2020: the year of digital
New tools and the invention of new ways of working together, even remotely – 2020 has taught us a lot about ourselves and how we work. Agility and digital working are now part of our daily lives, with the growth in collaborative tools such as Slack and Teams. And the good news, according to a study conducted by Willis Towers Watson in the middle of the European lockdown in March, is that 81% of employers embraced those communication channels.
While employees and customers learned to work together in a new way, companies’ IT departments also had to adapt their protocols and review communication security, even outside the company. Remote working was even made possible in some factories by the use of telepresence robots. With a screen attached to a telescopic rod, they allow their operator to move around a site virtually, interacting with those present and controlling industrial equipment remotely. And although these solutions may have existed already, Covid-19 and expectations of a further crisis made their roll-out more urgent.
New ways of bonding
But while the digital transition has been stepped up, the biggest impact has been on hierarchical relationships and managerial habits. “With Covid-19, I had to completely change my working methods,” says Laurent Tellier, CEO of Saint-Gobain Abrasives & Composite Systems. “Whereas I previously spent most of my time traveling and holding face-to-face discussions with our teams, customers and partners, interactions became virtual.” Interactions that he views as “clearly less formal and simpler” as “they tend to reduce the hierarchical distance within the organization.” A leveling of relations readily confirmed by Svilena Stamova, HR Business partner at Saint-Gobain Bulgaria: “As we are already seeing, we have become more tolerant of one another and the acceptance of and adaptation to new working methods are much better.”
And since new regulations were imposed, routines had to be reinvented. Instead of friendly chit-chat around the coffee machine, the day started with short conversations on WhatsApp or Teams. “I organize regular ‘virtual coffee breaks’ with the team, just to chat,” says Magdalena Piekosz, Human Resources Director at Saint-Gobain Poland. These informal exchanges are important as they can also generate ideas.
Autonomy and trust
Encouraging remote work whenever possible also means agreeing to give employees more autonomy, which is a challenge, but also a real opportunity. “This helps to identify invisible talents, which can be recognized and harnessed,” says Philippe Hagmann, a consultant in work organization and social dialog. As Laurent Tellier readily confirms: “In over 99% of cases, the best level at which to make quick and effective decisions is locally. And while it may seem counterintuitive, especially in times of crisis, the best attitude a leader can adopt is sometimes to let teams work alone and... do nothing. We should avoid centralizing everything. But that (obviously!) means being able to trust, empower and sometimes… lose control.”
“I am astonished at the extent to which these new working methods have created bonds between teams. Leadership is now much more a question of trust, common goals and mutual support to attain those goals, and much less about control and command. In some ways, this difficult crisis has also been a powerful lever for positive change,” adds Valérie Gervais, Vice President Saint-Gobain University. “In any case, the more autonomy the team has, the easier it is to manage when it is not in the office,” concludes Magdalena Piekosz.
Adaptability to new tools and working methods, as well as good communication and the ability to trust and let go, regardless of the distance between team members – these are now the essential skills for managers. And the key to avoiding falling back into the traps of the past is, according to Nathalie Ruat, Human Resources Director of Saint-Gobain SA, is to “trust those who are trying to change things (particularly future managers).”
Responsiveness and the ability to adapt are now essential qualities for managers, employees... as well as companies! Philippe Hagmann believes that, “Companies can take the opportunity to think about what could be achieved by a certain level of compassion in its ecosystem, how to protect its employees as well as its subcontractors. Because a company that loses its subcontractors also risks losing its markets.”
Rethinking working time
“Working time has been the focus of social dialog for decades now. What compromises will we make in the future?” asks Philippe Hagmann. If the company is no longer the only workplace, what will become of “office hours”? “With working from home becomes increasingly common, the risk is to blur the boundaries between personal time and working time. As managers, we need to be very careful and disciplined in this respect, with our teams, ourselves and our friends and families,” admits Laurent Tellier. How can we balance the personal and professional environments to protect our private lives while optimizing the quality of life and work?
By reinventing offices and cities?
The quest for a balance between personal and professional life is equally applicable to those who prefer (or need to) work on company's premises, as to those who work from home or in other spaces. If we no longer have a single workplace but several, can a candidate living 200km from the company’s headquarters seriously consider working there? “For the company, this could be a new way of enhancing the diversity of its teams,” says Philippe Hagmann. This transformation will also involve cities, local stores and other transport networks, which are also affected by the diversification of workspaces, as they are an essential link in supporting these new practices. A transformation already in progress?
After a year of the pandemic, new habits (and attitudes) have taken root and everyone hopes, when the time comes, to avoid a return to the drawbacks of “pre-Covid” life. “Simplicity, openness, attentiveness, empathy – everything that has become established in this extraordinary period – should actually be how we interact with each other in the new normal!” concludes Laurent Tellier.
Photos credits: Klever Level / Shutterstock, Elenabsl / Shutterstock