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Learnings from the mass migration to remote working

Business and HR leaders offer insight into how world of work is going to look post-Covid

Keeping a close eye on employee sentiment is crucial as remote working becomes the norm. Photograph: iStock

Keeping a close eye on employee sentiment is crucial as remote working becomes the norm. Photograph: iStock

 

Even before the pandemic, Twitter was working towards a more decentralised workforce.

As part of the battle for talent, it wanted “people to work from where they are most comfortable working”, explains Anne Kiely, head of human resources at Twitter EMEA.

That stood it in good stead when the pandemic struck.

But ensuring staff could work from home en masse was still an enormous organisational undertaking. The company provided financial assistance to ensure staff had the tools and equipment they needed to perform successfully, from hardware and software to ergonomic furniture.

Changing where you work changes how you work, found Kiely.

For a start, email in-boxes fill up fast. The company used workplace communication tool Slack to take pressure off emails and invested heavily in training, including such topics as how to work well asynchronously in documents. “It enables shorter, more action-focused meetings,” she explains.

That helps reduce fatigue.

Exhausting

“In the early days people were on meetings way too often. I had days when I’d be on end-to-end calls and it was exhausting. Now we have an entire programme in place to change how you work remotely, using tools such as Slack and Google Documents asynchronously.”

For HR professionals everywhere, the great migration home has been a learning curve likely to inform the way we all work for years to come.

Kiely’s team learned that, for situations such as creative “ideation” sessions, and for difficult conversations, “there is nothing like being in the room and eyeballing”.

Remote working requires different skills of managers too. 

As a social media channel, and as a company, Twitter is “based on relationships”, she points out. Being able to develop good relationships for remote hires was always going to be critical.

“In the past, managers would break out in hives at the thought of a new hire not sitting in front of them, we’ve proven it works,” she says.

Good diversity training is vital for remote working, she found, as is the provision of training about online meeting etiquette. Ensuring people use the correct pronouns and understand cultural and language differences is as important on Zoom as it is in a room in terms of inclusivity, she points out.

Its Business Resource Groups, communities of Twitter employees who gather around specific issues, such as parenthood or faith, carried on meeting remotely too, which she believes is a huge contributor to building a sense of community.

Successful employers seek to enable everybody to bring their “best self and their whole self” to work every day, she says, and that goes for home working too.

“For 20 years I’ve been listening to people say they want to work from home, they want the flexibility to work remotely. It’s been fascinating to find that for some it has been a case of faraway hills being greener because they’ve back on to me now saying they miss the office, they miss the people, they miss the food!” she laughs.

For others, remote working has provided exactly what they hoped it would.

One way or another, things aren’t going back to “normal” any time soon. “What we have been through has exponentially moved the needle forward towards proper flexible working. What that means is optionality, allowing people to decide where do I do my best work for my job,” says Kiely.

Linda Hayes, Johnson & Johnson’s HR director for Ireland, feels similarly.

“At Johnson & Johnson, working together is in our DNA. We know that bringing our colleagues together to collaborate and innovate gives us great results. Of course, there have been challenges this year but I am so impressed by the versatility and adaptability of our workforce during the pandemic,” says Hayes.

“Whether it’s our colleagues working on-site to support our manufacturing processes or our colleagues who have moved to working remotely for the first time, so much can be achieved together virtually, and there is no doubt that this will continue in the future but in a different way I believe,” she says.

Flexibility

This pandemic has provided a great opportunity to experiment with flexibility. “Formal lines between work and home life have become more blurred so we must find a way of looking more holistically at the whole person. We realise that with this comes some challenges around switching off. That is why, during this pandemic Johnson & Johnson has focused on the health and wellbeing of our colleagues throughout the world. In Ireland, we ensured that our sites were a safe place to be and we ensured that our remote workers were well set up ergonomically. Our CEO Alex Gorsky provided us all with two rest days to recharge and switch off. This sends a powerful message of how wellbeing is at the core of what we do.”

 Keeping a close eye on employee sentiment is crucial, alerting an employer to where a need to communicate more in a certain area or identify where it needs to provide additional resources, she suggests. That will continue. “By continuing to provide holistic support, our aim is to ensure that our employees can be at their best in the workplace and at home,” she says.

At Irish company Vistatec, which provides localised solutions for clients looking to go global with their products, just under half of its 250 staff are in Dublin, with the rest based overseas.

All have been working from home since the beginning of the lockdowns. “After Covid there is going to be a different landscape, work will be a hybrid of office and remote working,” agrees Patrick Kelly, its chief commercial officer.

Once you have the right supports in place to manage this, everybody benefits.

“We have many people working with us from other countries. Remote working means they can go home but stay working with us if they wish, so we don’t lose good people. It allows us to tap into a worldwide talent pool and means we can provide a ‘follow the sun’ model that global clients demand,” he says.