As we approach the unwelcome milestone of a full year since the UK first plunged into lockdown, the long-term effect of isolation is starting to show.
The sudden shutdown of many parts of our economy thrust a number of social issues that were previously hidden into the spotlight, and how society stepped in to help. When, for example, it was highlighted that not all families had internet access or resources to school their children at home, a flurry of companies offered to provide free broadband and laptops to those in need. And, in response to the restrictions on household mixing that acutely affect the most vulnerable members of our communities, neighbourhood mutual aid groups emerged to ensure that no one was left without the basic support they needed.
COVID-19 has forged a cultural shift towards more care and concern in many aspects of society and I believe that a similar change is needed – and indeed is happening – in the workplace.
Much has been written about how the pandemic has caused us to reassess our relationships with work. This, coupled with uncertainty around job security and the social contact that so many are reliant on, means that mental health is fast becoming an increasing focus for employers and employees alike. As if to prove this point, 2020 saw a 50 per cent increase in sign-ups to the mental resilience and wellbeing support schemes we offer to both our employees and customers.
We recently conducted a survey with YouGov of 1,000 UK-based employees to find out how the pandemic has affected their outlook on work. A third (31 per cent) feel less motivated, and nearly half (47 per cent) feared the changes to work brought about by COVID-19 are affecting their professional development. This is why it’s important for all of us to step up and keep an ear to the ground on the challenges faced by our people, so we can understand how best to address them.
Although home working has shown many businesses that they can offer more flexibility to their employees long-term, there are undoubtedly challenges employers must resolve if it is to become a permanent fixture. Motivation, connectedness and belonging are all important aspects of a good company culture that businesses need to find a way of maintaining, when colleagues can’t physically work together in an office.
My business has more than 1,400 employees that work in many different roles, from front-line construction and essential maintenance, to office-based positions. The size and variety of this workforce means we’ve always had to be proactive in finding ways to connect with our people to get a clear snapshot of employee morale. This has become even more important during the pandemic.
Lockdown affected everyone in a different way, and unique problems require unique solutions. This is why it’s important for businesses to be flexible. Regular pulse surveys are a good way of temperature checking colleagues and identifying what new initiatives could best help them. As a direct result of feedback from surveys over the past year we have provided more focused wellbeing sessions and have given colleagues more opportunity to voice concerns. This is crucial when there are fewer opportunities to pick up any issues that might otherwise be spotted in an office environment.
We know that juggling work with home schooling and caring responsibilities has become more of a challenge since schools closed. Which is why our flexibility principles, designed to support employees on an individual basis to come up with flexible working schedules that suit them are crucial.
Particularly for businesses with a large number of employees, good team leaders are vital. It’s important that they understand how to continue managing their teams effectively in the unfamiliar conditions of lockdown. This is why we developed a dedicated training programme – Connect4Leaders – specifically designed to give managers the skills and tools to lead effectively while remote working. And, over 200 managers from across our business completed a three-day programme to learn the principles of ‘restorative practice’, a more collaborative approach pioneered by the legal sector to address conflict resolution.
Restorative practices help to strengthen the relationships between colleagues by creating a more positive culture that encourages open and honest communication. It promotes a more understanding environment that empowers people to be honest and to identify minor issues before they become a bigger problem. When colleagues are not interacting face-to-face and communication is more difficult, such practices are imperative in ensuring morale is not affected.
The need for businesses to foster more open, flexible, and nurturing environments is by no means a new challenge, but COVID-19 has certainly expedited its importance. While it’s been a difficult period for everyone, supporting our employees through this has taught us lessons and equipped us with tools that will support our ambitious plans form transformation over the next five years.