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The remote working revolution

The pandemic has recalibrated the rhythms of the working day

The listless eyes, slumped shoulders and steady rattle of a commuter train are the go-to images of frustration and unfulfilled promise for movie-makers. Commuting is cinema’s badge of boredom.

But film-makers may have to seek new symbols to portray grinding monotony as the pandemic has severely dented the commute. It has also recalibrated the rhythms of the working day and turned attics, bedrooms, garden sheds and any spare space into office modules.

Working from Home now has an acronym (WFH) and the desktop revolution is creating new office habits.

For many, it has been liberating; for most it has presented a fresh set of challenges including creating boundaries between professional and personal life and navigating domestic distractions such as stray pets and children wandering into the Zoom field of vision.

Maintaining corporate culture

A study by Stanford University demonstrated that WFH raises productivity, reduces absenteeism and decreases employee attrition but companies have to maintain their culture: the corporate DNA that is ingrained by personal contact and example.

It is a vital essence for healthcare communicators and marketeers and Angela Young, chief people officer at Lucid Group, the global healthcare communications agency, said the company is ‘pulling every lever’ to help staff benefit from the experience and stay tightly involved with new projects and business goals.

Conveying office culture across a multitude of screens takes ingenuity and application, and management teams need to stay connected with employees to pivot physical isolation into inclusion.

Lucid was an early mover to home working after one member of staff was diagnosed with COVID-19 in February last year.

“Within 48 hours, we had moved fully to a remote workforce and transitioned people to work at home and we then increased the cadence of our communications with staff, and between staff, dramatically,” added Young.

“We realised that teleworking was different for different people so we needed to be flexible to make sure everyone was set up technically and that we operated with the same energy and enthusiasm.”

Water cooler and coffee machine moments were replaced by virtual quizzes, sharing photos of lunches, specific joke days and regular contacts with management to maintain work and social continuity.

“We injected a lot of fun into the connections and we’ve created much more of a community spirit across the group with connections that might not otherwise have been there,” added Angela.

“That is good for morale but those connections also lead to work conversations that generate ideas.

“The CEO Dennis O’Brien and management teams are really conscious about maintaining our distinct culture through this.”

Coffee roulette and well-being webinars

Lucid Group took on around 80 new staff during the pandemic but the new, collaborative dynamics of remote working accelerated their integration. The company also hired external experts to run well-being webinars and facilitated contact groups of employees. They found the benefits went way beyond corporate performance.

“It has brought a humanity into the workplace,” said Young. “We are all working from home and traditional divides have dissolved. We also have much more fluidity around client-partner relationships because we can have conversations about new puppies or looking after children as well as work projects.”

There is also a warm glow around the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors created by the astonishing speed of vaccine R&D and delivery, and Young added: “There is incredible pride in what is happening. We are working with a couple of clients on COVID-related projects and there is a sense of purpose that reminds us why this company was set up: to transform lives and improve patient outcomes.”

Another powerhouse global healthcare communications agency, 90TEN, also got creative with coffee roulette, which randomly placed staff in social groups for catch-ups, movement challenges, newsletters, TV and film recommendations, quizzes and WhatsApp groups for project teams. It also strengthened its buddy system and trained staff to be mental health ambassadors.

“It was reset for all of us, thinking and learning how we could better integrate and keep a work-life balance,” said Claire Long, Deputy Managing Director, Communications, at the London-based firm. “Coffee roulette is fun because a random group generator pulls people together and you have a chance to chat with people you may not have seen for a while or may not have spent much time with before, so it is a great way of staying in touch.

“You will never replace face-to-face and that energy that comes from being together and sharing ideas, but we have learned to adapt and there is great momentum in the company.

“Everybody is used to seeing kids entering rooms or cats walking across desks during a meeting and that is quite liberating. You can be professional but also glimpse a bit of people’s personal lives which is a positive. It is a nice leveller because we are all just people trying to do the best we can in difficult circumstances.”

Breaking the monotony and staying connected

90Ten encourages staff to take regular screen breaks and walk during the day to relieve the repetitive elements of screen life. Sabrina Gomersall, the company’s Head and Director of Client Service for its PR division, said: “When we went into the first lockdown, it was clear that we needed to say connected and we made a concerted effort to check in with people.

"We quickly understood that everyone’s experience of lockdown is different. Some people are having very different struggles to others: people with kids, people in one-bedroom flats by themselves, people in flat shares, people with tiny bedrooms.

“Being flexible and staying in contact with staff and clients and having those touch points, even though they aren’t face-to-face, is so important. You need those human moments because everyone is in this together.”

Long added: “Being visible and reinforcing your culture – who you are and what you stand for – is important to a business. At 90Ten we have a very strong culture that has been built by face-to-face meetings but now we have to try harder to keep that culture in place and make sure all staff feel involved.

“We have a new business plan for 2021 and our priorities are to operate as a team working for a common goal and we want to make sure everyone is connected to that.”

Office life as we know it

Vaccination programmes are gathering pace and the outlook for resuming ‘normal service’ is promising, but will people come back to the office? Facebook expects around 50% of its workers to be remote by 2025 and the chief executive of a Canadian e-commerce company tweeted to its 5,000 workers: ‘Office-centricity is over.’

But rumours of a complete end to ‘the commute’ may be premature, as leading recruitment agency boss George Buckland believes that the pandemic will not tilt office life from its axis.

“I don’t see a seismic shift as most companies were already offering decent levels of flexibility and, ultimately, life sciences run on collaboration in person,” he said. “New ideas and learning about new projects are best done in person and most people actually enjoy the office environment.

“They may moan a bit but they enjoy meeting people and working collaboratively as it is an essence of their spirit and personality. We all need that face-to-face contact.”

His central London-based agency, George Buckland Recruitment, predicts that many companies would not be able to sustain current levels of remote engagement once the office doors are fully open again.

“Firms are working really hard to keep everyone engaged but it is going to be difficult and draining to run two systems, one for the office and one for those at home, at the same time,” he added.

“I don’t think there will be lots of people wanting to work predominantly from home and those that do will have to consider the risks of feeling slightly removed and whether that means they could be overlooked for inclusion in discussions, projects or even promotions.

“Flexible working is important and it normally comes up very early in the recruitment process with candidates being clear about what they want and, for most, there are companies that have the structure that suits their needs. And, let’s remember, some people still prefer to work in companies that have defined routines and hierarchies and some companies, such as start- ups, can only be so flexible.”

How companies configure working patterns and head office layouts will shape their ability to retain and attract talent, and the pandemic will be viewed not as an act of survival but an exercise in evolution.

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

10th February 2021

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

10th February 2021

From: Marketing

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