How has the enforced switch to remote working during the pandemic affected employees and culture? Phil Herbert, VP HR at Sharp Electronics Europe talks culture change with Hudson RPO.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionised how we work. Enforced national lockdowns and restrictions on travel and social distancing means many organisations have gone remote, with employees working from home offices (or kitchen tables) and relying on email and video conferencing.
In the UK, more than a third of employees are still working remotely, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures. However, change is on the horizon. The same ONS statistics show that the number of employees working at their normal place of work had steadily grown until the last national lockdown in January 2021, with industries like manufacturing, construction and transportation seeing up to two-thirds of their workforce as normal. Add in the effects of vaccination programmes, and many businesses are anticipating a return to the office soon.
Forced flexibility has reevaluated the office centred approach
But what impact has the remote working had on businesses more used to office-based work - and will they make any permanent changes?
“Pre-pandemic, we had some flexible working practice but not to a large extent. The expectation was that people should generally be in the office. However, the pandemic has forced us to work remotely and this has been a huge jump for the organisation, both from a physical ‘how-to do it’ and a cultural viewpoint,” says Phil Herbert, VP HR at Sharp Electronics Europe.
Despite misgivings, video conferencing has produced the same results as in-person meetings
As part of a Japanese corporation, Sharp in Europe’s prevailing culture has generally been one of expecting people to work from the office. The pandemic has forced the organisation to adopt new ways of working that previously might have faced resistance, says Herbert.
“Some of our colleagues weren’t sure how things like Microsoft Teams would work. They preferred their traditional face-to-face departmental meetings, because that’s what we’ve always done and it has worked. But that’s all gone. They’ve been forced to adopt technology and they’ve found that they can have the same meeting, the same productivity and the same output remotely,” he says.
Hybrid working plans have produced higher productivity
The impact on productivity has long been held as one of the challenges of remote working. However for many organisations this has proved to be a fallacy. A recent study by Microsoft of 9,000 managers and employees across Europe found that only 18% thought remote working had made their organisations less productive, with 44% suggesting it had actually made them more productive. The challenge for leaders is maintaining this while shifting to a hybrid remote/office working plan as our economies begin to open up.
Herbert tells us that Sharp plans to build on its remote working experiment. In Germany, one of Sharp’s businesses is already moving to a permanent ‘three-two’ working pattern, where employees will work three days at home and two in the office. This has allowed the organisation to cut office space by a third, directly impacting its bottom line, but has also helped it to attract new employees into the organisation.
“One of our ongoing challenges at Sharp is that we’ve been expanding our business into new sectors such as IT services. However, that has a very different skillset to our current talent base. Employees have different aspirations and don’t necessarily want to stay in one role for 25 years. They join an organisation because they like the technology it uses and the development opportunities, but they might move on in 3-4 of years when new technology comes out,” says Herbert.
Without being tied to an office, the talent pool has widened exponentially
Devising a talent strategy that builds this skillset in the organisation was part of Sharp’s planning pre-pandemic, but the shift to flexible working has allowed it to broaden its search.
“In the past, an organisation might lose an employee to a competitor based 30 miles away. Now, it might lose an employee to an organisation based 200 miles away, as they don’t need to be in a physical office. Where you can attract talent from has massively widened and what employees expect from employers is different too. Remote working has changed everything,” he says.
Has the culture truly changed?
It’s one thing to experiment with remote working during lockdowns and to build more flexibility into your working hours, but has Sharp’s culture truly changed? Herbert says that although some colleagues will return to the office full-time, others will have the option of splitting time between home and the office - a situation they wouldn’t have got to without the impact of the pandemic.
However, as with many other organisations, Herbert believes we’ll only see whether there has been a real culture change once we open up again.
“Our European head office is based near Heathrow, so quite often we’d have clients and colleagues fly in for an afternoon of meetings and then leave again. Will we still insist on that, or will we do it virtually? Until we open up, we don’t know,” he admits.
What he does believe is that there has been a stepchange in what people expect.
“I do think that business as usual face-to-face meetings will diminish substantially. It’s more efficient to do it virtually and people have got used to it, which is the key. There will be a balance between virtual and in person meetings, but we certainly won’t be going back to where we were,” says Herbert.
The real impact and longevity of accelerated change is yet to be seen
Ultimately, the pandemic has acted as an accelerant for many businesses. Digital transformation projects, employee wellbeing programmes and flexible working agendas have all been discussed for years, but the pandemic has forced organisations like Sharp to act. And while the true impact won’t be known for some time, there is - as Herbert says - no going back.
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