Managing employee expectations after the pandemic: What we’ve learnt about where we work

Article by Helen Brown, co-founder and Managing Partner of Seeblue Marketing

Managing, coaching, and mentoring people, have been a staple part of my career as a senior leader.

I’ve taken great care to develop the capability my teams needed to reach their potential, so we delivered the strategy in hand. Having an empathetic ear to life’s little, and sometimes great emergencies has been a skill I’ve needed to develop too, and as a custodian of diversity at a global telco I took inclusivity and accommodating differing needs very seriously.

But none of this prepared me as a first-time business owner and employer. The rules of the game are very different. You want (instinctively) to create a culture that embraces flexibility and to be known as an employer who values its people and gives them the freedom to work in a way that helps them to thrive.

However, the reality is a need to balance what’s right for individuals, and for the business commercially. In a small team, even one person’s absence is felt and can impact overall productivity, which, over a sustained period, can affect financial performance.  

What I have seen first-hand, is that the entire debate about flexible working has shifted. In part due to the pandemic, but it’s also a generational shift. We thought we knew what people wanted and in the main we’ve got the list right; a supportive culture where people can be brave, competitive rates of pay, the option to develop and build a fulfilling career, a modern office working environment and crucially, flexibility.

Flexible working was something we both wanted to see at the top of the list. The option to get big tasks done without interruption at home or be at the school gate on a child’s first day were the dream for us and our team.  

However, since the pandemic, it seems that flexibility has come to mean something different to everyone. Expectations have changed; the office can be seen as a place you come occasionally not as a norm.

We’ve always realised that as a growing business we might need to make concessions to attract and retain brilliant people, no matter the stage they are at in their career. You simply can’t compete and build a successful team if you’re not prepared to put your money where your mouth is.

The headlines about the ‘Great Resignation’ even through to the TikTok trend of ‘Quiet Quitting’, are a reflection as to how important it is to get it right. When you’re a growing business, you can’t afford to get it wrong. It’s as much about future growth and success as it is about setting a reputation as a great employer from day one.

However, as we’ve discovered, the terms of employment go well beyond rates and the usual perks. Now the candidates hold all the cards, and many want to put their family, passions and pets first with work fitting in around these. Today the benchmark for considering an interview with us is whether we would support attendance of two days a month in the office, not two days a week.

In many ways I admire people for putting life first – a principle I wholeheartedly agree with. Yet as an employer, it has really made us scratch our heads as to what the best approach is for realising our company ambition and be a fair inclusive employer.

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But it poses a real challenge. We’ve asked ourselves numerous questions – if we were starting our business today, would we consider this expectation more readily? What kind of working practice would be put place? Would we make different decisions about how we use face to face time, or how we use technology, and would our service delivery model look different for clients?

We’ve then gone on to ask, given how we have established our models, would everyone we now employ expect two days a month in the office because we said yes to clinch the expertise of another? The hybrid working model we’ve worked hard to adopt, whereby everyone spends the same two days in the office each week, supports a happy and productive team. Would a change for one person disrupt this? Can it be adapted and still maintain consistent standards of service for clients?

I know from speaking to other business leaders, we are not alone in this conundrum, but we do seem to be further along in reaching some conclusions. So, for those still grappling with a way ahead, these are the things we have learnt and are working towards putting in place.

  1. Flexibility is the default expectation, and we need to embrace it to get the best people. Look for the opportunity and not the challenge, hard as that may be as a business owner.
  2. Above all, you need some boundaries. All at home, or all at the office is ideal but it’s not an option. So, we’ve decided that home days are for very focused tasks and getting actions done. Unavoidable, personal appointments like the dentist, need to happen in that time, within reason.
  3. Office days need to be set and they can’t drift – it’s not a drop in. There’s an expectation you will be there, and as such others can plan their attendance to make the most of face-to-face time. There’s a shared mentality that attendance is good for everyone, and it’s not acceptable to let people down.
  4. Work out what’s an acceptable reason not to attend. Ask your team for feedback to help you set the parameters. The loss of a family member is clear, but if something comes up that doesn’t feel right to you (who knows, perhaps your fish or guinea pig died) – put the onus on the employee to make the right judgement call. That way they are taking personal responsibility.
  5. Office days need to be biased to collaboration, either as a company, functional or client teams.
  6. Understand some people like the office because it’s sociable and that’s where they will be most productive. They might want to be there every day, so think about the space – is there somewhere to have the ‘water cooler moments’, somewhere to sit and work with others, somewhere to discuss ideas, somewhere to work quietly, somewhere to talk confidentially?
  7. Communication tools, from messaging on Slack to job progress update using Monday, are imperative so everyone knows what is happening, when, or has happened. But they must be supported by virtual meets too, for instance weekly team planning calls to ensure everyone is clear on deliverables.
  8. Ensure the expectations and standards, individual responsibilities and team deliverables for client work are well defined and understood. Working longer hours is not a sign of going above and beyond. Bringing your whole self to work and doing your best work is. We’ve learnt that kind of ambiguity can quickly undo any productivity gains so make it central to your business’ success.
  9. Be open, if you’re honest about concerns on productivity and hitting targets, then people won’t understand the boundaries. In our experience, when you’re open, people will be motivated to work with a shared responsibility to get the job done. If they are invested in your success, they will perform. After all, it’s a win-win – a fulfilling role, in a growing company with the opportunity for career success, without comprising life’s important moments, or general well-being.
  10. Healthy well-being contributes to a healthy company. Don’t overlook how powerful it can be for you as a business owner and for a thriving team.

We might not have everything quite right yet, and we will always be adjusting our models according to personalities, skill, and client demand. But we’ve moved closer to creating a multi-million-pound business that’s got a happy, productive culture at its heart, and is capable of attracting the best talent the industry has.

About the author

Helen Brown is Managing Partner of Seeblue, an award-winning Account Based Marketing agency for technology companies. Prior to entering the world of marketing and entrepreneurship, Helen earned a 1st class degree in Political Science from Bristol University and competed a dissertation on Female Genital Mutilation, an experience which fuelled a life-long passion for equality and women’s rights.

Helen was Chair of the Vodafone Group Women’s Network and Seeblue are the pro bono Marketing partner for the Digital Poverty Alliance, working to end digital poverty across the UK by 2030.

Helen Brown

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