Managing your return to work: The future of working flexibly

Managing your return to work: The future of working flexibly

Sarah Lee-Boone is CIM’s director of people and organisational development. As workplaces reopen and the government’s furlough scheme runs down, she spoke to Exchange about what marketers can expect as they return to work… 

Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Sarah. As someone responsible for bringing people back to work safely, what are your biggest challenges right now?

A: Like many businesses, CIM is managing the return gradually in order to accommodate the various constraints that we've got – social distancing being one of the biggest, but there are also challenges with childcare, people who are shielding and there are also people who are just a bit nervous. Right now, we’re looking at returning to the office around mid-September.

With everything that’s happened this year, do you think there are going to be some lasting changes around workplaces and working lives?

I hope so, in a good way. I obviously hope the economy recovers quickly but I think people have learned the value of being able to interweave their work life and their life outside of the office. That was challenging before, with many employers adamant you had to be in an office from 9 to 5 (maybe longer) to work effectively. I think the last few months have demonstrated that it doesn't have to be like that. As a result, I'm hearing from both employers and employees that they don't actually want to go back to normal. They would like something a little bit more flexible.

What do you think that flexibility might look like in practice?

In my network of HR professionals, I’ve noticed that businesses are thinking about how they can keep an office presence but maybe not to the extent they've had in the past. For economic reasons, they may be looking at cutting down on the space they rent, or they may be looking at relocating. If location becomes less of an issue, I think businesses will open themselves up to a broader recruitment pool. I just hope the depth of the recession we now find ourselves in does not affect any of this. There may be a tendency to want to get back to what we were doing before in order to try and recreate the previous economic boom. Hopefully we are getting past that now.

Zooming in on marketing departments now, how might all of this affect them in particular?

I think there are a couple of areas that may be of particular focus. I’m painting with a broad brush, but marketing is traditionally a high-pressure, long-hours discipline, especially on the agency side. You have to work hard to prove yourself to clients who can be very demanding. I hope this time has shown that marketers can do as good a job in a different way, and that this new way can be of benefit to marketers in terms of work-life balance.

There is also a challenge for us now to be really creative about how we foster creativity. It’s often said that it can only happen when everyone’s in a room together; now is the time for marketers to look at different ways of achieving that creativity, perhaps through virtual working or working in different teams, because, as we return to work, big gatherings still cannot be the norm.

Are there potential downsides to any changes?

Good management is the key to avoiding any downsides. Here, I think that means having open conversations. I really hope managers in particular have been encouraged to engage in good dialogue with their people, so there is a better relationship for open conversation about how we move forward.

I would encourage marketers to be creative in their thinking and go to their managers – or their employees – with good solutions. Don't just present a problem; present a solution. If you want to work more flexibly, show what you think this could look like for both you and the business. Flexible working by its nature is going to look different for different people. Right now, businesses have enough issues to deal with – they don’t need to just be presented with another. If marketers come forward with innovative solutions as to how we phase a return to the workplace, and how we work in the future, that would be a really positive thing.

How has CIM been approaching those conversations?

We've asked people to come to us with their plans and we've asked teams to look at how they might work at home more, but I do think we've got to be mindful of not necessarily encouraging people to work home permanently. In a vibrant, animated industry such as marketing, with lots of interaction and discussion happening, it could be damaging if people just continue to work at home in isolation. We've got to find a good balance and that probably means something more nuanced than just shutting the office and saving on the overheads.

Thinking about the softer side of workplaces, do you see an opportunity to make wellbeing more of a priority within businesses?

Definitely. I'm hopeful that during lockdown employees have had more resources made available by their employers, as well as the opportunity to be more mindful about wellbeing because it's been so high on the agenda. I hope people are taking care of their teams and that, as a result, wellbeing will be a top line priority throughout businesses. It has previously been viewed as a nice-to-have but it was already climbing up the agenda of good business practice and that should now continue.

If you think about wellbeing in terms of improving your general health – not just your mental health – there’s been a lot of talk in lockdown about the value of good sleep, good eating and good exercise. People have experienced this for themselves now and this could well be a turning point, especially because right now everyone wants to be healthier, to improve their immunity. At a time when they need to bounce back as strongly as possible to the hit they’ve taken, businesses should be interested too in keeping their workforce physically and mentally fit.

What do you think marketers can do to make sure this is a turning point?

I think it is about having the conversations: be confident in your value and the value that marketing brings to the organisation. Have those conversations with leaders. In particular, there’s a big area of collaboration with HR.

I work very closely with our marketing director and team, as well as our customer experience team, to make sure that we are all in sync with what we're doing. We treat our employees as a customer group, including tactics such as segmenting and targeting – I think marketing can really teach HR a thing or two about how to provide a good service to people.

Marketers can help with communication too, encouraging good comms both internally and externally. If businesses have stood up and been genuinely supportive of their customers and employees during this difficult period, that’s going to help them in terms of building loyalty. Marketing can be a big influence right now because it can help businesses show what they’ve been doing well and direct them to what hasn’t worked, and why.

Remember, a lot of HR people aren't great comms people, so working closely with your internal comms team can really help to get good campaign messaging out there. We plan our employee comms like external comms, working with a marketing model within our HR team. As we go forward there’s going to be more of an opportunity for relationships between the two teams. Together, they can help build that loyalty.

That feels like a powerful point to finish on. Any final thoughts, Sarah?

Don't lose sight of the things that are really important, like the good things we’ve learnt while working remotely. For example, I think a lot of people have embraced the idea of their own development during lockdown and that’s certainly important. There are so many more opportunities to upskill virtually and do more bitesize learning. We’ve all made a bit more time for webinars, podcasts and virtual events, because they help keep us connected. Let’s continue to make time for them. It’s going to be a competitive jobs market; if you should have to go out there, any extra skills, qualifications and learning will put you in a better place than the competition. 

If you’re looking to beat the competition, CIM offers a range of learning solutions to meet your needs. From virtual courses to bitesize qualifications, find the right option for you.

Tobias Gourlay Journalist
Sarah Lee-Boone Director of people and organisational development CIM
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