9 June 2020

The COVID 19 lockdown has provided an unprecedented and rigorous examination of our ability to manage and lead people in dispersed, remote teams and shone a spotlight on our IT capabilities to support this new way of working. After passing the initial ‘test’ of enabling technology to support remote working and allow a seamless transition to a “new normal”, attention is now on what the future holds for the way we all work, and how we ensure the benefits are sustained.

The long-term impact of coronavirus will very likely mean fundamentally different working practices for many people across our industry, country and world. In short, it will put full agile working on a much faster trajectory than would have been the case six months ago.

What will be fascinating to see is the change in culture from being office-based and working from home occasionally, to a much more flexible approach where working from a defined set location is no longer the focus and technology blurs and bridges the physical and geographical boundaries.

This will have an array of impacts from the obvious benefits of sustainability and work-life balance, to the changing needs of office space and the different requirements of technology to help us all carry out our roles effectively. The emphasis on future working in our offices and sites, I believe, will be less on the need for a 9-5 physical presence and more about new digitally enabled, flexible ways of working.

Watch Alan talk about Willmott Dixon's digital transformation:

Technology to support behaviour

As I wrote in my recent blog, our move to cloud-based technology couldn’t have come at a better time. The cloud empowers people to work from anywhere, accessing applications from any device or location. I can’t imagine how different the past three months would have been for us had we not have moved to the cloud. Recent events have shown just how important this is and I think those still wed to an ’on premise’ approach will now have to rapidly move to cloud solutions. This has to be the default standard for working post Coronavirus.

We have already seen many digital applications come to the forefront in the last couple of months such as Microsoft’s Teams and Skype – fundamental tools for collaborative, remote working but not a silver bullet. To enable a truly agile approach, management skills and practices must change – our people need the capabilities to engage and lead a more remote workforce.

A big question for me is how we can sustain this increased remote working into the future and adapting our approach to team management is a big part of this. For example, those who ‘task-manage’ teams or rely on granular face-to-face team working practices will perhaps face the biggest challenge. Leaders and managers will truly need to embrace a ‘post-presenteeism’ era - there will be pressure for management practices to evolve quickly.

An agile approach

From experience, I’ve found that those who can manage to measurable outcomes and who have mature processes, systems, tools and organisational structures, can more quickly adapt to agile working and management. Without those structures in place then communication channels such as email, Teams, chat and phone can become ‘noisy’ and chaotic, which can actually make agile working tougher than being in the office. This is also compounded by technology making people more instantly available and when we think of it in those terms, we can easily see how getting it wrong can negatively impact on productivity, stress levels and wellbeing.

We need to think long and hard about how far purely digital interaction can (or should) go, we are, after all, social beings and in need of a happy and healthy workforce and work life. We can provide the tools to work from anywhere, but I believe we should also empower our people to use them; we’re all individuals and generally know how to work best to achieve the right balance for ourselves.

Moving forward

From a business continuity and resilience perspective, technology has to support working from any location - that is a given. To make agile working the norm, we need to help the traditional management practices evolve and introduce the right technology to support the new behaviours. This goes well beyond just using Teams; we must examine how digital our business processes are, how do we measure and report our business performance? How we manage with clear structure and boundaries?

In our IT team, we have spent the past two years transforming the way we work to support this new approach through implementing clear, mature IT operating structures and tools and this has been instrumental to us adapting to a fully remote workforce. The lessons we have learnt here can be applied more widely to our other business functions and help inform our thinking for the more complex situation of our site teams.

As a company, we have significantly invested in developing our own business applications over many years and hope that this investment will stand us in good stead - we have already seen that we have adapted exceptionally well to the immediate challenge of the pandemic through this approach. Making technology accessible anywhere combined with providing our business with end-to-end automated workflows, as well performance and quality insights, allows for a more dispersed workforce while maintaining quality for our customers.

An unmissable opportunity

So, as we venture into this new chapter, I really hope we all see it for what it is – an unmissable opportunity for positive change, enabled and empowered by technology but led and championed by our people. No doubt, the extreme degree of remote working we have during COVID-19 will soon not be such an absolute necessity, but as we all return to to the right working balance ‘post-COVID’, it’s important to remember the benefits we have seen.

Up for grabs are reduced carbon emissions, increased wellbeing, better work-life balance, cost efficiencies, time efficiencies and much, much more. Things we have talked about for so long and not been able to achieve for the paralysis of the modern-day life we have created for ourselves.

So for me, the technology is an excellent enabler, but to really ensure the new-found benefits of substantially increased agile working persist, the answer lies in a conscious examination of how we lead, manage, collaborate and communicate going forward.

It is all too important to let this opportunity slip through our fingers by a wholesale return to the previous ways of working. Right now, we need a fresh approach and the right balance. Let’s all be leaders and do our bit to make the future the prize we win for the sacrifices we have all made over this extraordinary period.