On 4 February we held a round table discussion with key business leaders in the region, to discuss and share best practice around the workforce of the future and planning for 2021. Our experts covered:

  1. Leadership – what lessons have we learned from the pandemic and what new practices will be continued in the long term?
  2. Mental health – how can we ensure our mental health policies and support mechanisms are fit for purpose moving forward?
  3. The remote workforce and performance management – how can we best support remote workers and ensure a motivated, happy and high performing workforce?

So, what should business leaders and managers have in mind when planning for 2021?

Leadership and the new working world

Our Managing Partner, Peter Taylor, opened this discussion by highlighting the difference between leadership and management – a key distinction for business leaders to consider. Management has an operational focus, whereas leadership is all about strategy, forward thinking and, most importantly, vision and values.

When discussing leadership lessons learned from the past year, Rebecca Handley of Go! Southampton talked of how important it was to recognise that people within the business have all been on a different journey. With some employees on furlough and some right in the eye of the storm trying to keep the business operating, there can be a big gap in staff experiences. This must be considered, especially when integrating employees back into the business from furlough.

Gail Thomas of TW Metals noted the struggle that many leaders face in managing expectations, particularly around the fact that employees in certain sectors simply cannot work from home. James Cretney of Marwell Zoo echoed this – you can’t exactly look after a lion at home! The Winchester zoo must have 80 staff members on site for safety. The shift to remote working has given many administrative staff the luxury of choice in the long term – and businesses are embracing flexibility for their teams like never before. But this is not a luxury available for everyone and it’s creating a certain inequality in workplaces. This is a delicate situation for leaders, with some onsite staff even wanting pay rises to compensate for a benefit that’s not available for them.

All the experts agreed that communication was by far the most important tool to combat difficulties like this. During the pandemic many have communicated much more regularly with their teams and in a much more honest and transparent way. This is an approach that looks like it’s here to stay. Across varying industries, the leaders found that staff really did care about what they had to say – they listened, engaged and fed back. Successful communication was the result of calm, resilient leaders sharing a clear, realistic plan of action with their people.

Mental health – we’re all in the same storm but in different boats

Our employment expert Claire Merritt has a special interest in mental health – she helps employers on the legal front, but is also a mental health first aider for the Paris Smith staff. Claire started off our discussions on this topic and posed the question, what should employers be doing to support their staff?

Julie Breakall of KPMG highlighted how key it was to have many more touch points with those staff that are struggling. Technology has helped her teams achieve this, with KPMG having a wellbeing app, and a 24-hour doctor available. Julie highlighted the need to properly assess how effective these tools are and emphasised that we need to go further than simply make them available. Darren Slade, Business Editor at the Daily Echo agreed; a policy in a handbook isn’t enough. Peter Taylor developed on this by underlining the need for support to be individualised. Graham Wade of Draper Tools, a family run business that places a huge value on its people, shared that he encouraged staff to come back to the office if their mental health was suffering. Graham felt strongly that this was a legitimate reason to come into work , falling under the rule that says you are allowed to go into your place of work if you can’t work from home.

Gail from TW Metals shared her experience of not always getting the full picture of how her staff were coping. How can employers offer proper support if staff aren’t completely open? Our managing partner Peter Taylor spoke of his own personal experience showing vulnerability to staff. Peter had been shielding since the beginning of the first lockdown and was open with staff that he had some tough days. This honesty was really well received by the team at Paris Smith. Seeing a senior manager open up about their mental health, and demonstrate resilience, gave staff permission to share their own struggles, commented Peter.

James Cretney of Marwell Zoo and Dr Simon Fox of Solent University also shared views around the setting of boundaries. Do staff feel that their mental health is a private issue, one for them to deal with? Gail of TW Metals saw her role as the calm, unflappable leader with a clear plan – leaders need to show resilience. Gail also stated that it’s vital for leaders to recognise when they are not equipped to help.

Claire Merritt elaborated on the reasons why employers are supporting the mental health of staff more and more. Firstly, there is the legal obligation as poor mental health is a disability, so employers have to consider the mental health of their workforce and make reasonable adjustments where necessary. Alongside this, there is a moral obligation that dovetails with business objectives. Put simply, happier employees are more productive.

Remote working

Claire Merritt started this discussion with an important reminder – remote working is not new. Many companies have had remote workers for years, whether that is salespeople travelling up and down the UK, or parents working flexibly while they raise a family. What has changed as a result of the pandemic is the amount of remote working, and more businesses are seriously considering this to be a permanent change, with much more flexibility for all their people. Indeed, where flexible working requests used to be fairly easily batted away by employers, such requests will now be much harder to turn down where employees have proven their productively working from home.

Working from home doesn’t suit everyone and some employees can’t wait to return to the office, whether that’s on a full or part time basis. Julie Breakall of KPMG shared that their younger staff and new recruits had found remote working particularly tough – and certainly their extensive coaching programme was more difficult to deliver remotely. Graham of Draper Tools similarly had real difficulties with onboarding. He expressed the view that there has to be a balance between flexibility and making sure the business runs effectively.

With regards to performance management, Claire Merritt raised the question of surveillance technologies and how do businesses performance manage people whose outputs are hard to monitor. You can easily see how well a remote salesperson is performing by looking at new business data – but there are lots of roles where measurement of success is more complex. Employers will have to seriously consider this for the future, and make sure they have performance management policies that are fit for purpose.

The future workforce – which changes will stay?

Peter Taylor concluded that as we start to think about normality, it will be interesting to see which changes really are embraced in the long term. Peter and the other contributors were all very positive about the future; communication would be the key to success, and the ways in which leaders are looking out for their workforces is undoubtedly changing for the better.