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Remote working part 2: slung in the deep end

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 09 Mar 2021

Instalment two of ICAEW’s remote working series explores how one business completed an 18-month project in two weeks by shifting whole workforces from office to home working.

The pandemic has forced employers, employees and procedures to rapidly move online. These operational adjustments left questions around areas as diverse as employee wellbeing, productivity and training – questions which many are now seeking to answer as businesses look to move into a new way of working.

Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, a business services company based in Manchester. Palmer worked in a traditional office before the pandemic which didn’t accommodate remote working, but says they will be incorporating it from here on in.

“Like every business, we were slung in the deep end back in March 2020, when we had to move a thousand staff from office to home working in a matter of weeks. An 18-month project done in two weeks is stressful, to be honest. But we did it and have proven it can work,” explained Palmer.

The fundamentals

Palmer stressed that a business’s ability to onboard remotely is “absolutely fundamental”, particularly with an employee’s wellbeing in mind, and because every organisation out there wants to hold onto their good talent. 

 “Onboarding is probably more important than ever,” said Palmer. “As COVID-19 blew the traditional face-to-face onboarding process out of the water, we hosted a lot more Microsoft Teams training sessions. But we felt we needed a more central hub for resources and information.”

To ensure their new starters have everything they need at their disposal straight away, Peninsula uses what it calls Peninsula University – “a one-stop-shop for everything content-related to the role”, Palmer added. It has all employee operational protocols, plus their training sessions and videos, which people can access 24/7.

Electronic signatures

“Operationally I think there are a lot of pros,” continued Palmer. “You can literally issue a contract of employment and get employees to sign it electronically. There are lots of process things that can be made quicker, and you’ve got an audit trail – from a legal perspective this is great. In terms of accessibility, you can get to a much greater audience for more hours of the day. Any time of the week, employees can jump on a video so not having to commute is a bonus.”

As you might expect, the global pandemic has pushed businesses towards the use of e-signatures over the wet-ink alternative. As a result, the global digital signatures market is expected to grow from $1.83bn (£1.3bn) in 2019 to 2.33bn (£1.66bn) in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 27.69% according to the Digital Signature Global Market Report 2020-30

“It’s harder for managers” 

Palmer believes that where remote working is not so successful is where it can encroach on an employee’s mental health, particularly when they lack confidence or are inexperienced compared to others. Online working can feel isolating and somewhat overwhelming for workers trying to get to know a new business, both in terms of process and culture.

She points out: “This is where the manager needs to come into their own and recognise how they can respond with tighter communication and support mechanisms – either on video or via other means. Managers can’t just think they can do what they’ve done before. They have to be stronger and really attuned to people’s faces on videos, the language, tone of voice, the words they are saying.

“I think it’s harder for managers because they have to be on it more, it’s not as visible as it once was to spot how a person’s feeling. You can put in more employer assistance programmes, schedule a few more one-to-ones and respond to any indicators that someone may be struggling.”

Speaker on the lived experience of mental health Nick Elston says that something as simple as signposting mental health organisations or employer assistance programs (where appropriate) can be a powerful tool.

Elston emphasises: “I talk a lot about active signposting, where even if you haven’t got anything within the organisation to support people, having that conversation and signposting for Mental Health UK or Mind, that’s enough to have positive engagements with people.”

Productivity boost

Andrea Wallbank is HR Manager at Business in Focus, a social enterprise that supports Welsh businesses to start-up and grow. Wallbank said in July last year, the company saw that productivity had gone up after they trialled their workforce operating primarily from home. 

She said employees always talked about work-life balance before lockdown and were now also having to navigate home-schooling on top of this. This led her to believe that her organisation had to be far more flexible with employees. 

“We had to allow them to work different hours and do everything we could to accommodate home-schooling”, Wallbank explained. “Then lots of positives came out of this, with people saying they didn’t miss the commute and like working from home. In an economically challenging year, there were also some cost savings we recognised we could make.

“We knew our technology had been developed to a point where we could do this and found the transition of home working a relatively smooth one. By the end of July, we actually consulted and moved 75% of the team to home-working.”

This way of thinking was reflected in an Institute of Directors’ survey of close to a thousand company directors conducted in October 2020, finding that nearly three quarters (74%) of those surveyed said they would be keeping increased home working after coronavirus.

Blended approach

Peninsula currently has 80% of its workforce operating remotely, with this initiative set to continue. Palmer said: “We have about 20% of our workforce who can’t operate from home and are in the office. The rest are at home.”

“We did it, have proved it can work and will definitely have a blended approach post-pandemic with homeworking and office-based staff moving forward”, Palmer concluded.

In the next instalment of its remote working series, ICAEW Insights speaks to Nick Elston. Following on from his ‘Imposter Syndrome’ article, he explains his lived experience with the psychological pattern and outlines what people can do to overcome it. 

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