Making business sense of WFH
Many of our clients and suppliers are working from home a day or two a week and that’s creating demand from our team to follow suit. We’re a small business looking to get back on track after...
many of our clients and suppliers are working from home a day or two a week and that’s creating demand from our team to follow suit. we’re a small business looking to get back on track after the significant impact of lockdown and, for me right now, that means everyone in the office focused on delivering results together.
i hear the call for more working from home (wfh) and understand the wellbeing benefits for individuals such as reduced commute stress and more time for family. i want these too but i’m struggling to balance these benefits with a business roi. i know it makes sense for some other businesses but, at this point, the business case for increased wfh just doesn’t stack up for me.
don’t get me wrong, i enjoy working from home, especially when i need quiet uninterrupted headspace to nut out something important. we’ve had a wfh policy as part of our wider wellbeing programme for over four years now. it allows for occasional and planned wfh to get specific things done and to help balance home obligations.
while most of the team are happy with, and are increasingly taking advantage of, the current policy, a number would like to see a more permanent, fixed days, arrangement. the argument for increased wfh is largely about happier staff who are more productive and loyal. i support this in theory. however, i just can’t see how this is achieved in practice.
my experience and readings tell me that for short periods working from home can be very rewarding and productive. but over the longer term, it has more distractions, often means working on inferior equipment, having less collaboration opportunities, and missing out on the benefit of ambient information. research indicates that these factors lead to individuals feeling less connected with their team and the company as a whole – not more productive or loyal.
lockdown showed us there are ways to manage many of these challenges when you have to. we worked really hard to make sure everyone was as productive as they could be and felt engaged and connected with the company. along with perfecting zoom and teams we introduced ted style talks, virtual drinks and ‘quiz nights’ and more cross-team projects. this focus takes effort which is easier to sustain when everyone, including your clients, are in the same boat and you know it’s temporary.
being in the office is much less hard work. everything everyone needs to do their job is right there. the emotional connection with the work, each other and with clients forms more naturally.
when someone works from home, everyone else assumes they have a pending deadline, a home situation to deal with, or they are feeling unwell and don’t want to spread germs. the natural tendency is therefore not to contact them and to defer work until they are back. this has a direct impact on productivity. with many working from home, important tasks and issues can get deferred for days until everyone is back in the office. addressing this requires a cultural shift to ensure people understand that wfh means you are still working and available to engage. but if we achieve this shift, constant interruptions will quickly erode the real benefit of wfh.
and then there’s the impact on those at work. there are some people who can’t or just don’t want to wfh. it’s these people, always in the office, who have to pick up the slack when unexpected work comes in, when there are urgent situations, or where compromise is required. this builds feelings of inequity, with potentially negative impacts on their wellbeing, loyalty and productivity. we are seeing some of this already with our current arrangements.
our business thrives on ideas and delivering successful team projects. to me that equates to working together, sharing ideas and supporting each other to achieve the results. i dislike how the office feels when a significant number of people are out. the space lacks a dynamic energy and that sense of a creative team working together. this doesn’t inspire my best work and surely reflects negatively when clients visit.
of course there is the health and safety aspect that must be considered. we can’t contract out of our responsibilities for the team’s wellbeing but we definitely don’t want to ‘baby proof’ each individual’s home work space. ours is desk and screen based work, where poor practices leave people open to rsi and eye issues. for ad hoc wfh, taking your laptop home and working on the dining table is fine. for anything more permanent, we’d need to invest in home desks, chairs, screens and other equipment and that has a significant cost.
these additional costs may be ok if you can reduce your office space requirements and associated rent but for many of us, locked in long-term leases, this isn’t an option.
the biggest wfh challenge for me is building and maintaining culture. we already run two offices which has its own cultural challenges. we’ve worked hard to build a shared team-based culture driven by our values. i’d like to think we’re a family, there for each other. it’s so much harder to maintain this when you limit your ability to interact, bond or even have everyone in the same room at the same time. teams, zoom, and email are great functional tools but they don’t foster the same personal connection that regular and informal face-to-face allows.
i know these are challenges many of our clients are also grappling with. we’re working with a number of them to revisit their internal communication platforms and policies in order to build more engagement, interaction, and connection. fostering both real and digital social connections becomes a big focus in their new communication approach.
for those who aren’t considering it already, think about how your next staff engagement survey can be adapted to measure the impact of staff having less direct engagement with the business. having only 50% or so of staff in the office at any one time may require a significant cultural shift, moving to something more aligned with a remote workforce.
for now, we’re sticking with our current wfh approach but being increasingly more flexible and open with how we apply it. i have no doubt that we will move further down the wfh spectrum so i’m not fighting it, just actively looking for ways to make the argument more favourable for the business. in preparation for when we get there, we’re starting to rethink culture and team communications to support the new way of being that wfh brings.wfh, working from home, business culture, productivity
Open up your communications
If we accept that the best communications are heard and understood, then it follows that as internal communication practitioners we should create opportunities for staff to be heard and to better understand what’s...
if we accept that the best communications are heard and understood, then it follows that as internal communication practitioners we should create opportunities for staff to be heard and to better understand what’s been said to them. why then, is there still such a resistance to opening up two-way communication channels?
as part of the internal engagement work we do, i talk to many companies about their intranet and its role in their communication programme. for most, it’s about one-way communication, letting staff know the rules, procedures, policies and other fact-based information; a repository of history and knowledge to help people do their job better, or at least in the right way. many have a ‘news’ element, allowing the latest achievements to be shared with staff. its function is to reinforce the right messages, stories and behaviours that support the desired culture.
unfortunately, there’s still not many companies that have an open forum where staff can just say what’s on their mind, ask questions, seek clarity and share ideas. word of mouth has always been the most effective communication tool and social media has found a way to utilise its power. why then are internal communicators so scared of applying social chat approaches to their craft? is it a fear of the tough questions? being open to criticism? inappropriate behaviour? or is it just being exposed for not knowing?
questions, comments and views are already being expressed by staff around the water-cooler, in the lunch room and right round the business. because we can’t hear them doesn’t make them any less legitimate. in fact, going uncorrected and unchallenged allows them to grow from an isolated opinion to the accepted company-wide grass roots position. why not then bring them out into the light where you can hear them and make them part of your communication programme?
i’ve heard many reasons why and my response is always the same ‘what rubbish!” if you’ve got an intranet, add blog and comments functionality and invite staff to share whatever’s on their mind. at first staff may be nervous of the consequences but they’ll quickly catch on when they see that they can say anything. go one step further and implement social-style platforms, like yammer or facebook for business, specifically designed to encourage collaboration and sharing of thoughts, ideas and answers.
word of mouth has always been the most effective communication tool
as communication managers our primary function moves from creators of content to facilitators of discussion. our key goal is to listen and provide information on what’s important to our staff and to address any areas of confusion. this may go against our instinct where, rather than creating more communications, we encourage the discussion to take its natural course. you do have to get involved, however, when the facts are wrong or the opinions are detrimental to the company or individuals.
encourage senior leadership to participate in the discussion on an equal basis to staff, sharing thoughts and opinions. they also have a role to play in facilitating discussion by liking, commenting and encouraging what others are saying. often it means acknowledging that they don’t know all the answers and asking staff to tell them what they think they should do.
i’ve heard many reasons why and my response is always the same "what rubbish!”
as we see from social media, most people know what’s acceptable discussion etiquette and play by the rules. forums and discussions are self-governing, with groups quickly letting individuals know when their language, opinion or behaviour isn’t acceptable. trust that this works and avoid introducing vetting, censorship or controls, as this discourages open sharing.
the beauty of this open communication environment is that staff are heard, know what’s happening around the business, have a place to get clarity and feel more engaged with the wider business. they participate in the communication process on an equal basis with leadership, leading to more open and honest dialogue. for the company, it means a much better handle on what really matters to their people and what the gaps in knowledge and understanding are.
i’ve focused on the intranet here, but you should open up your communications across the business. add feedback loops and discussion options to all communications when you can, favouring two-way discussion over one-way telling every time.internal engagement, staff engagement, two way internal communication, internal communication
The Real Client Treatment
Talking to a (hopefully soon to be) client last week about growing staff advocacy for their client service experience, got me thinking about how well we apply our own service ethos to ourselves. This prospective...
talking to a (hopefully soon to be) client last week about growing staff advocacy for their client service experience, got me thinking about how well we apply our own service ethos to ourselves.
this prospective client works at one of the big banks and the discussion was about how to give staff a first-hand appreciation of the customer experience. it’s a wonderful idea and it aligns nicely with my desire for us to all see ourselves as our customers do.
client-first is one of our values. we track client satisfaction, monitor net promoter scores and actively look to engage clients in discussions about what we can we do better. these are all good actions and collectively they’ve contributed to making us exponentially more client-centric than we have ever been.
but it seems we still struggle to recognise the internal client as a real client. this manifests itself in numerous ways: from not meeting internal deadlines, not making time to address key internal matters, being late to internal meetings with no ‘heads-up’, or postponing internal meetings last minute because “i’m just too busy.” it shows in the priority given to new business proposals, marketing activities or other similar jobs, which are essential to our survival, but are the first to be put aside when external client work comes in.
mostly i see it in our business plan activities whose importance is somehow always trumped by the ‘urgent.’ it’s this work that will make the biggest difference to us and our clients but doing this work is never as high priority as even the smallest client job.
we wouldn’t dream of saying to a client “sorry, we didn’t do your job because work came in from a more important client.” effectively, that’s what we do every time we don’t deliver on our internal timeframes and promises. if we were our own client, we’d probably sack ourselves!
am i suggesting that we need to give our work priority over paying client work? yeah, maybe. mostly i’m saying that we can’t use clients as the excuse for not doing what we said we would. we must treat ourselves like a real client and manage expectations, agree realistic timeframes, communicate proactively and do everything we can to deliver what we said we would. and it starts by giving external clients realistic timeframes for delivering their work based on our full workload. never assume that we will just drop the internal work.
reality is, things happen and we need to reprioritise. and sometimes we just can’t find a way to do what we promised to do. talk to the client (internal or external) before the due date and agree a new timeframe and deliverables. most clients will be reasonable about it, if they can. and if the scope can’t change then at least they have the option to find alternative ways to achieve what they need. chances are they’ve also made promises and this allows them to manage any expectations they’ve created.
and as we all know, good service experiences are all about expectations being exceeded.
The engagement game
We regularly work with clients on internal communications projects, helping them engage their staff, drive behaviour and performance, embed change and continuous improvement programmes and align their internal...
we regularly work with clients on internal communications projects, helping them engage their staff, drive behaviour and performance, embed change and continuous improvement programmes and align their internal and external brands. as a business, we face the same challenges our clients ask for our help with. we too work hard to engage a diverse group of talented individuals to create an aligned team approach that spans multiple locations and disciplines.
i was delighted to see the results of our latest annual staff perception survey. it was the first project i instigated as ceo in order to identify the key issues staff perceive and to track our progress in addressing them. each year we’ve moved forward in leaps and bounds and this year we achieved a staff engagement score of 88.8%. there’s no doubt our team is now (mostly) happy and this comes through clearly in the many positive and constructive comments made.
so how did we do it? many clients tell us they need a campaign to drive culture change, embed value and to improve performance. my answer is always the same. staff engagement isn’t a campaign but an on-going embedding process achieved over time across multiple channels and touchpoints. it requires consistent messages and actions that move the team seamlessly through awareness, understanding, acceptance and adoption. and that’s simply what we did. here are some of the key initiatives from our own staff engagement programme:
- improved regular communications including a monthly staff newsletter (now a video blog) covering results, work-in-progress updates, people and client stories and fun competitions. this is supported by a blog-based intranet for regular cross-office discussion and managers running regular team meetings. communication, transparency and trust were areas we scored particularly well in the survey.
- line of sight – our annual strategy day allows us to walk the entire team through our vision, purpose, strategy and key plans for the year ahead. this enables them to make a direct connection between what they do and the results we need to achieve. we also use this session to review the year just passed, directly linking our performance against goals with any staff profit share.
- last year we established an internal team to develop our values from the ground up. this ensured that the values reflected what is important to both staff and the business. we made a big deal around the launch, facilitating better recall and understanding. and now we are working on embedding them further into our every day vernacular and actions. see our values launch case study.
- our staff benefits/wellbeing programme is an on-going labour of love. we regularly add new benefits such as medical check-ups, access to financial advisers, flexible working arrangements, community days and healthy living advice.
- establishing a structured performance and development framework has meant all staff are clear on what they need to do and how their performance is measured. everyone has a development plan which is executed through regular individual and group development activities.
- our new recruitment framework ensures that that we hire people that are aligned with, and add to, the culture we have created.
- the physical environment also plays a role in culture and engagement. we moved offices in auckland, creating an environment more conducive to collaboration, creativity and good communication. we’ve made progress with the wellington office too and will go further with a new fit-out.
- we do lots of fun activities together as a team (but we still need to do more). some are little things like shared lunches or morning teas to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, project success and individual ‘gold star’ performance. others are much bigger, like getting the whole team together for a day of eating, drinking and fun at my place or our masterchef-styled christmas function. getting together regularly in a relaxed, non-work environment helps with unity and creating a sense of belonging.
for me the key to achieving our outcomes is embedding our goals, values and culture into our everyday actions. the leadership team have led this charge, modelling the sort of culture we want as well as reinforcing it with their teams. and if you’ve been in a meeting with any of us, you’ll see we all carry our designer notebooks. these house our vision, one purpose, our brand story, our strategy and business plans, values and kpis. effectively, the team engages with them every time they take notes at meetings (which for most, is every day). see our strategy book case study.
yes, but has it worked? being personally fulfilled at work is one of our goals. but our engagement programme isn’t only about soft benefits. it’s also helping us deliver the hard results shareholders need. in the last three years, our revenue has remained relatively consistent but our bottom line has moved steadily upwards. a more engaged team manifests itself in greater productivity and a willingness to find and adopt new and better ways to do what we do. what do they say? “happy staff equals happy clients and happy clients means a happy bank manager.”
could we do more? without a doubt. we’ll take a few moments to reflect on how far we’ve come and then get back to going further. we’ve got some exciting plans for the year ahead. suddenly 90% engagement doesn’t seem that impossible.internal engagement, internal communication, staff engagement