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Workforce strategy: a framework for forward thinking

Published on 14 June 2021

Workforce strategy: a framework for forward thinking

Unlocking opportunities will depend on how behaviours change as the pandemic recedes or changes course. We certainly won’t be going back to business-as-usual; some changes are here to stay. In thinking about new operating models, and hybrid working, we need to discuss and decide: what do we want to retain and what do we need to re-invent? Indeed, are there patterns from the past we are glad to be rid of? It’s important we stimulate and share this new thinking across our organisations, to support a growth mindset and challenge fixed opinions. We need to rethink and continually improve or reform. We can’t allow ourselves to return to an old, outdated way.

So, what do we need to take into consideration? At The Forum, we’ve evolved a framework for forward thinking, over the course of six months from October 2020 to March 2021. This was shaped by monthly roundtable discussion with members in our Customer Strategy & Leadership Forum. While some round-table groups focussed on how to operationalise technology transformation most of our discussions focussed on enabling work-at-home or the challenges of a fast-changing pandemic situation. This article takes this learning and looks at how we move from here into the next normal

The first four areas in our framework are significantly changed when you have home working at scale. Of these, social connection and engagement are perhaps the most fundamental drivers of change.

1. Social connection and engagement  
At the middle of the pandemic, two conversations stand out to me from our awards programme as focussing my mind on this. A home working team manager talked about coming in each day and feeling as if his team were all sitting with him, like in the traditional call centre. They weren’t even on web cams, but they did all chat as they came and went and asked each other about how the evening had been or the previous day.

Contrast that with another team manager elsewhere, used to a really strong team feeling face-to-face but bereft of that in working from home. If we want to build homeworking as a permanent option in our new operating model, we need to build the habits and mindsets that are carefully developed in operations that are specifically designed for home working. We probably also need some different technology solutions that make for a truly integrated digital workspace. Watch the award presentation from Sensée to gather ideas.

Then consider what this may mean if you are planning a hybrid model (a blend of home and office for instance). Will team interaction only happen on office days? What’s the impact of that? How will home-based teams interact with those who purely work in the office? If you’ve learned in lockdown to communicate with multi-site calls or on-demand videos, perhaps tracking responses and creating auditable information, are we just going to let that go? 

Take another member, a coach in a multi-site operation, who has saved so much time and found ways to engage so many more people, by being virtual. Are we going to lose that in coming back to offices? Yet, what will office-based colleagues think if others want to interact still from home? Will it be ok? Are there interactions that just can’t work that way? Many who chose home working, from before the pandemic, believe most things at work could absolutely be done in a virtual way. Certainly, we’ve all been surprised at what has proven possible when needs must.

Think about team interaction, whether in your own team, the wider operation, or the leadership teams. It’s critical that no-one feels abandoned or left out. How will we communicate with our advisors? Some of us have been using MS Teams a lot in the last year. Is that enough? Are we even scraping the surface of what is possible with it? Do we set up other channels of communication? WhatsApp groups or Yammer have proven popular for instance. What’s more the role of team leader and manager will be changing, as they need to adapt their style and time management to different locations and situations (eg office – hybrid – home). Where your operating model combines different groups of people working in different ways, you need to consider fairness. People based in the office or at home can’t be being seen to be shown favouritism.

2. Physical environment and systems
Another key area where change is needed is the physical space and the systems we use, both at home and in the office. Up to now we had been able to ‘make do’ in many cases because people are moving to home working for safety, and we all recognise the exceptional situation of the pandemic. But this can’t go on for ever and, if work-from-home is partly a personal choice, it may be appropriate to put conditions on this. What are the minimum factors to ensure that home or office are a good, safe working environment?

Systems and connectivity: Is there a standard set of facilities and hardware, such as desk, chair, desktop or laptop, additional screens, mouse, all connected to the network. Broadband and phones need to have a minimum bandwidth to ensure that the advisor is available to speak to customers without interruptions or calls dropping. Who will pay for this? Will the company cover this cost? Is this seen as an exchange for savings in commuting costs? Who will take responsibility for technical issues? Some companies ask home workers to provide and maintain their own equipment and if they cannot work due to issues this is unpaid time. You will need to consider whether this is a standard setup (as it is with specialist homework outsourcers) or whether you support (say) Apple or google Chromebook as well as Windows environments. While you may have several standard formats, it is also possible to set up a process to deal with exceptions. Watch the award presentation from AXA/Pegasystems to gather ideas
Recognise too that the seemingly practical issues about the physical environment can raise wider issues. For instance, during the pandemic it was acceptable for children to be in the background and interrupting us while we are on calls. Once children return to school, we need to ensure that homeworking is not being used so we can save on childcare costs. Our customers will start to expect us to be more professional and will be less understanding of interruptions. 

Homework also raises practical questions about accountability and budgets. You need clearly agreed policies on all this. Who should provide the standard hardware? Who should pay for broadband? When should dongles be provided as contingency? Hybrid workers need equipment in both spaces, but while laptops may be mobile, they can’t be expected to transport second screens, desks and so on. 

This is not just for office or contact centre workers. For instance, branch colleagues in banks are increasingly taking on extra duties, a pattern that is likely to continue post-pandemic. Will they want mobile equipment to allow them to work at home, in mobile vans or pop-up locations as well as standard branches or retail stores? What becomes the new BCP plan and how much can funding be released from that to fund this?

3. Knowledge sharing in a hybrid world   
A key challenge for many contact centres in moving to work-from-home was that people were used to depending on others around them for questions and support, whether as formal ‘floor walking’ or just turning to your neighbour, to ask a question or check something out. This was a particular issue for operations with complex systems and procedures to follow without much experience in the workforce or support in terms of knowledge management systems. This highlights some important questions to address. What is the floor walking equivalent for a team leader in a virtual world? How do you flag an urgent request for help or escalation? How do issues get tracked and learned from, going forwards? Link to this are questions about how to provide coaching and 1:1s, team meetings, town halls and information broadcasts. It is also an opportunity to put more learning materials into on-demand videos as we will see later in this article. 

Our new specialist Knowledge Management Network at The Forum has really taken off during the pandemic, a sign of the times. Watching this video of the workshop on this topic at our April Customer Strategy & Planning conference is a great opportunity to understand the trends as well as to think about how you manage content and knowledge in your own specialist area. Furthermore, increasingly consumers have appetite for self-service if they trust this to work. Customers want answers fast; they want their problems solved. If we put information in one place, this trusted content can then be used for both customer access and our own advisors (at home or in the office). The way we write and present the information may be different, but the overall governance process is under the same ownership and accountability. Crucially systems track usage and manage feedback and improvement cycles.

4. Working patterns for the future 
Office working has shaped the existing working patterns that are still normal in many customer operations and typically involve single continuous shifts. The single shift helps with commuting and ‘split shifts’ are rare, often unpopular or impractical, There are typically breaks for food and comfort (originally so that workers were not sitting at a workstation for too long) and these are an opportunity to socialise with work colleagues. Team working may require coordinating of schedules, difficult for teams with diverse lifestyles. 

Working at home turns much of this on its head, as we see in the next article. Relatively little has yet changed in this area over the pandemic. This is a challenge we face as we move into the ‘next normal’ and here are some of the factors that need to be considered. We need to balance the flexibility of home workers with fairness. It is a wasted opportunity if we schedule our home workers to work 9-5 shifts when the fact that they don’t need to commute to work should make it easier for them to be flexible. Can they work for an hour before the kids leave for school? Can they do a few hours in the evening? On the other hand, we need to make sure that home working staff don’t get all the shifts that no-one really wants to do. 

5. Workplace Wellbeing 
Wellbeing is the key to the next four elements of the framework. These are impacted by any change to your fundamental operating model, not just by hybrid working, so they need a thorough review. “If you have good mental wellbeing, you are able to feel relatively confident in yourself, have positive self-esteem, feel and express a range of emotions, build and maintain good relationships with others, feel engaged with the world around you.” (MIND) Imagine how your organisations would perform if everyone was like this?

Mental health has been an increasing focus over the course of the pandemic. This has seen some organisations offer counselling, for bereavement for instance, or debt. This kind of specialist service not only supports those directly affected but also relieves Team Managers, who may not feel equipped and therefore find it a source of stress. Many organisations have also created resources and given access to online fitness and wellbeing classes, courses, or videos. People often find resources around mindfulness of especial benefit.

Wellbeing starts with connection and the factors mentioned already, but it involves going further. Take a look (on the next page) at the key steps to wellbeing identified by two highly trusted organisations in the UK, the NHS together with MIND, the Mental Health Charity. The lists are similar, in fact, to a recent set of guidelines form the World Health Authority. It is important to be clear what is our responsibility as employers and what needs to be an individual responsibility. For instance it is NOT our responsibility to instruct people how to live or expect that shift patterns and working conditions will be the solution to everyone’s problem. That said, if you want to challenge this, read about the clothing brand Bjorn Borg where crossfit training is compulsory. Our responsibility is to help people connect, by creating a sense of belonging, and to support health. We will also want to inspire and develop people, for example promoting continuous improvement and a coaching culture. We may wish to invest in ways to help people socialise with colleagues, in or outside the workplace. Other elements that impact wellbeing include shift patterns, team working, breaks & lunches and so forth.

Another key element is being physically active and enabling time for this in new working patterns. This needs to be an individual choice but working patterns and physical environment open up or close down opportunities. When working from home and during lockdown, it can be too easy to stay inside for days on end. On the other hand, driving into the office may mean some people don’t get the time for a daily walk or run that they did have in lockdown. On-demand fitness classes could help or teams signing up to a Step Challenge together, using simple fitness trackers (like Fitbit).
In many ways the promotion of regular exercise/ movement, and getting away from the work environment, is about building the right habits, but social connection also helps hugely. What others do influences us and doing things together can be a key motivator for many. Our wellbeing can be very influenced by what we do before and after a work shift, as well as how we punctuate our days with breaks and a mix of activities. I’d like to broaden this to being physically active and being healthy. Consider the way we commute or move around in the workplace. There is no point having a facility no one uses; promotion is as important as provision. Help people think about affordable, healthier food choices. Regular medical health checks and sick pay should be standard. Preventative medicine designed to avoid disease and illness is a proactive approach to employee care.

6. Learning and development 
Finally, learning is key to wellbeing, as MIND and NHS lists demonstrate. We need to support our employees at every stage of the employee lifecycle, as we explore in the next article, and think carefully about barriers to progression and learning. Is offline time or work mix limited on particular working patterns or sites (‘out of hours’ or ‘out of sight’)?

Like so much over the last year, the way we support development has had to change. Some very successful examples of remote induction and ongoing training shows what can be taken into the new normal. On-demand training means that more people are able to get involved, as we have seen in our own Forum Learning Academy, without the need for travel or blocking whole days out. At the same time, certain skills require longer periods to embed/practice. Or you need to get out of the standard working environment to concentrate (eg writing essays).

The key is to break learning down into smaller chunks and allow flexibility to personalise your development plan to fit your own circumstances and personal learning style. This approach can be applied in-house for operations teams, with flexibility for learning to be built around the individual. Another key area is tracking. A data footprint helps you learn about progress and identify areas for improvement and focus.

Some organisations recruit and induct very successfully without people ever going into the office. They have had to adapt, and they teach people a new approach from the start. Think as much about ongoing training or coaching as induction. Help people take ownership of their development. This is vital in a homeworking environment, where the ability to direct one’s own learning and knowledge development has been a key selection criterion for many years. Knowledge Management can help here hugely, and an integrated digital workspace will allow tracking and collaboration in the development of new content. Not everything works well remotely. For some people or purposes, we will still want face-to-face activities, but meanwhile we are learning lots that we can take back to the new normal. 

7. Performance
Appreciation and performance are two final areas which we will be exploring further later in the year – get in touch if you want to be part of these discussions. We often don’t have the MI or metrics we need as roles, skills and work blending are transformed by new technologies. We certainly need to capture this information at a different level, not just by individual/team but in ways that allow us to track the differences at the right level, by skill sets, working patterns or location for example. 

Differences are not a problem. On the contrary people at all levels must expect some differences, but to clearly understand what the data is actually saying. This is the key to providing appropriate recognition. It is very important to do this going forwards in a hybrid operating model. You need to build this into your budgets and plans. 

8. Appreciation
Throughout the pandemic those who find most success with work-at-home have put in place great ways to make people feel appreciated. They also overcome barriers to performance, where these do exist. Here communication is vital, and comms specialists within our teams can make a huge difference to the work that people leaders, planners and analysts all do in this area.

Celebrating your work colleague’s life milestones is an important part of working alongside people. Think about big birthdays (21st, 40th, 50th), baby shower, retirement, people leaving or moving role and so forth. Crucially, any form of contact can be used to make a short emotional connection or find out how people are really feeling. This remains as important in a homeworking or hybrid world as it has in the office or elsewhere. Handwritten letters or cards have made a bit of a comeback, perhaps because they feel especially personal. Phoning someone can also be a welcome change to constant Zoom or Teams meetings. Recognition and personal connection are true signs of a great organisational culture.

Looking to the future 
We are not looking to change everything, but to take forward the opportunities that exist, in a way that is both fair and that keeps a common culture or approach across different groups of people. Other changes will add to this complexity, in particular changing customer expectations and channels. Not only have we seen changes in opening hours and patterns of demand, but work will be increasingly diverse, some of it asynchronous (think of an email chain over several days), some is concurrent (think chat), some proactive (think outbound SMS or calls). 

Customer journeys typically involve multiple contact, but up to now we’ve not often deliberately joined these up in how we resource. Nor do we always analyse which channels work best for each type of activity. Experience from planning in the back office has much to teach us here. In all this, this same framework can guide us in determining the mix of complexity that one individual can accommodate and what makes this an appropriate blend of skills for one job or one period of time. Our next series of Leadership Round Tables continues from July, get in touch if you wish to be part of this.  

Paul Smedley and Phil Anderson lead The Forum’s best practice work in this area. Get in touch if you would like to know more.

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