Nov 3, 2021
Returning to Work: How Have Things Changed?
When Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the majority of businesses were forced to adopt a ”work from home” model, and vast numbers of staff were confined to a solitary environment. Despite an initial shock and abrupt changes, most people quickly started to adopt to this new way of life. Video conferencing became a staple in the working world, and people found innovative ways to collaborate to ensure companies continued to be profitable.
Fast-forward now to the end of 2021, and the UK population is now in a position to begin returning to the workplace. But what does this change mean for businesses? And how are employees adapting to yet another shift in the ways in which they work?
We spoke with Andy Sullivan, General Manager and Senior Director, Wetstock, from our wetstock management facility in Skelmersdale, England, to find out more about how these changes impact this office in the UK.
WHEN THE PANDEMIC FIRST HIT, WHAT WERE THE INITIAL CHALLENGES YOU NEEDED TO OVERCOME? HOW DID STAFF REACT TO THE "WORK FROM HOME" INITIATIVE?
System and equipment set up was the first challenge we had to overcome. We created a plan and once initiated, we moved all of our office-based staff to a home working set up within four days. We not only had to change how people were going to do their work, but had to consider things such as internet reliability, access to stock, printing facilities and where our people were going to work from - not everyone has a workspace at home that isn’t simply their dining room table, and although initially the expectation of the lockdown was for a three-week period, we anticipated it would be longer than that. We also had to consider how our field-based technicians would work. They would be working on the front line as essential workers, and their health and well-being was therefore a top priority. Our people took it in their stride and helped us to help them. Most customers didn’t even notice our changed approach.
DESPITE THE CHALLENGES, THERE HAVE BEEN MANY POSITIVE THINGS TO HAVE COME FROM THE PANDEMIC. IN YOUR OPINION, WHICH HAVE BEEN THE MOST NOTABLE?
We continued to be just as customer-centric as we had been before the pandemic hit, but the rapidly changing circumstances helped us become even more adaptable and responsive. We became better problem solvers, better at communicating internally and more adaptable to a highly variable workload.
Our site teams quickly defined new forecourt methods to protect themselves, forecourt staff and the public, and worked throughout, keeping forecourt equipment compliant.
WHAT MEASURES DID YOU PUT IN PLACE IN THE BEGINNING TO ENSURE MINIMAL DISRUPTION TO THE CUSTOMER? HOW DID YOU KEEP UP THE QUALITY OF SERVICE?
Our quality of service didn’t change, and most customers were unaware of the steps we had taken to move to home working. Phone calls were automatically redirected to the analyst’s computer. The motivation and engagement of our people was key in ensuring our productivity continued. Managers conducted regular check-ins and were encouraged to create social activities to try and replicate those conversations you would routinely have at your desk about what you were having for your dinner, or where you were going at the weekend. We created a DETA (Dover England Team Activities) Teams group online, where subjects of interest groups were created, and we also created a Spotify list and asked people to put their favourite positive songs on there to keep up morale!
THERE WERE MANY ADAPTATIONS YOUR STAFF NEEDED TO MAKE WHEN THEY FIRST STARTED WORKING FROM HOME. NOW, AS THEY BEGIN TO RETURN TO THE OFFICE, WHICH OF THESE ADAPTATIONS HAVE BECOME PART OF THE NEW WORKING STRUCTURE?
We have relaxed our dress code and empowered our people to dress in a way that it suitable for their diary, and have offered permanent flexibility by introducing a hybrid way of working. Enforced remote working had the effect of showing us just how successful this can be, based upon trust, support and engagement. Our new hybrid working model meant asking each member of the team what balance between home and office would work for them. In addition to their needs, we have team days every fortnight to allow our staff to come together face-to-face to collaborate and innovate.
DID YOU HAVE TO MAKE ANY CHANGES TO THE OFFICE SPACE TO FACILITATE THE WORKFORCE RETURNING?
We asked our people what hybrid working would look like for them, and we assessed how we used our office space. Previously, the office was a place you went to in order to do your job. Now, the office has become a collaboration venue. It has been designed to promote collaboration; somewhere you come to work together with your teammates.
We were also able to reduce our buildings footprint and reconfigured our office space to suit hybrid working. We created a large collaboration room where “team days” could occur, another space for those people who wanted to return to the office full time, and a number of hot-desking areas where people are able to book a specific desk for the day by way of an app.
WHAT HAS THE FEEDBACK FROM STAFF BEEN LIKE SINCE RETURNING? HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE GENERAL ATMOSPHERE?
Before we reopened our offices, people generally felt very happy at home, but upon returning for team days, they have reported the benefits of the team interaction and how that - balanced with home working - is key to both productivity and wellbeing.
HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY CHANGES IN COLLABORATION METHODS SINCE RETURNING TO WORK?
The combination of remote working and collaborative, in-person team days has allowed employees to prioritise their work to suit how they are working on a day-to-day basis. They are able to plan for how aspects of their roles can be best achieved.
THERE WERE CONCERNS WHEN THE PANDEMIC FIRST HIT REGARDING MENTAL HEALTH. DID YOU EXPERIENCE ANY ISSUES AROUND THIS MATTER? WHAT PROVISIONS DID YOU PUT IN PLACE TO ENSURE PEOPLE WERE CARED FOR? ARE ANY OF THESE STILL IN PLACE NOW?
Before the pandemic hit, we had already implemented a full well-being strategy and provision, including upskilling some of our people to Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs), and we encouraged people to speak to those who could help when they needed it. We had our online SharePoint site, as well as a multitude of research and self-help guides that were already being used and were readily available once the pandemic hit.
The one area we focused on when lockdown came into force was the education of our people managers to be able to identify and support people virtually and to signpost them to the MHFAs when needed.
THE SKELMERSDALE TEAM HAS ADOPTED A HYBRID WORKING MODEL. HOW WAS THIS DECIDED? HOW ARE STAFF FINDING THIS NEW SYSTEM?
Once we realised lockdown was here to stay for the long term, it become the norm to work from home. We asked our people through an anonymous survey what their interest would be in terms of where they wanted to work once lockdown was over and how they would like it to work. The feedback showed that some people wanted to work from home permanently due to the benefits on their work-life balance, mental health and travel expenditure, whilst others wanted to come back to the office either full- or part-time. We then created a policy and launched this with our people along with an application form. Applications were granted, and we then set about designing our new collaboration venue workplace. We reopened our offices on Tuesday 31st August 2021 and ran a phased return over a three-week period. The team days are certainly having a positive impact on our people; the flexibility of working from home one day and being in the office the next allows people to be more productive and gives an opportunity for them to come together for the day, when previously they would have been sat together within the teams as a matter of course.
HOW CAN YOU BE SURE A HYBRID WORKING MODEL WILL NOT NEGATIVELY IMPACT THE SERVICE YOU PROVIDE TO YOUR LARGE CUSTOMER BASE?
Our hybrid model is built upon our customer needs. It is of paramount importance that we continue to deliver the high level of service we pride ourselves upon. Our policy allows managers to bring their teams back into the office for business needs where necessary, and during the recent fuel crisis, these arrangements were tested and helped us keep UK forecourts open. Our customer service team continues to ask for feedback on service delivery, and our people managers monitor standards and feedback from their teams.
HOW HAVE CUSTOMERS RESPONDED TO STAFF BEING BACK IN THE OFFICE? HAVE YOU RECEIVED ANY FEEDBACK AT ALL?
The transition from office to home-working at the start of the pandemic wasn’t noticed by customers in terms of service provision. And similarly, the return into a hybrid model has been just as seamless.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT BEING BACK IN THE OFFICE AND WORKING WITH COLLEAGUES FACE-TO-FACE AGAIN?
Leaders want to be visible to their teams. There’s only so much that this can be effective via video conferencing. We become leaders because we value spending time with our people and supporting and encouraging them. We want to create high performing, successful teams. Thus, being able to meet our people in the office, to engage and talk with them is a great outcome after so many months restricted in doing so by the pandemic.