Like all HR professionals across the country, I witnessed the overnight switch to remote working brought about by the lockdown imposed on 23rd March. Over a few short weeks I had prepared my team for the prospect of working from home for a prolonged period, ensuring everyone had laptops, that all our processes, including Payroll, were as streamlined as possible and capable of being undertaken paperless and remotely, setting up WhatsApp groups and ensuring we all knew we’d have each other’s backs and look out for one another as we faced a period of intense activity supporting our workforce through the crisis in a myriad of ways.
Alongside supporting and readying my team, working with the leadership team and advising managers and staff on the implications of the rapidly developing government response to coronavirus, there was also a particular lens through which I was looking at this situation. One which magnified a project which I am personally heavily invested in – our organisation’s move towards agile working.
Wychavon and Malvern Hills district councils have been working towards agile working for some time. Our agenda hasn’t been driven by the need for property rationalisation or other savings. In our case the impetus to move to agile working was two-pronged. Firstly, we were listening to what our employees and managers were telling us in staff surveys and exit interviews and anecdotally through manager feedback; that they were looking for opportunities to work remotely and flexibly, and that this would be an important element of attraction and retention. Secondly, driven by a desire to improve employee recognition, a conversation about internal social media platforms and switch to Office 365 opened up a wider debate about technological capabilities that would be new for us. We immediately recognised the opportunity to use this switch as a springboard for bigger change through agile working. This would address a growing demand for more flexible working as well as open new collaborative and innovative working opportunities through the introduction of agile thinking methodologies, and using better connected, less clunky IT solutions.
We had time to build the case for change, engaging the workforce throughout the second half of last year – understanding what they want and need and also their fears and anxieties. Senior leadership established an organisation vision for agile working – “Productive, adaptable and effective (enabling our people to do their best)” – and four agile working principles to guide further thinking and implementation. We established our workstyles and set about to pilot various mobile devices for relevant groups, whilst beginning the migration to Office 365 and preparing teams for the practical and cultural change through facilitated workshop-style discussions. And then Covid19 hit us.
Measured and phased implementation was out of the window. IT resource was rapidly prioritised away from migration to getting out as many laptops and other remote working devices as possible to enable people to work from home, even if on our old systems. We were in crisis mode and people responded brilliantly.
A few weeks after lockdown started, we decided to survey our workforce to understand how they were being affected by the sudden changes. We asked them about their wellbeing, their experience of team working remotely, their homeworking environment and how well their IT set up was working, what support they were getting from their manager, how productive they felt they were, whether they felt our staff communications were helpful and what they wanted to see more of less of, and how well they felt our senior managers were handling the crisis. 78% of staff completed the questionnaire, resulting in some hugely valuable feedback along with hundreds of free text responses, enabling a high quality of analysis to inform an action plan. Importantly for the agile project, feedback demonstrated an overwhelming desire from staff to continue with remote working as part of their regular working pattern once the crisis is over. We accompanied our general survey with a manager survey aimed at all our service managers and undertaken through guided one-to-one interview with a Senior HR Advisor or HR Business Partner. The findings from these conversations reinforced feedback from staff that teams were working productively and effectively, notwithstanding some technology limitations arising from the compromises inevitable due to the sudden need to get everyone out of the office.
Our agile working principles:
Meeting business and customer needs
Maintaining or improving productivity
Ensuring a strong sense of organisational belonging
Maintaining team cohesion
Being contactable and accessible regardless of work location
With the publication of Covid-secure workplace guidance we are now gradually heading back into our offices. Though things are far from ‘normal’ we’ve picked the agile project back up in light of our huge learning over the last four months. The first thing I did was work with our senior management team to review our aspiration and principles. We’ve listened to the cry for personal connection amongst those staff who talked of isolation, and we know from emerging evidence elsewhere that 100% virtual organisations can struggle to hold onto a collective sense of organisational identity. So, we’ve added a further principle – ensuring a strong sense of organisational belonging. Our principles are underpinned by ten agile pre-requisites and are set out in an Agile Working Charter which has been shared with all employees. These include such things as “you have sufficient IT skills to use the technology” and “agile working causes no detriment to other members of your team”, and are intended to help people understand the parameters around agile working for themselves and their teams.
As I sit here in summer 2020 reflecting on where we are now, the signs are optimistic. We weren’t ready, but we did it – we enabled the organisation to continue working effectively in lockdown; we know there is a proven appetite for change – people have tasted it and want it to continue; and we know what we need to do next – provide the technology and behaviour tools and support to make the change happen for the longer term. Some of this will be easier said than done, for example managing performance by outcomes rather than attendance, and addressing issues around team communications and cohesion in a hybrid remote-office working environment (likely to be harder than when teams are all in or all out).
The principles and pre-requisites set out in our Charter establish the basis for cultural change. HR’s role now is to work with others to create the guidance, support and conditions to enable this change and keep the agenda moving forwards so we can reap the benefits of agile thinking and flexible working. Covid19 provided an opportunity to really test the understanding and commitment of our people to the possibilities of agile working. I’m excited to see what happens next.
HR Services Manager
Wychavon District Council and Malvern Hills District Council