As I left my bustling neighbourhood in West London recently, to commute to my office in the empty streets of central London, it became clear that a widespread return to office-based work in the UK is tentative to say the least.
Britain’s employees are returning to their workplaces at a snail’s pace (just 34 per cent), as recorded by AlphaWise, the research arm of US bankers Morgan Stanley.
It is possible that the pandemic has altered working life so extremely that the world of work and our central business districts will never be the same again. Whether you cautiously welcome that fact, or throw up your hands in horror, will be very much down to individual health concerns, set-ups and circumstances.
What I have learnt very quickly is that our employees want more flexible working in the future. They also expect to be travelling less, and to see a greater focus on virtual and hybrid meetings. I believe there is a significant and genuine downside to this – a weakening of the social bonds between colleagues and a challenge to company cultures.
But it will accelerate a new wave of self-starters and entrepreneurs from the suburban bike mechanics and neighbourhood coffee delivery services, right through to VC-backed virtual platforms. Even if a vaccine reaches us sooner rather than later there will not be a reversion back to “Old Normal” – we live in a hybrid zeitgeist now.
As the leader of a multi-faceted company, I believe that one of the most significant changes will be in the role of line managers. Post-covid, via remote working, they have become the main connection with employees. I have seen so much more pressure on them to engage, to communicate, train, and support. They will need to learn to manage both present and remote colleagues, while leaders must park any bias for particular working styles if they want to create a strong company culture.
That is a massive people issue because some 40 per cent of supervisors and managers have low self confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely, according to a study in the Harvard Business Review. That makes it essential for leaders such as myself to step up investment in training and learning for our teams but specifically for line managers.
This is not as simple as buying some off-the-shelf course material from one of the usual suspects, it requires learning design and insight. Capability training for leaders of organisations will become more critical and employee engagement needs to work at all levels in an organisation. Understanding the needs of my team, at whatever level, has become much more important but harder to actually achieve in the hybrid physical and digital world of the office.
Most importantly, physical and mental wellbeing has become a greater consideration. Where line managers may not be able to see team members physically on a regular basis, understanding this and preparing them to manage the challenges of their people’s mental wellbeing becomes vital.
So, as I head out once again for another day in this era of blended working, perhaps the most important lesson will be that line managers will not only become a more important connection with employees, but also the most important stakeholder when it comes to succeeding in the hybrid zeitgeist.
Russ Lidstone is group CEO of The Creative Engagement Group