Have companies genuinely taken all employees into their confidence for their reopening plans?

Understanding what support and skilling the UK workforce needs post-pandemic as we gear up for the so-called return to work – or more realistically, adopting different versions of hybrid working – is a priority. Evidence is mounting, however, of how difficult organisations find engaging with their employees in an emerging but uncertain post-pandemic economy.

The facts are stark: recent Chartered Management Institute research found that while many UK firms are adopting hybrid working only 50 per cent of staff say that managers have consulted them formally on their preferred working model. This comes as even remote workers’ responses have emphasised that managers showing genuine trust in them was the most important factor in their being able to cope during lockdowns. And conditions could be worse for those that must work in physical locations: CIPD research indicates that, leaving aside remote working roles, people expected to return to work in an office or shop floor have fewer flexible working options than 12 months ago.

While there seems to be a general acceptance of hybrid working models in the UK – 70 per cent of companies expect 30 per cent of their workforce to work remotely according to CapGemini research – these strategies often appear to be rapid pandemic responses or, more opportunistically, ways for companies to cut back on their expensive office costs. Getting employee buy-in sometimes seems to be an afterthought: only recently, McKinsey found that two thirds of organisations either haven’t got a plan or haven’t communicated it to employees yet.

In these uncertain conditions, managers urgently need simpler ways to get insightful data on engagement. Crucially too, they need to consult more quickly and effectively with staff on the findings, and give all team members the individual support and coaching needed as new working environments are implemented.

So how will line managers motivate colleagues to deliver the heightened performance and flexibility needed in an emerging (if unpredictable) post-Covid economy?

This need for better data and insights is already a considerable challenge since many organisations think performance management is simply too difficult to do, Covid or not. Many companies would rather stick with the limited approach that they already have. Larger companies used platforms as part of complex outsourced HR systems where managers didn’t have meaningful control of the data or the analyses they wanted to carry out. For their part, small to medium size organisations often lacked the internal resources to operate regular feedback systems – or follow up on the results to boost performance targets.

But modern, specialist employee experience platforms are starting to fill this void. This is because they enable simple and repeatable sentiment surveys (focused on specific topics like feelings towards a new project or new office set-up, if necessary) that deliver quicker and more agile feedback. As a result, today’s continuous surveys and analytics can again be completed by management teams – busy managers don’t have to make extra time and resources to deliver surveys and so run the risk of taking the edge off realising their own priorities, when doing so.

As the UK shifts to hybrid work, organisations also need simpler and easier ways for line managers to consult on feedback from employees and recalibrate individual performance targets. Even before companies had to get to grips with all the complexities of hybrid working, gaining quality feedback data to help engage employees on a one-to-one basis was pretty challenging. Many well-intentioned initiatives have failed because it is so very difficult for companies to achieve desired change programme timetables when already operating in fast-changing or crisis conditions.

Innovative engagement platforms are helping organisations to deliver more structured and meaningful leadership and consultation skills training for line managers.

This is because the content for learning how to run effective one-on-one skills sessions with direct reports can now be delivered to managers as self-learning or video formats integrated with daily workflows, so that opportunities to learn aren’t lost or delayed. Just as a keystone holds an arch together, by getting the quality of 1-on-1s right, an organisation will lock in more focused, productive, and constructive teams to its daily operations.

The need for managers to refocus their teams’ goals and better communicate what is expected of each individual team member to attain them, is also being enabled by experience platforms’ other recent innovation: continuous conversation modules. These tools ensure a structured but easier-to-use framework in which managers and employees can immediately practice the skills they are learning, ensuring better retention by managers of newly-acquired skills.

The real difference is made by these tools’ innovations, such as automated reminders to set agendas to ensure effective meetings, that help promote effective learning and upskilling as well as ensuring that the whole programme is completed. Managers are thus being nudged, prompted and supported daily in driving overall performance improvement for their team members, despite their own challenging workloads. This embedding of learning for hard-pressed managers means that upskilling and practicing crucial new skills are kept on track – rather than being a task that slips amid packed daily routines.

Despite exceptional performance by managers and customer-facing teams during Covid, the ‘corporate hangover’ from that time lies heavily on them. By gaining a deeper understanding of employees’ needs and embedding effective ‘one to one’ consultations into managers and teams’ working days, companies have the tools to better engage and motivate their workforces as we emerge from the toughest 12 months most of us can remember.