Returning to work transition: HR insights series

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Claire Dunwoody is joined by Anna O’Flanagan, Managing Director of Red Squirrel for the fifth Q&A session of the series. 

With team building at the core of her experience and expertise, Anna discusses the importance of virtual team building initiatives, and how these might develop over the next few months as we ease back into a ‘new normal’. Anna also discusses the main challenges faced by HR professionals as we transition from ‘working from home’ to ‘returning to work’ phases: 

Can you tell us about your background and what you do?

I am the MD of ‘Red Squirrel’, a company where we aim to support our corporate clients in providing an outlet for activities such as team building, induction and orientation and bespoke projects. Throughout my career, training and events have been my core areas of expertise.  I am an entrepreneur at heart and in the early stage of my career I set up a business delivering stress audits and stress management training to a range of organisations.  I have also worked in the areas of mental health, training and facilitation and event management. All these areas have fed into the expertise I have now.

Assuming that restrictions are continued to ease, the sense is that returning people to work will be trickier than it was moving them to ‘working from home’. What do you see the main challenges being for a HR Professional in this regard? 

It will be challenging but this time HR departments have an advantage that they didn’t have ten weeks ago; time to make a plan. Also, in many organisations there is now acceptance at C Suite level that remote working does work! Many HR professionals have been fighting an up-hill battle for some time to get management to buy into the concept of remote working. The forced remote working experience has proved successful in many organisations.

In advance of this next move, I think there are a number of preparations that HR professionals can make. We are now in a position to consult with staff, to obtain their feedback and understand their concerns, ideas or opportunities around new ways of working.In advance of this next move, I think there are a number of preparations that HR professionals can make. We are now in a position to consult with staff, to obtain their feedback and understand their concerns, ideas or opportunities around new ways of working.

Once information is gathered, companies can plan for re-integration on a phased basis, allowing for flexibility along the way. This is also an opportunity for collaboration across teams. A HR led interdisciplinary “Re-integration Task Team” could be established. This short-term group of invested and engaged representatives could come up with a broad flexible plan that will give reassurance and clarity to their co-workers around the new way/world of work. I think it is safe to say it will be some time before organisations return to the old way of working. HR have a critical role in making this work.

With continued remote working/staggered shifts, how do you think a sense of connection between staff can grow, rather than stagnate in these circumstances?

Staff connection needs greater attention right now and the key to this is communication. Organisations need to avoid an “us and them” mentality developing between those working remotely and those in the office, often at different times. One way of avoiding this is making sure that all members of the team receive information at the same time and all employees are treated equally, wherever they work from. 

Another way of keeping connection going is for management teams to put more emphasis on cross-team collaboration, allowing space to celebrate achievements and milestones and creating and communicating a positive vision of the future. Organisations could also consider introducing a ‘storyboard’ on the company intranet, or office bulletin board for team members to share messages, thoughts, and ideas with one another.

What advice would you give to employers if they have employees who are anxious about commuting/working in an office, when it is likely social distancing measures will continue to be in place for some time?

All employers should obviously follow the advice and guidance from central government and the HSE regarding a return to the workplace. Employers have to allow for flexible start and finish times so that the commutes for returning employees are staggered and avoid ‘peak’ commuter times where possible.

Employees will have varying degrees of comfort about going back to the office or staying home. In this unchartered territory we need to listen and respond to employee concerns and find ways of working with them, putting employee wellness first. This also means keeping people involved in the decision-making around the re-integration and giving them some flexibility and choice regarding the aspects that affect them.   

‘Leaning’ on the corporate values of an organisation is a topic that has come strongly to the fore recently. How can employers ensure that these values continue to be communicated in a way that really makes a tangible/positive difference to employees?

Now is the time to know, communicate and live by, your corporate values.  The values of honesty and trust feature strongly in these times of ambiguity, information confusion and uncertainty. Trust is a value that management teams are having to lean into right now; especially those who were reluctant in the past to support remote working and now find themselves without any other choice.

Another value that can enhance trust is transparency. Even if we don’t have all the answers, employees need to be kept informed of any information that affects them. This includes in some cases, communicating that no decision has been made. Hosting virtual town hall meetings or introducing a weekly e-newsletter is a great way to do this. Commitment to employee well-being, and in particular mental health, is a value that is really needed right now and not only needs to be communicated but demonstrated by employers.

Commitment to employee well-being, and in particular mental health, is a value that is really needed right now and not only needs to be communicated but demonstrated by employers. Whether this is through staff wellness surveys, access to an EAP or perhaps encouraging team members to participate in wellbeing initiatives with colleagues.

In your role as Facilitator, what do you think are the most effective virtual Team Building tools an employer can utilise over the course of the next few months

  • During this crisis, many people are worried not just about their health but also their financial wellbeing. Where possible, employers should seek to give reassurance and offer clarity around the business goals and priorities. This may very well mean that team leaders /managers will have to actively manage the expectations of their team members and reset goals and objectives.
  • Management need to set clear goals and priorities and give people the chance to share their challenges with the team.  Even if not all members have a stake in the information sharing, it is important that they all hear at least the headlines, so they know they are part of something bigger.
  • It is important to acknowledge the difficulties and challenges this new way of working presents to us all and encourage team members to share their experiences with each other.
  • If there are company updates or changes to be communicated, communicate them quickly and clearly.  In my experience, gaps or delays in communication create a vacuum which can quickly be filled by the gossip mill. These unhealthy information exchanges can lead to a dip in trust and morale, not something anyone wants right now.  
  • Just as it is important to make sure that people have the right hardware to work remotely it is also important to have some sort of visual of the entire team's work.  A shared virtual whiteboard or other project tracking tool can be useful.  This makes the teams work more transparent, gives the sense of working towards a common purpose and reduces the risk of duplication
  • Finally, when appropriate, get people together in person, outside of the office (with social distancing of course) for a fun team building activity. People will need to meet, have fun together and blow off some steam.  

If you would like to find out more about the challenges faced by senior HR professionals and advice on how to overcome them, please click here or get in touch with Claire Dunwoody

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