic, many career practitioners have been asked to provide the same services to groups, but online.
This has been the new normal for some career professionals and jobseekers, but it has also brought challenges. The biggest struggle is that there are few resources they can take advantage of in order to effectively transition from leading groups in person to online.
Here are 10 basic principles career practitioners should be aware of when transitioning to leading a group online from in-person facilitation to create well-designed and smooth sessions.
1. Be authentic
Leading groups online is not entirely different from facilitating in person. Take a breath, and remind yourself what skills you can bring to the table: compassion, patience, resiliency, sense of humour, mastery of the content. Whether you are familiar with the group nor not, what you know about group dynamics from in-person experiences is still true. There might be tensions within a group or people might have different learning styles and motivations. Just be yourself and try to make a connection with group members as much as possible.
2. Learn and practise the technology
Test whichever technology you are using in advance. The simplest tool should be chosen based on the size of your group. You should offer your help to group members in case of any technical difficulties. As you gain experience, new tools can be added to your toolbox.
3. Mitigate group members’ multitasking
Group members on screens may jump from window to window to search the web, play music or respond to messages. The temptation and likelihood of participants getting distracted or multitasking is significantly higher than when you are in person. Set expectations about minimizing distractions before your session through emails or reminder posts. You can sometimes use the distractions to engage participants, for instance by having group members text answers or giving them time to do online research during a discussion.
4. Engage frequently and in varied ways
Prioritizing engagement is crucial when you lead a group online. The best way to keep people engaged is to ask questions, switch up activities apart from discussions and have people journal. Adding elements of fun may encourage people to focus more. Secondly, group leaders should be mindful of varying how they prompt discussion. For example, don’t always ask yes/no chat questions. For best results, use a variety of engagement types that work for different communication styles and learning styles, and give people options.
5. Manage the energy of group members
The duration of group sessions should be scheduled for not more than two hours. Otherwise, it will be exhausting for both leaders and participants. Break for 10-15 minutes after one hour so people can get fresh air or attend to any pressing needs.
6. Honour people’s emotional state during a crisis time
You may find people in your sessions tired, angry, impatient or stressed over life challenges. Every group member usually brings their emotional state into their sessions. Even if group leaders don’t feel well-equipped to handle strong emotions, they can:
Create space for people to acknowledge emotions they have
Create a culture of checking in
Model grace and patience
Provide frequent breaks
7. Track participation
A common challenge in leading online is that we end up in a one-way conversation. Reading people online is more challenging than in person but it is not impossible. Thankfully, there are some strategies:
Include polls or spectrums to gauge responses
Ask general check-in questions
Review activity between sections
Check in with people on the phone before or after sessions (especially for tech difficulties)
8. Let people know you “see” them
The more seen people feel, the more they are likely to engage. They are also more likely to send you clear non-verbal signals when they know that someone is looking back through their screen. Here are a few examples for prompts that can let participants know that you see them:
“It looks like only about half the group has shared ideas in the chat box. If anyone is having trouble with the chat, let us know, or you can share out loud.”
“I see a lot of heads down on the web cameras, so I’m going to give you a little more time to journal.”
“Everyone has shared except [name] and [name], who are joining by phone. Would you like to share, too?”
9. Be aware of technology challenges
Marginalized groups often tend to participate less frequently. This can become compounded by technology. Technological challenges may hamper their confidence. They may be afraid of being shamed by other groups members or revealing a lack of knowledge or resources. Group leaders should make sure all people – no matter their technological difficulty – can participate fully. Facilitators should try to always provide alternative options for participation to help group members engage in the session.
10. Release yourself and your group from the standard of perfection
Group leaders should be wary of the challenges of leading group online. They should prepare themselves for bumps on the road. The most important thing is to be calm and do your best when faced with challenges. The second-most important thing is to stay connected with group members in a sincere and compassionate way. Let’s model patience and caring with wisdom and intention.
AYDOLU SIMSEK is a post-graduate student in the Career Development Practitioner Program at George Brown College. She previously had 10 years of HR background in her home country. She has a strong desire to learn the intricacies of helping individuals navigate through career exploration and the world of work. Aydolu is a graduate of sociology and has a master’s in business administration.
The corporate office is on the brink of a major renovation. The lockdowns that began in mid-March in response to the novel coronavirus created an extraordinary migration as employees across the country began working at home.
People patched together ways to keep going when the lights went off in office buildings, and, for the most part, it has worked: In the June 2020 PwC US Remote Work Survey, three out of four employers called work from home (WFH) a success.
It’s no surprise, then, to find widespread interest in maintaining some form of WFH once the pandemic recedes. Everybody benefits. Employees avoid lengthy commutes and spend more time with their family. Employers have access to talent regardless of location, improve resiliency through a distributed workforce, and reduce expenses by optimizing their real estate footprint. Even the environment gets a break thanks to fewer people commuting, less business travel, and less heating and cooling of office space. The Remote Work Survey shows that 73 percent of employees would like to work remotely at least two days a week, even once COVID-19 is no longer a concern. Similarly, 55 percent of executives are prepared to expand options for employees to work outside the office.
This turnabout in perspectives is striking. The prevailing view just a few months ago held up the office as a strategic asset to appeal to a new generation of workers located in urban areas, with open-space designs and room to play. Today, skeptical executives who believed employees could not be productive away from the office have come around, or at least have softened their views, and see that working from home can be effective. Now many large companies across industries have announced their intent to let employees work from home at least part of the time going forward.
As a flexible WFH model appears likely to become the norm, the role of the corporate office and its physical footprint are coming under scrutiny. Right now, almost all office workers are working remotely. Will we see the same level of collaboration and productivity when some are in the office and others at home? We’re all leveraging relationships that we have built in the office through the years; how do we build new networks when veteran employees leave and new employees are hired?
The pandemic has shown that the real prize in remote work is not reducing real estate costs — it’s fostering a stronger sense of resiliency. In the future, remote work will also allow greater access to a diverse pool of talent, regardless of where it is located. Our surveys show a small percentage of employees prefer to work remotely all the time, so it’s important to assess what flexibility means for them. Meanwhile, other employees will want to socialize with team members and feel that they are part of the organization. How many people will need a place to collaborate with colleagues in person, and how often?
The answers to these questions will determine both the success of a business and the extent of the physical remodeling that companies will need to do. As leaders think about the role of their corporate offices and how and where their employees work once coronavirus concerns recede — whether it is this year or further in the future — they must clearly define the reasons for employees to return to the office.
Four actions to transition to the office of the future
No solution works for every company. Executives will need to figure out their own path, given the scale of potential changes. But these four steps will help.
1. Redefine the role of the office
Start by defining the purpose of the office in your organization. Go through a careful evaluation of what happens in your spaces. What is valuable enough to keep your people coming in? A significant number of companies outside the manufacturing sector have shown they can work from home effectively, so pinpoint the reasons people need to come back to the office. Indeed, the office may be evolving from a default location where employees go to get their work done to a destination employees visit for specific purposes.
Consider the work that people do. We call this exercise the Six Cs. Each C can be mapped to give employers an idea of physical and productivity space needs.
Creating work products: Analyzing data, doing research, processing orders, and writing documents. These “heads-down” tasks are often performed individually, and largely can be done independent of an office location as long as the employee does not require specific equipment or physical documents tied to the office.
Collaborating: Brainstorming ideas, developing plans, and solving problems with colleagues. Collaborating with colleagues was one of the top reasons many employees went to the office, according to PwC’s Remote Work Survey. Working from home during the pandemic has highlighted forms of collaboration that can still be effective when participants are not together in person. When does being “in person” make a measurable difference?
Communicating: Sharing information, giving status updates, asking for or providing feedback, and answering or following up with clients. Many communications can (and now do) take place over video, email, chat apps, or the phone. Again, when does communicating “in person” make a difference?
Coaching: Developing employees and providing feedback. Prior to the pandemic, coaching was often done face-to-face. However, because it’s largely a one-on-one exercise, most coaching could be virtual.
Committing: Making decisions and committing to actions. Commitments are often determined in formal settings, such as steering committee meetings, and sometimes in discussions among peers or between a manager and an employee. How and when do commitments happen in a given organization?
Community building, or corporate culture: Forming relationships through daily interactions. Some of these interactions purely involve work, but not all. Social activities help colleagues get to know one another as individuals and form relationships that benefit the work environment.
Although the last several months have shown that almost all of these activities can happen virtually at least some of the time, in the longer term, a portion of them will also take place in the office. So how will the split evolve? Once leaders have mapped what their workforces do, how much time they take to do it, and where being physically present adds value and boosts results, they can plan not only the size but the layout of their offices.
The creation of work products, as defined above, can largely move away from the office — and so can communicating, via virtual conference calls or team updates. Much of coaching can be handled virtually, too. Collaborating, committing, and community building, however, are team engagements at their core. Although much of that engagement can be virtual, in-person engagement is most valuable for these activities.
2. Define work-from-home guidelines
Our Remote Work Survey anticipates a flexible WFH model in which employees work in the office a few days per week once COVID-19 is no longer a concern. This generality, however, will apply to employees differently depending on their specific roles, with tailored approaches for greater workweek flexibility. When planning, it can help to create specific employee personas and map their activities, requirements, and propensities for home or office working based on the Six Cs.
Here we’ve divided these employees into four groups: collaborators, connectors, residents, and rovers, and have estimated the target time they would spend in an office.
Collaborators work in teams, but not necessarily in an office space. Think of research scientists, project managers, engineers, or designers. They may need powerful computers or access to specific equipment. And there are times when being together in person is more productive, such as a creative visioning session. Yet, as routine meetings and status checkups increasingly take place virtually, their need for time on premises could decrease significantly.
Connectors are typically the corporate support staff, including IT developers, marketing and public relations professionals, accountants, and human resource specialists. They have varying working patterns and can work in multiple areas within a company location. They work at their desks and in conference rooms. Target times on premises could decline by as much as two-thirds with enhanced remote working tools.
Residents are the traders, engineers, loan processors, and designers who need specific equipment, customized terminals, or powerful computers in the office to do their job. They work alone frequently but may require a specific space and specific tools. Mobility for this group will be more limited.
Rovers — the client-side consultants or sales executives — also work alone frequently, but they can work anywhere. Reducing expectations for their need for office time to as little as 10 percent is not unreasonable — that would mean two days a month in the office. This is likely to have been close to normal for some rovers even before COVID-19.
3. Remodel the office
According to the analysis above, the office of the future is primarily a space for collaboration and community building, though some tasks do require individual work spaces. Few floor plans are ready for this focus now, and given the pandemic hiatus, the remodeling that is currently going on is working in the other direction: Executives at many companies are retrofitting their offices with a “safety first” mind-set, putting up social-distancing barriers to shield people from one another and reducing the office capacity to half or even less of what it was before the pandemic.
For the office to serve its new and more specific future purpose of enabling collaboration and community building, a different kind of major remodeling is ahead. We anticipate that assigned offices and desks, that is, spaces reserved for individual work, will shrink significantly and be converted into unassigned, hotel-type seating arrangements with less square footage per seat than is the case today. In return, space for socializing and collaborating will increase. Huddle rooms will prompt ad hoc collaboration of two to four people; larger conference rooms will host decision-making meetings; hubs will enable project teams to work together. These collaboration spaces will be equipped with tools and technology to enhance the experience. For example, team hub rooms will be configured with “white walls” for brainstorming and powerful videoconferencing technology for seamlessly patching in remote team members.
Once a business maps its groups, it will have a better sense of what is needed in a physical office. Suppose your rovers need to be in the office 10 percent of their time or one day every two weeks: If you have 1,000 rovers, that translates into 100 seats. Now factor in density, or the total space needed for a group. Different groups will use the office space differently and thus will need different types of spaces. Many companies will need significant renovation and an investment in hoteling and basic space reservation systems, as well as phone routing systems.
One final consideration: As a result of the pandemic, some companies are questioning whether to diversify from a single, large office in a major urban center to a hub-and-spoke model, with one or two offices in urban locations and a handful of outposts in the suburbs. The outposts may shorten commutes for suburban workers while still enabling collaboration and enhancing business continuity. In addition to owning or leasing dedicated offices, companies may consider coworking spaces in order to increase flexibility and access for their much more mobile workers.
4. Update your ways of working
Companies that want to make an office-wide shift to flexible remote work will fail if they do not define how ways of working will change in this new model. Pre-pandemic, policies, processes, and the implicit and routine ways of working were defined with an assumption that most of the workers were in the office most of the time. Now that a large number of corporate employees are working from home, those assumptions have already gone out the window, and legacy ways of working have become insufficient or even obsolete.
Office-centric ways of working institutionalized how employees engaged with each other, and collaboration and innovation would often occur organically in hallways or over coffee. (Bell Labs figured that out in the 1950s and designed corridors specifically to let people bump into one another.) Only a third of U.S. workers in PwC’s June 2020 Workforce Pulse Survey rated the tools and resources for collaboration and communication in their organization as “very effective.”
Yet the flexible work arrangements everyone has been using to cope with the pandemic are redefining these norms. As a result, you will need to deliberately establish ways of working that allow for serendipity but don’t risk teams settling into recently improvised ways of working that can create confusion and frustration. These new ways of working benefit the employees not only in the short term but also in the longer term as they develop new skills and enhance their own employability. To define these new ways of working, the following elements are needed.
Standards and guidelines. Establish the parameters of work for regular activities. Set standards for when people are available and how key performance indicators are reported and measured. Outline what a successful meeting looks like and how action points are allocated and reported.
Routines. Remote working requires specific routines, depending on what people do. Some teams need daily huddles, others weekly catch-ups. Social events can also be programmed.
Tools and technology. The infrastructure of remote collaboration was cobbled together for the pandemic. Some companies had protocols in place and robust file-sharing capabilities. Others did not. These technologies will now have to be standard, secure, and straightforward to use.
Risk and controls. Data protection is always top of mind, but in a remote working environment, the cracks are all too evident. If the company email system fails or a file transfer system crashes, work-arounds using personal email accounts can severely compromise corporate data. And considering how many people are accessing systems and trying hard to do their jobs, keeping tabs on these activities is not easy. Companies are scrambling to keep up. Given that cybersecurity and data protection will remain a top priority, getting this right now should be an urgent concern.
For example, consider how a manager coaches an employee in a mobile world. The manager will need new standards and guidelines that outline what good coaching and feedback look like. He or she may define new routines that call for daily check-ins and feedback on the quality of the work product; monthly 30-minute one-on-ones to focus on the employee’s performance and career development; and a midyear check-in for a more comprehensive progress review.
The office and ways of working as we have known them are gone. In their place, we have a rare opportunity to redesign where and how we will work. The view will be worth the climb: On the other side, we can provide employees with better experiences and help them acquire skills they can take with them through their career. We can reconfigure our spaces to ensure collaboration, innovation, and productivity, and reduce operating expenses. We can build in more diversity and inclusion and increase environmental sustainability. The lead time is long — it could be two to three years — to plan for the new footprint, find new sites, remodel the offices for the company’s needs, and transition. So the time to start planning is now. Let the remodeling begin.
Edward Faccio advises organizations on corporate real estate strategy and transformation, and helps leadership teams align their business operations with new ways of working. Based in New York, he is a partner with PwC US.
Erika Ryback advises organizations on corporate real estate strategy and transformation. She works with businesses to execute real estate strategies using enabling technology. Based in New York, she is a director with PwC US.
Also contributing were Bhushan Sethi, a principal with PwC US and joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice; Vinay Couto, a principal with PwC US and leading practitioner in people and organization strategy; PwC US director Sid Bhatia of the Workforce of the Future team; Ashish Jain and Augusto Giacoman, both principals with PwC US; and PwC’s US real estate practice leader Byron Carlock.
BY Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co.
With so many employees working remotely, leaders must take extra care to ensure their communications leave no room for misinterpretation.
In a previous job, I worked for a manager who was terrific in almost all the ways you’d want a leader to be terrific — she was smart, straightforward, consistent, ambitious for great work. But she did have a small email tic that would occasionally give me pause. If I had to be out of the office, I would send her a note the night before. Her response was always the same: “Fine.”
That simple word, so clear in conversation, becomes more complicated in an email, in which there is no context or signal of tone. Did she mean fine as in, “Sure, no problem”? Or was it more of a, “Well (sigh), okay”? I’m fairly confident it was the former, but I was never 100 percent certain.
I’ve been thinking about those small moments of uncertain communication lately, as the COVID-19 crisis has prompted countless companies to shut their office doors and rethink whether staff need to be in those offices as much as before the pandemic, or even at all.
The nearly overnight rush to remote working has had clear benefits. It reduces the wear and tear of commuting for both people and the planet. It can also give employees more of a feeling of control over their lives, and, when geography is no longer a consideration, companies can find new opportunities for hiring talent.
But if remote working is going to work, leaders have to communicate more and be extra vigilant about removing as much ambiguity as they can from their exchanges with staff, particularly in email, in which the recipients don’t have the benefit of hearing the sender’s tone. Leaders have to ensure that what is clear to them is also clear to others, in language that doesn’t leave people scratching their heads. The same is true for video meetings, conducted in small squares on your computer screen that can make it hard to read nuances of body language.
There are some basic rules of human nature at play here. One of them is that with less face-to-face contact with bosses, employees are more likely to feel free-floating anxiety and wonder, “What do they think of me?” They may study email as if they were amateur archaeologists, searching for hidden meaning, often when none exists. And that self-generated feeling of being under a microscope can be intensified for employees whose work is also being monitored by their bosses through surveillance apps.
Second, whenever there is uncertainty, people’s thoughts can go to dark places and start spinning worrisome scenarios. Two CEOs I’ve interviewed brought this insight to life by sharing their own memorable stories.
Christy Wyatt, a Silicon Valley veteran who is now the CEO of cybersecurity firm Absolute Software, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, recounted an experience of communication gone awry when I spoke to her years ago. “People will make up stories in the white space,” she said. “We have a very full kitchen [in the office]. I hired a new head of business operations, and she decided we were going to switch out the vendors. There was a week when the supply went very low. Because we hadn’t said anything about it, people started saying, ‘There are layoffs coming; bad things are going to happen.’”
Wyatt had to tell everyone that the change in vendors was the reason for the dwindling snack supplies, adding in an all-hands meeting: “Guys, it’s just the nuts in the kitchen. That’s it.” The lesson for her? “People look for symbols, and they look for meaning where maybe there isn’t any,” she said.
Tom Lawson, the chair and CEO of FM Global, a property insurance company headquartered in Johnston, R.I., shared a similar story. “As I was moving up through the different management positions, I learned the hard way about how people can interpret a message,” he told me. “I was running our research group, where we have a lot of science Ph.D.s. One morning, it was rainy and horrible as I drove to work. I got to the parking lot, which was full, so I had to park far from the building and walk through the pouring rain without an umbrella. I was drenched and running late for a conference call.
“So, I walked right past the receptionist, didn’t talk to anybody, went into my office, and shut the door. I did my conference call and then forgot to open my door when it was over. About three hours later, our head of research knocks on the door. He said, ‘Can I talk to you? We’ve got a problem. Everyone’s saying that the company’s in financial trouble and that our research is going to get outsourced.’ I said, ‘What?’ Then he said, ‘You walked right into the building on the day we released our financials, and you didn’t talk to anybody. You shut your door and you locked yourself in.’”
Lawson added: “In fact, our financials were fine, and I told him the story of what happened, and he started laughing. I spent the rest of the day walking around, telling people that everything was fine. But it was a great example of how your actions can be misinterpreted. If you don’t communicate, people will make up narratives themselves, and those narratives may be negative.”
The opportunities for people to worry about hidden meaning have gone up exponentially, because many of us no longer see our managers every day, and because we are all living in a time of great uncertainty. In this environment, the absence of action or comments on key events may provide grist for the anxiety mill, too. Because of this, leaders need to make sure that their communications are as free of ambiguity as possible, so that all employees who are working remotely can focus on the work itself, rather than worrying about what the boss is thinking.
Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a senior-leadership development firm. He is the author, with Kevin Sharer, of the forthcoming book The CEO Test: Mastering the Seven Critical Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders, to be published in March 2021 by Harvard Business Review Press.
The following was published by gov.uk and is a guest blog on UK-Ireland connections from Catherine Page, a deputy to the Ambassador to Ireland Robin Barnett.
We have all had to find sources of inspiration to help us in the last few months. Mine came on one of many local lockdown walks in Dublin, when I passed a house with a plaque to “the Antarctic Explorer and Leader of Men”, Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose childhood home it had been. I have been inspired by Shackleton for a long time, since I was 17 and went on an expedition which re-traced his journey to the Antarctic island of South Georgia. But it felt particularly appropriate to find him again now – to be reminded of his story of grit and determination at a time when we have all been searching for these too, and to recall his family motto: “by endurance we conquer”.
Because if I had to sum up 2020 so far in one word it would be endurance. For me, as I imagine for most of us, this has been a period we have just had to get through, separated from family and friends and unable to do so many of the things we enjoy. As many restrictions were relaxed this week, you could almost feel the national sigh of relief. We can make plans again, see people who for the past four months have only apparently existed on Zoom, begin to have fun. But even in this new normal, for as long as we continue to live with coronavirus, I suspect we’ll need endurance – and on that there is much we can learn from Shackleton.
Shackleton’s challenges may not on the surface look much like our own. When the man from Kildare, by then a veteran of two previous British Antarctic expeditions, set off from London in 1914 on his ship Endurance, it was in the hope of being the first to cross the Antarctic continent. It was a task he knew would be “most dangerous, difficult, and strenuous work, that has nearly always involved a certain percentage of loss of life.”
Famously, he failed. The ship was crushed in the ice, had to be abandoned, and he set himself a new task: “to reach land with all members of the expedition”. Between October 1916 and April 1917 Shackleton and his men drifted with the ice flow. They then struck out on three small life boats, eventually making it to the rocky outcrop of Elephant Island. With much of the crew suffering from frostbite and exhaustion, and with limited provisions, Shackleton decided that he and 5 others would have to mount a rescue mission by sailing 800 miles across treacherous seas in an open boat to the whaling stations on South Georgia. They took only enough food for a month. They left 22 men on Elephant Island not knowing if rescue would come.
Improbably, after 15 days at sea and hurricane-force winds, Shackleton did reach South Georgia, but landed on the wrong side of the island and had to cross the previously unclimbed mountains on foot. When they finally arrived at the whaling station, the manager did not recognise them. It took a further four 4 months to get back to Elephant Island, where incredibly, he found all members of the crew still alive.
I have always felt a very personal connection to Shackleton. I had a small taste of some of what he faced when I was one of a group of young people who travelled to South Georgia to carry out scientific surveys and search for the stove he abandoned in the mountains, when he heard the whistle from the whaling station and knew he was safe. The month we spent there, in tents and on boil-in-the-bag rations, was certainly the biggest test of physical endurance of my life. As for mental endurance, the isolation and uncertainty felt by so many during coronavirus have been tougher. Not knowing whether he would make it back to Elephant Island, or what he would find if he did, Shackleton surely had to overcome his share of mental struggles too, and perhaps these were not so dissimilar to ours.
Another Antarctic explorer, Sir Raymond Priestley said of his three best known contemporaries: “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Shackleton himself identified four qualities as essential for overcoming adversity: optimism, patience, idealism, courage. DCU and the Shackleton committee in Athy have produced a great set of podcasts looking at the relevance of each of these during the current pandemic, which you can find here – and they have rightly suggested a fifth, kindness. Above all for me, Shackleton’s ability to keep himself and those around him going when faced with yet another obstacle, is what set him apart and why he should be celebrated.
At the British Embassy in Dublin we are privileged to have on our walls a number of photographs from the Endurance expedition. They were hung for the 100th anniversary to honour Shackleton as a great figure in the history of British and Irish Antarctic exploration. Like many workplaces, we have been operating the Embassy virtually since March. But when we do get back to the office, I look forward to seeing them again, as a reminder not only of an incredible UK-Ireland connection but of the amazing power of human endurance.
The sudden boom in remote working has raised a flurry of questions surrounding a return to “normal” working life and the purpose of the workplace as we know it.
The office of the future looked very different five months ago. In January, Facebook announced plans to hire 1,000 staff members to fill their new £1-billion London HQ. But by May, the company had said half their future workforce will be permanently remote.
This is just one example of how the coronavirus pandemic has blown apart companies’ conceptions of “the office”. Barclays boss Jes Staley has said “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”, while Shopify founder and chief executive Tobi Lütke tweeted his company will become digital by default. “Office centricity is over,” he proclaimed.
Flexible working is nothing new. A survey of 229 organisations by US research firm Gartner found 30 per cent of employees were already working from home at least some of the time before COVID-19 struck. Since the pandemic began, that number has jumped as high as 80 per cent.
“I think that somewhere between 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce that was previously in a workplace will not be coming back,” says Rich McBee, chief executive of remote network performance specialists Riverbed. With this in mind, it’s hard to disagree with Lütke’s hypothesis, but if office centricity is over, what does that mean for the office?
The workplace in the age of flexible working
“A lot of the trends that were on the way anyway have massively accelerated,” says John Drummond, chairman of workplace strategy experts Corporate Culture. “We’re going to see several short-term, pragmatic changes and one is that more people will work from home.”
This could mean an end to the classic command-and-control method of working, especially as flexible working seems to improve employee productivity, specifically in Generation-Z staffers, 60 per cent of whom have become more productive during lockdown, according to a study by Milkround.
Somewhere between 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce that was previously in a workplace will not be coming back
“I think you’re going to see flexible hours and output-based work versus hourly work,” says McBee. “What enables that is having at-office capability in your home office or from wherever you’re working.”
That means investment in connectivity and networks for those working flexible or compressed hours, as well as increased collaboration between employers and employees on the potential health pitfalls of remote working, such as burnout or back pain. Just last month, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai announced plans to provide workers with a $1,000 grant for at-home office equipment and furniture.
“The ‘individual cube’ of yesterday can be your home office,” says McBee. “It’s private, you’re working, you’re concentrated. Then, when it’s time to collaborate, the human-to-human interface will be done in a pseudo-office environment.”
Drummond says this presents a phenomenal opportunity for companies to reinvent the workplace in a work-from-home world. “The key question is what is the workplace for?” he says. “There’s a massive new opportunity for interior designers and architects, not just for the design of office spaces, but for the design of entire communities, neighbourhoods and cities.”
Designing the office of the future
If the office of the future looked different five months ago, try ten years. From Google’s sleep pods to Apple’s on-site wellness centre, the old future office was designed for people spending all their time at work. Now organisations are having to rethink office design for employees who want to spend more time at home.
“Companies may choose spaces which are more about collaboration than focused work, so I think we might see a proportion of desk space decrease,” says Guenaelle Watson, managing director of office consultants 360 Workplace. “These spaces could become more agile, collaborative work areas programmed for different teams to use.”
With offices being reimagined as creative meeting spaces and most desk work being done remotely, technology such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams will be at the forefront of keeping the future workplace connected.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella recently said his company has seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months; that’s because this digital change has been born out of adapt-or-die necessity, which will only continue to be the case in a post-COVID-19 world.
Thus, the need to return to hygienic workspaces will be one of the key drivers in digital workplace design. “We’ll see people not wanting to touch things in offices,” Watson explains. “That means the office, in time, may become contactless. You’ll be using voice recognition to open doors or apps to get yourself a coffee.”
In a world where the technology is improving every day, the physical space is becoming less and less important for forward-thinking and better-connected companies. Although meeting colleagues in a virtual reality office may still seem like a sci-fi concept, it’s not as far off as once thought.
“I think technology will get us to a point where that notion of physical location becomes a real question mark,” says Justin Westcott, European head of technology and chief operating officer for UK and Ireland at Edelman. “If you think about where we’re heading with 5G and latency, the doubling of performance in virtual reality in two years, while the costs half, that notion of the office increasingly becoming augmented is something I can see happening.”
Real estate and the digital office
“In a business like ours, our assets are our people and the office is the biggest overhead.” That’s why, when COVID-19 struck during early conversations about Edelman’s new London office, it was an opportunity for the company to interrogate what the modern workplace is for.
“There is always going to be a requirement for people to come together,” says Westcott. “Starbucks used to call themselves the ‘third space’ and I can see the office becoming the third space: you’re going to have your home, your home office and then the office.”
If the office does indeed become the third space, fixed desks could be done away with entirely, as could the traditional nine to five. “I think the notion of a ‘day in the office’ may be in question,” says Westcott. “It might be you come into an office for a ‘thing’, a task, a meeting, then you head out to wherever you want to get your work done.”
Leaders like Westcott and Watson see the office of the future as a place where employees meet, socialise and seek out the sort of spontaneous interactions video meetings don’t allow for. Interestingly, both see the office of the future looking something like a hotel lobby.
Somewhere between 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce that was previously in a workplace will not be coming back
Yet with temporary providers such as Zipcube and Spaces becoming evermore popular with startups of the WeWork generation, many will ask if these lobby-like office spaces are merely precursors to a world without offices at all.
Unlikely, Watson says. “Not having an office at all would be difficult and you’d struggle to create a strong company culture,” she explains. “You can deliver the work from home, but it won’t fulfil the human need for interaction.”
Instead, Watson foresees two potential trends for those looking to reinvent their working environment in the flexible-working world. Organisations will either repurpose some of their desk space into collaboration or wellness areas, or they’ll opt to trade in one larger central headquarters for a number of smaller, perhaps regional, hubs.
Which fulfils Lütke’s prophecy, in its own way. Office centricity is indeed over, but the office itself isn’t dead quite yet.
Freelance lifestyle and culture journalist, with work published in GQ, Time Out, Men’s Health, Esquire and Cosmopolitan.
The National Youth Agency (NYA) as the Professional Statutory and Regulatory Body for youth work in England has, in consultation with Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive, developed youth sector specific advice and guidance.
The guidance will support local providers, leaders, volunteers and young people to remain safe when engaging in youth sector activities. It is intended to guide the youth sector in opening up services for young people at the right pace and time.
This guidance must be used in conjunction with the readiness framework and your existing safeguarding policies and procedures. It is complementary to government guidance on social distancing, travel and other measures which must be adhered to.
Employees will want more freedom in where they choose to work following the coronavirus pandemic.
Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) found since the introduction of mandatory remote working, many employees had the chance to exercise more, spend time with family and time to think and reflect.
Almost two thirds (62%) of people said they wanted to work from home more on a regular basis.
Some respondents discussed wanting to spend the majority of their time at home, or have an equal split between home and office.
Of those who said they wanted to work from home more often generally, more than a quarter (27%) of them wanted to do so more than one day per week.
Gemma Dale, lecturer at LJMU and report author, said HR now risked employees leaving if it did not offer more flexible working choices.
Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “There is a potential risk that where this demand to work from home isn’t met and requests are turned down, employees may choose to seek an employer that will allow them more flexibility in their working lives.
“An economic recession may lead to a depressed job market – so these implications may take some time to be felt, unlike morale and employee engagement which could take an immediate hit.”
Yet Dale said a lack of flexibility in some organisations can create opportunities in others.
She added: “I do however think there is an opportunity for those organisations that do need to recruit now – if they can allow some homeworking on an ongoing basis it can be a talent acquisition opportunity, especially where employees feel that their current employer won’t be supportive.”
The research recommended that more employers should consider home working to support employee wellbeing, reduce the carbon footprint of commuting, attract and retain talented employees, support the reduction of the gender pay gap and improve productivity.
The research authors therefore said that where workplaces should help employees set up effective workspaces.
Many employees noted a lack of hardware such as printers and monitors while working from home, plus using unsuitable desks and chairs given many are sharing spaces with family and using home spaces such as kitchen.
The study has led to a series of recommendations for HR to prepare for the increase in demand for homeworking.
These included taking feedback from employees about challenges and benefits, determining an overall approach for homeworking and reviewing flexible working and homeworking policies.
The survey also pointed to practical challenges of the pandemic such as technology, appropriate work spaces, childcare, home-schooling and stress and anxiety.
Dale added: “We didn’t see a significant amount of people saying they were working longer hours, although there were challenges around establishing boundaries between work and home. This did not however seem to have dissuaded them from doing more homeworking.”
Yet despite these challenges, many respondents had experienced more flexibility and freedom and wanted to retain it, the report’s authors said.
The survey ran for three weeks in May and early June and had over 500 responses, generating 3,000 qualitative responses.
Private training providers whose recruitment of 16 to 19 students has been “limited” due to Covid-19 have been offered financial support to ease budget pressures.
From 22nd June 2020, independent learning providers (ILPs) can make a business case to the Education and Skills Funding Agency to prevent clawback of any underperformance they have experienced for this group of learners.
The ESFA said:
“ILPs may be recruiting fewer part-time students than they would normally recruit between March 2020 to July 2020.
“This will impact on the level of funding that these students would usually attract and will result in clawback of funds for 2019 to 2020.
“The ESFA will support ILPs whose recruitment of students, to a 16 to 19 study programme, have been limited due to the lockdown situation and who have faced clawback for under performance.”
For approved cases, the ESFA said it will base the expected delivery in March to July on the previous year’s delivery for students recruited between 1 March 2019 and 31 July 2019, taking up to half of this into account.
In addition, the agency will “add the actual delivery for students recruited between March 2020 and July 2020, up to a maximum of 100 per cent of the 2018 to 2019 funded delivery for March 2019 to July 2019”.
No clawback relief will be possible if the cash delivery in 2019 to 2020 exceeds the cash delivery in 2018 to 2019 for the period from 1 March to 31 July for each year.
The ESFA added that to further support ILPs, they are extending the clawback period to include January 2021 to March 2021.
“The clawback that is planned for July 2020 will be included into the re-profiling, from August 2020 to March 2021. This does not need to be requested and will be shown in the R10 reconciliation statement.
“There may be a small number of exceptions where a risk to ESFA and public funds is identified. In these instances, we cannot delay July 2020 clawback, but we will extend the clawback profile until March 2021.”
The ESFA made clear this funding support is a “one-off” in response to the unexpected disruption caused by the arrival of coronavirus and ILPs should “not expect this to be repeated in future”.
ILPs making a business should also “not seek” support from government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) to furlough staff whose salaries are paid from continuing ESFA or any other public income.
“ILPs submitting a business case must demonstrate they have not received support from the CJRS to furlough staff involved in the continued direct delivery of provision remotely of 16 to 19 study programmes and where possible recruitment of 16 to 19 students between March 2020 to July 2020,” the ESFA said.
“The Department for Education is considering appropriate measures to monitor use of claims from CJRS in order to detect any duplication of public funding and will be considering potential options to recover misused public funding as required.”
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