Star Interview

What will the ‘new normal’ look like?


COVID-19 swiftly changed the working world, but with restrictions lifting and life returning to some semblance of routine, how can HR manage the lessons it taught?

Words by Kieran Howells| Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Jade Burke


Design by Matt Bonnar

 

The coronavirus pandemic looks set to continue to be a fixture of working life for the foreseeable future. Whilst the news continues to be awash with data on the virus’ spread, many are now speculating about the long-term ramifications for life in general, including the world of work. The term that many are using to encapsulate this transition into a post-COVID world is ‘the new normal’. However, what does this actually mean for workers and businesses?

Maintaining connections with other individuals and the company will be a challenge for all managers and leaders alike

 

Physical wellbeing

There are two key veins of consideration that recur when pondering the future of the workplace in HR discussion. The first is physical wellbeing: how employees can safely travel to the office and maintain health and safety standards when working. Many have understood that traditional office spaces weren’t designed to withstand the limitations of social distancing.

A survey conducted in 2019 by office supplies company Viking found harmful bacteria on 60% of desks it checked, with up to 10million bacteria believed to be living on a single surface, whilst the average keyboard has on average 7,500 bacteria living on it (or up to 3,000 micro-organisms per square inch). In a post-COVID workplace, this poses a serious threat.

I firmly believe that as managers, there needs to be a focus on everyone as a human being

Data also discovered that high-traffic areas of workplaces are prime areas for contamination and infection. The average surface, such as a photocopier, may be touched more than 300 times per day, Viking’s data found. Surfaces like these and door handles are some of the most touched spots in the office – therefore posing the biggest threat to health.

Some, such as Stephanie Merrifield, HR Director at STANLEY Security, have resolved to seek a solution to this by simply implementing a long-term remote working policy. She tells HR Grapevine: “We have quickly transitioned to the new normal. We were able to transition our staff to their new home set-up efficiently and have continued to observe and gain their feedback as we move to a more robust implementation of our existing agile-working scheme. Even with Government announcements encouraging a move back to the workplace, we continue to apply a home-working protocol where we can.”

Mental wellbeing

With remote working seemingly being the solution, many now understand it comes with its own set of problems. For HR leaders such as Merrifield, the second key consideration for HR is to ensure the mental wellbeing of their staff. Remote working may well be a key solution for those considering the physical threats of coronavirus, yet it presents many other issues, such as the threat of mental illness due to isolation. In fact, Cigna’s Loneliness Index recently discovered that 20% of those working from home feel isolated whilst Buffer’s State of Remote Work report states that those who feel disconnected from their company are liable to suffer lapses in motivation and engagement. This is something that Merrifield also ponders, saying that technology presents a previously unattainable solution to these issues. She adds: “Regular conversations and relaxed coffee catch-ups are taking place on Zoom between leaders and teams as staff return from furlough, to ease the potential anxiety of returning to work.”

Chantal Cantle, Chief People Officer at Dropit Shopping, agrees that this has been her biggest challenge in developing the ‘new normal’ amongst her staff. “The importance of regular communication and ‘virtual’ together time cannot be underestimated in supporting the wellbeing of the team, many of whom have never worked remotely. Regular Exec Team zoom calls, a weekly team meeting and a Thursday afternoon ‘Tea Party’ have all been at the core of our week,” she says.

 

New talent

However, not all of the effects of coronavirus have been negative. According to Merrifield, the move to a primarily remote business model has opened up the company’s talent pool considerably – aiding in hiring talent not limited by physical location. “Where previously specialised roles were harder to fill, we now have a more flexible structure to accommodate agile working and all geographies. This has, of course, led us to consider and adapt our onboarding processes for new starters, as they may not visit our offices or meet some members of staff in person for some time,” she says.

 

We now have a more flexible structure to accommodate agile working and all geographies

Management is key

Sarah Coochey, HR Director at Howdens, adds that COVID-19 has simply ‘accelerated a new normal’ that businesses were already heading foward in considering the work-life balance of staff and personally aligned values. “I firmly believe that as managers, there needs to be a focus on everyone as a human being; their whole selves, not just the ‘role holder’ or the person who has traditionally shown up from 9-5,” she says.

The onus, Coochey believes, is now on managers to ensure that the lessons taught over the duration of the pandemic don’t dissipate from the working world. “We must be able to flex understanding the demands of people’s lives, the pressures of which are more acutely present in a home working model, while still managing the demands of the business and the customer. Maintaining connections with other individuals and the company will be a challenge for all managers and leaders alike,” she concludes.


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