Office etiquette: the next evolution
The events of 2020 have transformed the way we work. Insider Engage assesses the future for working practices and employer/employee relationships, post-pandemic
Unless you spent the last eight months in a cave, it will be obvious that Coronavirus has transformed the corporate working environment - and particularly for City workers at (re)insurance companies. The London market has made the sudden transition to remote working relatively smoothly and few people can imagine going back to the status quo ante-Covid-19.
But with the new focus on flexible and remote working likely to remain in some form, what does this revolution mean for office etiquette?
“There’s a balance to be struck, between making sure employees’ and employers’ needs are met,” says Claire Ball, group HR director at Convex. “The lockdown forced all of us to think about the way we work and adapt[ing] our working practices. Everyone suddenly working from home has encouraged us to think through what we can do differently.”
Ball says Convex, which was co-founded in 2019 by veteran CEO Stephen Catlin, is one of those companies that has supported a flexible working environment for its employees in Bermuda and London even before lockdown.
However, sources suggest, some London market leaders have been distrustful of employees working remotely, in an industry that has clung on to traditional face-to-face business practices.
“The reality is there has not been much of a change in productivity,” says Ashley Stockwell, Convex’s chief marketing officer. “Events have proven that, on the whole, we can trust people to get on with their work in the same way as they did when working from an office.”
Romanie Thomas, founder of Juggle, a recruitment firm focused on flexible working, observes that the biggest firms are, in most cases, getting the balance right in managing staff while the bulk of employees work from home - largely because they have the right resources and tools for remote working to function smoothly.
Smaller firms have also coped well, she thinks, although for different reasons - having adapted well because, even if resources are tighter, their smaller scale makes relationships easier to manage.
“The ones we’re seeing struggle are mid-sized companies, and particularly those with a junior workforce,” says Thomas.
“That might be some insurance brokers, for example, where young people make up the bulk of the workforce. Those people tend to learn their trade by osmosis. After a few months trying to replicate that with video calls, everybody was complaining about Zoom fatigue.”
Young employees in London are likely to share a smaller living space with flatmates, with less space inside for a home office. Sources agree that allowing such members of staff to return to the office is likely to be good for job satisfaction and retention levels once enforced remote working during Covid switches to a more voluntary flexible working arrangement.
“The future workplace will have to combine remote and physical working environments,” says Ball. “Working from home can lead to a less structured day, people struggling to switch off from their work, and lacking the kind of watercooler conversations that are important to nurturing healthy relationships between team members.”
In addition to the usual laptops and cloud systems, Stockwell notes that Convex has put other technology in place to allow the kind of ad hoc team conversations – switching on and off regularly – that were the norm between neighbouring office desks, but which are otherwise hard to do remotely without incurring Zoom fatigue.
These are combined with company-wide initiatives such as regular town hall meetings, as well as fitness, wellness and rewards packages.
“We’ve tried to recreate something akin to the neighbourhood connectivity of the office, because it’s important to have the type of conversations that mimic the office environment,” he says. “We’ve also built a website to mirror that through a virtual broker booth, through which brokers can see which underwriters are available, to have virtual coffee and chat.”
He points out that, through using such systems for remote working, another benefit has been to increase communication levels between colleagues previously separated in offices in London and Bermuda.
Distrust is not particular to the (re)insurance market, and corporate distrust of employees predates Coronavirus. A recent case in point is the experience of employees at Swedish fashion retailer H&M. In October, German authorities fined H&M EUR35mn for its use of surveillance technology to effectively spy on its staff, breaking the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), after a probe was launched at the company following a data breach in 2019.
The company retained details of employees’ private lives – including family circumstances and details about holidays taken and absences due to illness – which were then shared among management.
“The H&M case is all about proportionality. This was clearly excessive and a breach of its employees' privacy,” says Alexander Egerton, a partner in legal firm Seddons’ corporate team, while noting that employers have a legal responsibility to monitor staff to remain GDPR compliant.
“Employers must apply appropriate monitoring measures in line with the risks the procedures are mitigating,” says Egerton. “[They] have a duty to ensure their employees know the rules, and that they are complying with them. Employers must risk assess, and should not interpret the H&M case as a blanket deterrent against employee monitoring. If, following this case, employers stray on the side of caution and do not monitor adequately, then they are at risk of a significant fine.”
Remote working presents a number of GDPR challenges, emphasises Egerton, while the sudden shift to remote working means many employees will need to be mature enough to develop their own processes if their managers have not already created them.
“For example, a key issue is managing paper data – how do employers know that employees are ensuring that the paper they have at home is not being compromised? Employers will be considering how all this is monitored, but they must be careful to ensure all monitoring is proportionate to the potential risk,” Egerton adds.
Focus on outcomes
Using technology to track performance is not new, Thomas notes. “For businesses thinking about performance and productivity, the reality of situation is that we already use thousands of performance tracking tools and employees don’t bat an eyelid,” she says.
“It’s important for management to trust employees but also for them to know their employers care about them and have their best interests at heart. It’s a partnership and it has to be a grown up relationship.”
Ball acknowledges that some employers want to use technology to track people’s productivity. “That’s not somewhere we would want to go as an organisation. We don’t use tracking tech to track productivity. We’re focused on outcomes, as well as balance, to try to draw line between home and work even when working remotely,” she says.
Remote working will lead to a greater onus on employees to own their responsibilities within the organisation, sources agree, with less micro-management and a stronger focus on outcomes.
“Remote and flexible working takes a mindset shift towards everyone being more responsible for their own desk,” Thomas says. “Management will need to focus more on whether people are on track, and less on task management.”
Ball agrees, while noting that once the pandemic subsides, flexible working will mean a mixing of remote working and office cultures. “The new situation has created learnings for all of us,” she says. “The future workplace to be adaptable and combine elements of physical and remote in the most efficient ways to meet the needs of all our stakeholders.”