Ringing the changes
What is the issue?
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a major shift in the way that many of us work and learn.
What does it mean for me?
Attention needs to be paid to ensuring that continuing professional development continues, despite fewer opportunities for face-to-face training and interaction.
What can I take away?
Practical tips from STEP Employer Partners on what steps they have taken to support career development and employee engagement in the hybrid workplace.
There is no doubt that everyone’s working lives have, to some extent, been impacted by the COVID‑19 pandemic. We have seen huge changes in the way we work over the past two years that will permanently shape the future of the workplace. At the peak of the pandemic, more than half of the global workforce were working remotely and, as its effects begin to wane, we are now looking at new ways of working from both the home and the office in different proportions.
We are also undergoing a phenomenon known as the ‘great resignation’, where research has revealed that almost one in five employees globally are likely to switch to a new employer in the next 12 months. In light of the dramatically increased movement of the workforce globally, it is more important than ever to create a workplace environment in which employees feel happy, engaged and valued.
A lesson learned during this period is that workforces can accomplish most tasks remotely without a significant drop in productivity or quality. Most employees appreciate flexibility, especially those with long commute times. Over time, however, face‑to‑face interaction is required to facilitate collaboration, build relationships, solve complex challenges and generate ideas.
Given these pros and cons, organisations have had to rethink their working arrangements and, in particular, how they develop their people. This recalibration will eventually settle on a sustainable new normal, likely a hybrid workforce and distributed workplace.
In this article, we draw upon insight from STEP’s Employer Partners (EPs), who share:
- how they have adapted their approach to employee development;
- what new working practices they have put in place and what barriers they had to overcome to implement them; and
- how they ensure that employees remain engaged and productive.
The speed of change has been phenomenal. Fierce competition for talent means that it is imperative to provide a diverse range of learning and career‑development opportunities to keep employees engaged in the face of a desire to learn and progress that is as great as, or greater than, before.
Jobs are changing due to automation and technology and, in keeping with this, methods of delivering training have shifted significantly. It is now commonplace to adopt a more digital approach to training at the point of need. Learning opportunities and information are more accessible, with webinars and remote interaction becoming much more commonplace.
This new way of working does present challenges. In particular, it is felt that younger and more inexperienced employees have suffered the most. They have not only lacked the opportunity to build relationships with colleagues but have also suffered from a lack of close supervision and on‑the‑job training, along with the inability to attend meetings and client visits in person. To a certain extent, everyone has missed the collaborative approach of discussing and sharing issues and solutions in person.
For EPs, educating their people has been paramount. Key trends are as follows:
- Traditional appraisals have been replaced by a more fluid programme of regular one‑to‑one catch‑ups and in‑the‑moment feedback, supported by individually tailored development with opportunities to broaden and develop skills, both from a technical and leadership perspective.
- A focus on developing emotional intelligence to be able to connect with clients effectively. Good perception and communication skills are fundamental and even more so during remote meetings where one cannot rely as much on body language and non‑verbal clues.
- Investment in leadership skills and developing good managers.
- Coaching to empower team members and encourage quality of engagement.
- Regular online meetings to discuss client matters and technical updates.
- The creation of knowledge hubs and online learning communities to support collaboration and development.
There has also been a particular focus on supporting more junior employees to develop their practical skills alongside theoretical skills gained from study.
Mentoring is commonplace, whether formal or informal, with junior employees often provided with a buddy who can act as both a support and a role model. EPs also reported that they made an effort to provide plenty of opportunities for ‘bite‑sized’ learning, both in person and online. Other initiatives include:
- Tailored induction plans that address both technical training and immersion within the new culture.
- Regular training sessions and knowledge‑sharing forums.
- Regular ‘anchor days’ where everyone is encouraged to work in the office together. A particular benefit of this is that it enables learning by osmosis from peers, through informal interaction and observation of colleagues.
- Including juniors in client meetings and discussions, as well as strategy and financial management.
- ‘Drafting club’, where associates and senior associates can share their knowledge on relevant topics and share best practice between sessions.
- Group coaching sessions.
- Career development frameworks that are knowledge‑ and competency‑based and provide pathways for all employees.
Working practices for the future
Most EPs have made changes to the way they work and underpinned these practices by documenting policies and procedures that support them. These take into account wellbeing, work‑life balance and how to deliver the best possible work for clients in order to help employees work in the most productive way possible. There has been a focus on technology and application improvements to ensure that all employees have the necessary equipment for effective remote working.
Although some require their employees to be back in the office for the majority of their time, others set no rules or requirements for people to be in the office. Staff can flex their schedules to meet the needs of the business and their clients. In keeping with this shift, a few EPs report that they have reconfigured their office space accordingly to reflect the need for collaboration and social connection when people are in the office. This approach is reported to have resulted in overall increased productivity and improved employee satisfaction.
Progress has not always been smooth across transitions. EPs identified that, following imposed remote working, some were reluctant to return to work while others welcomed the return. There were very different opinions on the best model working practices moving forward, although most favoured a mixed approach. The speed of change and willingness to adapt to new technology were also identified as issues.
Solutions were consistent across EP responses. Key points were that:
- It was critical to discuss new working practices with employees and get their input to ensure they were fully engaged before any changes were implemented.
- They were open‑minded about options and solutions, challenging assumptions, working collectively and asking for patience while they tried new things.
- They invested time in developing communications, training and change management plans. It was considered particularly important to keep in touch with remote workers to ensure they were included.
- They continued to focus on ensuring inclusion, cohesion and information flow, and made sure that mentoring, coaching and development continued.
- Support was provided by line managers and human resources business partners where challenges had arisen in order to help their colleagues work through issues and understand the changes and ensuing benefits.
Engagement and productivity
EPs shared many excellent ideas for keeping employees engaged and up‑to‑speed in the new workplace. Supporting ongoing professional development was seen to be a priority, as was keeping in regular contact to network and share knowledge by means of meetings and check‑ins, and the use of tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and online employee portals. It was seen as critical to foster a collaborative working environment where lack of knowledge is not seen as a weakness and everyone shares, and where employees are continually challenged with new work and briefs.
New employees receive a warm welcome and efforts are made to ensure that they not only receive the technical and business training they need but are also immersed in the company’s culture. A number of EPs mentioned the importance of team socials and working together on charity challenges as a way of creating a sense of belonging.
It was considered a priority to continue to seek and remain open to employee feedback and to focus on iterative continuous development within the firm. By consulting with and informing employees of changes they feel collaborative and considered.
Finally, wellbeing was considered to be central to engagement and satisfaction, with companies offering a range of benefits to employees and supporting them with wellbeing champions and mental health first aiders.
 To see the case studies underpinning this article, please go to www.step.org/employers/employer-partnership-case-studies
 STEP would like to thank the following Employer Partners for contributing to this article: Autonomy First; BDO; Donlan Lawyers; Mills & Reeve; Pavilion Row; RBC Wealth Management; Sequent; and Shakespeare Martineau.
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