Ogilvy South Africa

Designing a compassionate workplace for a post-COVID world

COVID-19 has changed the social contract between employees and employers, and we now have new expectations of working. As companies start returning to the office, leaders face new challenges in redesigning the way their organisations work, writes Emma Nicol

The way we work will never be quite the same again. The pandemic and the lockdowns have forced us to adapt, but also given us insight into how we relate in the workplace. It has become clear that to reimagine and reshape our work processes for the new era, businesses need a human-centred approach that shows empathy and empowers co-creation. 

Perhaps more than ever before, it now matters that we put the safety of employees and communities first. Providing psychological and physical safety should be the minimum standard for preparing employees to return, whether it’s to an office, a factory line or a retail outlet.

Employee well-being and company well-being are more closely aligned than ever. COVID-19 has shown that resilient individuals make resilient organisations. But it takes strategic planning to build this resilience.

Contrary to some cliché’s, resilience is not just a type of toughness. In fact, we make our people and our organisations more resilient when we show compassion and understanding.

We can use technology and processes to accommodate every one of our people, customising their work experience around their needs. In turn, we empower our people to deliver the best work they can for the organisation. 

Employees have shown that they can be pro­ductive working from home – in some cases even more productive than in the traditional, nine-to-five, office environment. Understanding this, leaders have adopted new tech­nologies and ways of working to support their teams. Many of us are already moving towards a long-term hybrid model incorporating remote as well as office work

Quite what these hybrid home-office working models will look like will be determined by organisations themselves. The better they can be designed, and the more collaborative the process, the better they will enable organisations to manage future shocks.

At Ogilvy, our Employee Experience Consulting practice has been involved in developing a playbook to help business owners and executives manage these dynamic, tumultuous changes in the modern workplace, as part of our business consulting offer.

It’s been a fascinating process, and it has given us some precious insights into how to build an effective, resilient organisation. We’ve learned that despite the technological progress that makes remote work possible, putting people at the heart of a business is what makes it most efficient. 

This kind of people-centric approach can also set a business apart from its competition. The current challenges are actually a rich opportunity for competitive differentiation.

Employees’ relationships with their workspaces may have been transactional in the past, but where businesses show empathy for staff needs, workplace policy can now be a distinguishing factor,  enriching your brand and busi­ness for years to come.

In looking for ways to make this happen, leaders and managers must try to build capability within their people in a way that is relevant to them. This will require quite some staff engagement and internal communications to determine the most suitable ways to transform ways of working.. 

Recently, it’s also become possible to develop tools that track employee engagement and resistance, which can help managers to determine the ideal individual work setting for each team member and to highlight areas that require additional coaching.

These tools also help leaders understand what makes a place safe to work for employees, how to show up as managers, and how to nurture an authentic culture of care in the organisation. It is possible to build more productive workplaces, which also give employees more meaningful interactions with customers and with each other.

Ultimately, leaders, managers and staff must collaborate to establish the habits that make a cohesive, resilient team, regardless of location. Little things go a long way to show people they are valuable teammates, and ensure that they feel connected to the whole.

Building a resilient workplace is not so much about where people work together, but about how they feel when they do work together. The workplace policies that make them feel safe, positive and valued will be the most productive for everyone – leadership, staff and customers. 

Emma Nicol is Head of Employee Experience at Ogilvy UK. For more information on the Ogilvy playbook Leading The Workforce – A Playbook For Transforming Work Through COVID-19, or to register for the next online session, visit https://www.ogilvy.com/ideas/returning-workplace-playbook-leaders-managers