As companies begin to think about how re-open physical offices after months of lockdown, there are some critical decisions to take about how this can be achieved safely and in a way that suits a workforce that has been working to different rules during COVID-19.
Frank Recruitment Group is a niche IT staffing firm whose world has changed over the past few months. According to the firm’s President Zoë Morris:
We were 2000 employees happily working in in 20 locations and in offices. As for lots of other organizations, that abruptly stopped. We found ourselves physically all at home and that happened very rapidly. Even though we were office based, our staff would go out and meet customers, and candidates and our learning and development partners would travel the country and the regions and deliver training in person…I spent every month travelling to the US. Pretty much overnight we became remote.
From a technical point of view, the transition went very smoothly, enabled by the IT team, but the shift was more than that, says Morris:
It's not just about the physical ability to work at home. We’ve needed to guide our staff and our customers through a period of change and ultimately we've had to learn a new way of working. It's very interesting how people can adapt so quickly. One thing I've really noticed is the collaboration that I've see amongst our internal staff and our customers alike.
From a leadership perspective, one change that ensued was a speeding up of decision-making.
We had to make some pretty quick and decisive decisions in a matter of days, the kind of decisions normally you would spend months making. We've certainly had to be more agile as a Board. But I think the most important thing was despite the fact that there was pressure to make quick decisions, it was still about making major decisions. More than ever, we've listened to our staff, because everyone was dealing with [the crisis] in a very different way. That's something we had to really understand at the beginning - that the decisions we were going to make were not going to be fit for all the markets we operate in and all of the staff that we had. It was really important that we we step back. We gathered opinion from all of our staff, not just the leadership, from graduates that had come in in the last month to people that had been in the business for 10 years.
It was also important to talk to recruitment clients about their needs as the way they operated had also been through an enforced change:
Historically, our customers would interview people face to face. We had to advise customers that if they wanted to keep their businesses growing, they would have to adapt. It was certainly around making sure that we spoke to a wide range of people that we came to some pretty quick, clear, decisive decisions.
Those decisions had then to be communicated with clarity to all constituencies, she added:
There was a lot of uncertainty. A lot of people were not just fearful for COVID-19 and the impact of that, but their own personal circumstances. So it was about being sympathetic in our decision making process, and re-affirming the decisions we made. Getting feedback after those decisions has been a much quicker sort of loop cycle. Also, [we recognjized] that the decisions we made in month one were mainly not relevant by the time we got to month three of this crisis. So we needed to be agile, nimble and definitely needed to be very clear about what decisions we were making so that everybody felt reassured and came along on that journey with you.
Morris gives a lot of credit to her employee engagement team throughout this process:
Had we not had a happy and engaged workforce through this last three months, I think we'd have had significantly more challenges around keeping the business going. The one thing that is really important is that the leadership team needs to be wholly engaged with the entire workforce. We've implemented a number of changes that absolutely I think will stay.
Previously, our CEO would have a monthly leadership call, where he'd update, people who have a certain management level on the business performance. That has now shifted to a weekly call from our CEO that the entire business is on. So it’s about keeping that sort of clear channel of communication. We introduced an initiative about a month ago called Buddy Up With The Board. On a weekly basis, we release 15 minutes slots where anybody across the group - whether you work in sales, IT, HR - can sign up to one of these 15 minute slots. It’s a video chat and the agenda is totally their’s. If they want to talk about their career or if they're worried about something about the business, they can ask [about that] or they can just use it to chat to somebody that is not people they've been chatting to in their household for the last three months!
So that's been really invaluable for us as a board to really hear what's going on at grassroots levels, to get honest feedback from our employees. But I also hope that from an employee standpoint, it's demonstrated that we're an open culture and we welcome feedback from everyone. It's given this sort of real life channel into the decision makers.
There’s also been a big focus on wellness during a period of time that has been very stressful for so many:
That's been one thing that's really risen to the surface around mental health. On a Wednesday, we absolutely make sure that all of our employees log off at 4.30. We really encourage them to go and do something that is obviously COVID-safe, but probably, doesn't involve sitting in a computer.
Now it’s time to think about re-opening, although this process has actually been underway in phases for a while, says Morris:
The reality is we have been looking at this since January. Our Singapore colleagues have been living this a little bit longer. So very early on, at the beginning of the year, we set up a dedicated team looking at local and regional and country laws and legislations. We’ve had that team in the background, monitoring things on a daily basis. As and when we feel it’s getting to that point where local guidelines say that it's safe to open an office, we start to engage much more fully with that office. We do a pre-questionnaire to all of our employees to find out how they're feeling in that office about going back, because it's not just about, ‘Oh, great, the office’s open and everybody can walk back in’.They might be living with vulnerable people, they themselves might feel too vulnerable to go into the office. So, we're taking surveys.
What we've seen is for the offices that we have re-opened is that in the early stages, you get only a small amount of people that are actually going to want to put their hand up and say, ‘We'll go right back into the office the next day’. So we've moderated and modified our approach at each office we open.
What we've realised is that the first answer somebody gives is not the answer they give two weeks down the line when they feel a bit more confident. They see other businesses opening and they have other colleagues or friends that are starting to go back into the office. So we've done it on very much a case-by-case basis. It's not a one size fits all. We're taking each office and each local and regional set of guidelines on an individual basis. And we're putting together a project team and a project plan for that particular office. To give an example, our German offices opened back on the 4th of May and actually it's probably taken four or five weeks to get back up to about 50% confidence of people that actually want to go back into the office.
Frank Recruitment has said to all its employees that anybody can work fully remotely until the end of the year as local circumstances continue to shape considerations. The willingness or otherwise to use public transit systems in cities like London and New York is one example, as are factors like whether schools are open when a significant proportion of the workforce have children. There’s also the reality that some people have actually thrived in a remote working model and have no desire to rush back to an office, notes Morris:
A lot of our workforce have stated that they've really enjoyed this time at home.They felt they've been more productive. We are trying to make it as flexible as possible in terms of people's preferences. Where we're getting to is this sort of hybrid approach, that people will spend some of the working week in the office and meet with their teams to set objectives, and then time at home where they feel that they can really get on with the tasks that they need to do to be successful in the job.
Ultimately all of this will need to measured against productivity. In common with most organizations, Frank has suffered some financial pressure from COVID-19 and needs to ensure that future operating models support the business. This will take time, says Morris:
There's lots of data. As a business, something we need to do as this continues is we need to look at productivity analysis…I think it will take us probably in the next six months to really analyse that data around real productivity, because there are too many other extraneous variables at the moment that's making the data quite difficult to analyse from that point of view.
In all of this, Morris says that Salesforce’s tech has been instrumental:
It's been invaluable for us to keep in contact with our customers and our candidates. It’s also meant that we can manage our workforce remotely. The data is all there at the touch of a button and it's made our managers jobs extremely easy to continue to manage their teams and the likes of Chatter [Salesforce’s IM tool] has meant that we can keep in contact with our workforce easily.
Overall, it's been a period of months that have been transformative - one way or another. Morris reflects:
It's been a very interesting journey...There have been highs, there have been lows. We're one of the very fortunate organizations that are in in a sector that is in demand. Not everybody is in such a privileged position.
Phase three of the COVID journey as proposed by Salesforce, following stabilization - see AXA's story here - and re-opening, is growth, a stage represented at Salesforce Live by the example of Bugaboo.