Letting go of the way we worked pre-pandemic

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As offices have started to open up, Antonia Seymour talks about how not being bound by location means we need to re-think how we work.

Hybrid working has been hailed as the future of work with lots of organisations moving towards a part-home, part-office mix in the hope that it will give their workforce the best of both worlds. At IOP Publishing, we don’t see hybrid as being a binary choice between home and office. We just don’t believe that it’s quite that simple. 

When we started to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel (which, in hindsight, turned out to be a little premature due to subsequent lockdowns) we decided to take our time to really think about how we could combine virtual and in-person work successfully. It was clear that our future would be less office-centric, but how could we keep hold of the positives of home working and not lose sight of the importance of face-to-face time that helps to build culture and community.

Open to options – colleague consultation 

Success hinged on us finding a balance that would work for employer and employee. 

Our approach couldn’t be dictated by the leadership team – we needed to build it around what colleagues wanted. With the help of strategic workplace experts Interaction and Workwell PCS, we consulted with our colleagues across the globe through focus groups, 1-2-1 interviews and an online survey.  

We asked the obvious question about how often they would want to work from the office, but we also went deeper to understand what the best and worst elements of working in office or from home were and the difficulties they had experienced.  

Flexibility driven by purpose

The main message that came from the consultation was that colleagues want to work where they can be most productive. There’s no point insisting that everyone come into the office for two days a week, if the work they are focussed on at the time could be better done at home. Pre-pandemic, employers would often ask colleagues to explain why they wanted to work from home. Now we need to justify the need to come into the office.  

Of course, we also found that not everyone wanted the same thing. Some people indicated that they would prefer to work from the office every day while others found it much easier to work from home most of the time. Being too prescriptive wouldn’t work for us and flexibility needed to come in different forms.

Questioning our norms

Our first step was to re-evaluate the norms that had previously been so central to the way we work.  Our ways of being and behaviours have always provided the basis of how we work together, but they were based on working in a physical location. 

Everything has changed - the way we collaborate, how we raise issues, how we give and receive feedback. Introducing a new set of ways of being and behaviours designed around this change means that colleagues take responsibility, make decisions and communicate in this unique new environment. 

We then introduced guidelines to show how the day to day could work in practice. Workwell PCS suggested that we base these around four elements: 

  • Anchor – coming together in the office
  • Focus – in a quiet space from any location
  • Collaborate – regular working in a collaborative space from any location
  • Learn – training and development either in the office or online

It’s a big change which is arguably more complicated than the way we worked pre-pandemic. So, these elements help to provide clarity which in turn supports autonomy. With some guidelines in place, we left it to individual departments to decide on the where, when and how for their own area. Each department created what Workwell PCS calls ‘Team Charters’, a team level agreement on the ways they will work together and how often they will meet in-person. We have shared these on our intranet so that colleagues across the business know how to contact each other.

We continued to think about what else we could change as we move to a less office-centric environment. We’ve introduced a benefit whereby colleagues can work from another country for up to four weeks of the year. After so many months of being unable to travel, this has been well received. We already had in place initiatives such as ‘no meeting Fridays’ and ‘screen free days’ to combat online fatigue, and we’ll keep these going.  

Better physical and digital locations

Having established that the right work would happen in the right place, our focus turned to ensuring we could provide fully supported digital working combined with a reimagined office space. 

We’re in the process of moving to a new office building, one that fits our new way of working better. Working with Interaction, we’ve designed a space that provides a collaborative and social hub with space for quiet work. From an environmental perspective, our new building has an outstanding environmental performance and we’ve been very conscious of keeping our waste from the move to a minimum by recycling or reusing all the fixtures, fittings and furniture. 

One of our most important responsibilities is to ensure that colleagues don’t feel side-lined if they’re not working in the office. Technology really helped to level the playing field during the pandemic and so we’re investing in the latest in hybrid conferencing technology to make sure everyone is clearly seen and heard no matter where they are. 

Smart building technology will be instrumental in helping us adapt. We’ll have a simple but effective digital solution for desk and room bookings and the latest in presentation and AV equipment for meeting rooms and hot offices. We’ve set up an internal steering group to ensure that we implement and maintain the technology that will meet the needs of all colleagues across the business.

We’re proud of what we’ve put in place so far, but we certainly don’t presume that we have found the golden egg – we’re in uncharted territory.  We’re a learning organisation and are always focussed on improving what we do and how we do it.  We’ll keep listening to colleagues and continue to review, adapt and improve our approach. 

Antonia Seymour is chief executive at IOP Publishing

Working in the library post pandemic - Lancaster University case study

Libraries have long been perceived as an industry that would not be suitable for working from home. After all, we deliver services onsite and in person. But the pandemic has heralded a new way of working even for library staff. It became clear that many employees could work effectively and productively at home assisted by the right technology. 

We learned that expensive travel abroad was not always necessary, and that higher education programmes could be delivered online. In addition, we discovered that working from home could contribute to wider organisational agendas such as sustainable practices by rethinking the use of the library building and a reduction of travel. 

At Lancaster University we realise that we can’t just simply go back to the way we worked pre-pandemic. It would be a step back to return to how we worked before without embracing the positives that have emerged. The challenge is to bring in greater flexibility and trust for colleagues whilst making sure that the campus experience and collegiality isn’t lost. 

We are a small research-intensive university and part of our unique offer is the strong community on campus. Making sure that our campus remains vibrant where people can connect will also help us maintain income from the shops we have on-site. 

But we do need clarity for both our organisation and employees as to how we will work in the coming years. We’re currently taking the first steps to determine what the guiding principles are for successful and sustainable agile working at Lancaster University. 

As we adapt to a digital learning environment, we are curious to hear how other libraries are shaping their ‘new normal’. We will focus on how to better work with people and how we can support their wellbeing in the face of continuous change. 

Currently, our shelvers are the only people that still need to work full-time in the library. All other roles, even our front of house colleagues, for at least part of the week, support students from home via the library chat.  

The role of the librarian has changed dramatically in the past few years, with new roles and activities being created, and it is evolving with the emergence of new technology. But the core of our duty remains; to connect people and help them expand their knowledge. 

Andrew Barker, director of library services and learning development