By Rachel Houghton, managing director, Business Moves Group

Although it is too early to say how the coronavirus crisis will change the world in the long term, one area where it is almost certain to have a transformative impact is work. In truth, the COVID-19 epidemic has accelerated certain trends that were already beginning to shift the sands beneath office life. Before the UK government gave the stay-at-home order in late March, as many as 8 million people in Britain were working flexibly between different locations. Now, however, the mass move to remote-working is forcing employers and employees to ask big questions around the nature of work, the role of the workplace, and the relationship between people and space.

Humans find change difficult, especially if others are not sensitive to their needs. It is down to business leaders not only to guide them through the huge changes during this period but also look into the future to see how their needs might change again.

What’s next?

In the immediate term, businesses need to give their people as much support as possible. It is more than likely that employees who are unfamiliar with remote working will not have the same standard of tools, hardware or amenities at home that they enjoy in the office. Through our work as a business moves organisation, we’ve already seen a number of real estate and facilities teams adapting to these new circumstances by providing their employees with ergonomic furniture, better IT, and questionnaires to ensure that they are working from home safely and have all that they need to work productively.

Once the lockdown is lifted and as the social distancing rules relax, it’s important to recognise that some people may be fearful about returning to the office (in case doing so makes them vulnerable to the virus), whereas others will be desperate to rediscover the social aspect of work that office life provides. Business leaders will need to communicate the government’s advice clearly and manage their employees’ expectations. If the workforce has to return to the office gradually, employers need to use those questionnaires, their discussions with staff and other insights to develop a return-to-work programme that determines which individuals, teams or departments will benefit from returning to the workplace sooner.

Managing the change

Beyond the risk to public health, one of the biggest challenges of the coronavirus crisis is the element of the unknown. Almost three months after the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in the UK, it is still unclear how effective the social distancing measures are and when it will be safe to lift the lockdown. Likewise, uncertainty is a huge obstacle in any change management process. The key for business leaders during this tough period is to keep communicating with staff. Engaging with employees will help to take the fear away. Business leaders should make a real effort to listen to their concerns; it’s the only way they will keep people motivated now and achieve buy-in for changes later down the line.

Though it may sound trite, the most important factor through any change management process is trust. Without trust in the relationship between leaders and teams, those that will be impact by the change will not be on board. However, there are some tangible steps that employers can take to ensure that this doesn’t happen. The combination of online surveys, video calls, face-to-face meetings (when lockdown is lifted), touch points on site and emails give people a range of ways to communicate and for the organisations to collate that information. Set a timeframe that makes it easy for people to communicate at their preferred frequency.

Articulating the ‘why’ is also pivotal. Suddenly moving to a new way of working without explaining the benefits is counterproductive. It is also important to identify the habits versus process when it comes to building the case for change. Our clients often have a certain idea about the existing culture in their business, and are often surprised when we dig deeper.

Ultimately, the goal for anyone managing the huge changes through and beyond this crisis is to build resilience. Invariably, there will be a curve of morale that affects everyone at different stages. It is vital that the organisation builds this into the process by using all the tools it has at its disposal to gauge employee sentiment on a regular basis.

Work has changed. The world has changed. Business leaders need to get prepared, and they also need to prepare their people for the changes ahead. It’s a scary time but with the right attitude and processes in place, businesses can turn this into a huge opportunity.