Why heading back to the office is an issue of inclusion
With the advent of further easing of lockdown restrictions across the UK, there’s a lot of talk about people heading back to the office for the first time in over 15 months. The last time any of the A New Normal Team were in an office environment was Thursday 12th March 2020, and it feels like a lifetime ago. In that time, the team has grown, we’ve added babies (human and canine) to the A New Normal Family and worked with some brilliant new clients.
Understandably, our clients are spending a lot of time thinking about their returns to their respective offices, and the positives and challenges this brings. We truly believe that returning to the office after such a protracted period away is a conversation which has to have inclusion at its heart. The pandemic exacerbated so many of the existing inequalities across the UK and returning to the office and some semblance of “normality” (whatever that is now!) is no exception to this.
We’ve been having a lot of conversations about this with our clients, so here are our top five tips for leaders looking to create a smooth “re-entry” into the office environment:
Talk to your people – we always say when we’re working with our clients that communication is very different from just “publishing”. We all fall into that trap of thinking we’ve done a great job of communicating on a topic if we’ve shared an email or some content. When we talk about communication in the context of inclusion, we’re talking about real conversations – seeking to understand the perspectives and challenges of others. We’ve seen our clients working hard to understand the concerns of their people, and it goes without saying that you need to…
Really LISTEN to what your people have to say – we love the recent advertising campaign from Mind – “ask twice”. Someone may say that they are “fine” about the idea of returning to the office, but in this time of a subdued economy where people are returning from furlough and feeling vulnerable about their economic future, they may be less likely to share their real feelings about coming back to work. Really seeking to understand and hear about the challenges for individuals is absolutely critical, which brings us onto...
Think about things from others’ perspectives – the chances are that if you are coming up with an approach for returning to the office, you’re fairly senior in the organisation in which you work. That means that you’re statistically more likely to be in a position of privilege than those for whom you’re making these arrangements. You may be (amongst other things) more likely to be white, male, without caring responsibilities and slightly older (and therefore more likely to be vaccinated). At the very least you’ll have what one of our lovely clients referred to as “more capital in the bank” in the organisation, so life and work will probably feel safer and more comfortable for you. What this can mean is that you may be feeling more comfortable about the idea of coming back into an office environment, via a commute on public transport than for example – someone with caring responsibilities, someone with a mental health condition which has been exacerbated by the events of the last twelve months, or an individual from a Black or Asian background who is statistically more likely to have a worse outcome from a covid infection than their white counterparts. Whatever our own levels of comfort with coming back to the office, we can’t assume that everyone will feel the same way, so thinking about things from others’ perspectives is absolutely critical.
Be open to different ways of doing things – one of the positives which has come out of the last twelve months is that it’s shown even organisations who thought there was no way at all of implementing flexible working can make changes to their working approach. Now whilst a lot of us are keen to get back to seeing our colleagues and clients face to face, it feels like a wasted opportunity to just go back to exactly the way things were. With a focus on trust and output, there are a lot more ways to get a job done than the traditional “9-5” at a desk. So if your teams are coming up with different ways of working, why not give it a go? We’ve seen some great ideas being floated, like core working hours in the middle of the day so that people can avoid the rush-hour commute. These kinds of ideas which often spring up to support one group, often end up making a huge difference to more people than you anticipate, so it’s worth adopting the ”no idea is a bad idea” approach if it’s possible.
Share how you are feeling about what’s coming up – As leaders, we often feel we have to be completely invincible, and show no “signs of weakness” when talking to our people. We’ve seen the incredible impact which happens when leaders share their vulnerabilities – it gives others permission to share their experiences too. We’ve seen some great examples of leaders within our clients doing this to a hugely positive effect over the last twelve months.
Re-entry to our old lives is going to take us all a while to get used to – by using the principles of a truly inclusive working environment, we can make sure we make the journey as smooth as we possibly can. If you want to make sure inclusivity is at the heart of your return to the office planning, why not get in touch? We’d love to hear from you – email@example.com