People & Leadership

How to support your employees as the world of work evolves

The world of work is changing rapidly and business owners must respond by redefining roles, policies and structures. Here's how to do that.

The world of work is changing rapidly and, as the owner of a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME), you need to respond.

Technological advances, the war for talent, and remote and flexible working have all accelerated due to the pandemic and workers changing jobs in record numbers, known as the Great Resignation.

Smart small business owners are adapting quickly by developing and creating new roles for workers as the requirements for some positions become automated.

They are also boosting learning and development opportunities, improving communication techniques, and supporting well-being and job and career security.

In this article – which follows on from part one, Redefining how your people work post-pandemic – we highlight how you can do the same for your small business.

Here’s what we cover:

Creating new roles in the business

The Great Resignation continues to threaten SME business models, with more than half of employees (54%) considering leaving their job in the next 18 months, according to research by MetLife.

If you can evolve and create new roles, this can help persuade employees to stay.

More flexibility in hours, conditions and location, plus remote or hybrid working options are key tools of persuasion.

How these changes affect roles depends on each company and individual, so the key is to try different things to see what works for your firm.

As Steve Cadigan, talent adviser and author of Workquake, says: “Battling for top talent forces you to be creative.

“Experimentation has become best practice.”

Some companies, including SMEs, are doing away with offices completely.

Others are going further by building all remote workforces across multiple timezones, which requires so-called asynchronous communication (async).

Async focuses on transparent documentation and collaboration tools. These allow people in different time zones to work together without having to be ‘always on’.

Moving towards that model also requires much experimentation, including figuring out who should work synchronously and asynchronously and how to combine the two.

In general, more traditional ‘sync’ roles are for those who need real time and in-person communication. These may include executives, new hires, and client-facing and culture-building roles.

Async is for those who can mostly work remotely and without real-time communications, such as coders and project workers.

But the move towards all-remote workforces and async communication will be among the biggest changes for employers and employees over the next few years.

So many more roles will likely be created or adapted to work that way.

A related trend is that remote, hybrid and async working are all accelerating the march towards automation, which will change the requirements for a significant number of jobs in the next 10 years.

Such technological advances will force SMEs to evolve roles and create new ones even more rapidly.

According to Brookings Institute, technological advances are creating new jobs, including some well-paid roles for highly educated workers who can develop skills that complement technology.

These include creative, analytical and communication roles.

Those with post-secondary education or qualifications will fare better, which is a challenge for SMEs because they tend to have more and wider shortages of graduates than larger employers.

Kevin Daniels, professor of organisational behaviour at University of East Anglia (UAE) and co-creator of the Evolve Workplace Wellbeing website, says the drive to automation should not just increase efficiency but how people experience work.

“Organisations that do it well make the jobs interesting, and ask employees to use their skills to solve problems and innovate, even in small ways,” he says.

“They also ensure they’re not doing the same thing every day and can see their work evolving.

“If people can see the results of their performance and how they benefit customers and society, that also helps a lot.”

For example, in a call centre, employees might only be allowed 30 seconds per call. Or they may triage calls but never find out if and how the problem was solved.

Neither are satisfying for the employee.

Career development and upskilling

In fact, all SME workers will likely need more education and training in skills that complement technology and other workplace changes.

Some of the UK’s educational structures, whose roots go back more than 200 years, aren’t suited to the skills workers need in this rapidly changing environment.

This is leading some SMEs to invest more in lifelong learning for their employees.

But many do not have the budget for in-depth training.

If that applies to your company, you may focus on cheaper learning opportunities such as job shadowing, coaching and mentoring, stretch assignments, and job enlargement and enrichment.

Addressing concerns around job and career security

It’s a significant challenge for SMEs because lifelong learning has become critical to job and career security, says Steve Cadigan.

“I don’t think people want job security anymore, they want career security,” he says. “That’s why talent has become loyal to their learning, not your company.

“They think, ‘The more I learn, the more secure my career becomes, and the less vulnerable I am in my current firm.'”

If you grow them, they might just stay.

If they feel they can grow elsewhere, they will likely leave.

This is a major shift in how people think, says Steve.

He adds: “The key is to find ways to build learning into the job. That is not a day when a professor comes in. It’s new projects, leaders, teams, assignments and roles so you learn while contributing.

“It’s a big stretch for many companies.”

Supporting employees with flexible, remote and hybrid working

Employees also need a wide range of support structures to cope with more flexible working practices (employers can use cloud HR software to manage these structures).

According to Heejung Chung, author of The Flexibility Paradox, flexible working brings a range of challenges, such as leading employees to work even harder and let work encroach more on family life.

Some claim that, if not carefully managed, flexible working can also widen gender inequalities.

SMEs planning to offer more flexible working need support tools and policies to help avoid such effects or bolster existing ones.

One way to address these challenges is to give leaders and managers more time to focus on supporting teams and individuals.

If you and your managers can act like coaches to your team and give them more decision-making autonomy, that should improve engagement in the more flexible world of work.

Heejung also suggests communicating clearly that employees will not receive worse evaluations just because they work from home.

Measure their value and productivity as objectively as possible. Actively encourage good work-life balance and boundary setting for example, around non-availability on email.

With a hybrid model, in-office days should not look like working from home days, for example, with lots of videoconference meetings, adds Heejung.

Instead, make sure people interact and bond, for example, by protecting and encouraging watercooler chats.

Use the time for brainstorming and decision-making. Save more individually focused or online work for home.

Improving communication for remote working

Claire Trachet, founder of advisory firm Trachet, says the move to remote and hybrid working also requires specific changes to the way employees communicate.

“SMEs need to focus on fluid and regular communication between remote working teams and people,” she says.

“Too often, people become siloed as companies stick to the cadence of meetings they had when working in person.

“For example, with remote work, they need to reduce the time spent on check-ins, but make them more regular to foster connectivity.

“SMEs should also give people clear goals for each day or week.

“This enables staff to feel a sense of accomplishment each day, then disconnect. Companies should also adopt technology platforms that support remote working through workflow, communication and other business functions.”

Since the pandemic, isolation has become an increasing challenge.

Many companies are missing the benefits of informal interactions and are still looking for ways to replicate them.

Intentionality has become important because face-to-face interactions happen naturally in an office. In a remote team, you need to actively promote informal communication that builds bonds and camaraderie.

For example, technology firm GitLab encourages recruits to have online coffee chats and other social interactions to get to know people outside their team.

Another tip is to ensure everyone is included in decisions and everything is documented transparently to promote inclusion.

Remote working does not mean people never meet.

They should always have occasional opportunities to travel and meet in person.

Bruce Daisley, former Twitter vice president and author of Eat Sleep Work Repeat, says there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

“Companies might suggest phoning each other more regularly,” he says. “But half the company may resist that. So just try different things and allow people to vary if they don’t work.”

Supporting employee well-being

According to the MetLife study, 39% of employees would remain with their employer if they showed more care for their mental well-being.

Bruce says one danger of homeworking is employees save time on commuting but are giving some of that back to employers by working longer hours and feeling “always on”.

These factors increase the risk of burn out and stress, which can be harder to notice in a remote team.

GitLab suggests corporate leaders address this by promoting a non-judgemental culture and training and encouraging teams to prevent and report burnout.

Managers should also not celebrate working long hours or allow them to become the norm.

Kevin Daniels says: “As an SME owner, monitoring employee working hours, and reducing when necessary has to be a priority.”

He highlighted UEA’s Good Jobs Project 2021, which addresses this and other well-being issues. It says every company needs to start with a foundation of respect for employees that includes fair pay, hours and conditions.

The project proposes four further ways to boost employee morale:

  • Care about workers’ lives. This includes offering predictable shifts, learning opportunities, and flexibility around childcare.
  • Include them in conversations. And listen to their concerns.
  • Have workers’ backs. This includes avoiding blame, training to deal with difficult situations, and support when things go wrong
  • Let them connect. Give them discretion and time to take pride and meaning from supportive interactions with customers and colleagues, and allow for unscripted interactions.

These points are not in conflict so should be a ‘win-win-win’ for workers, customers and employers, says the project.

Kevin emphasises that you don’t have to be a huge company with expensive benefits, such as gym memberships or mindfulness training, to look after employee well-being.

Much support can be informal, simple, quick and inexpensive.

For example, there’s evidence that simple things such as installing the Headspace app or allowing staff to go for a walk at lunchtime improve well-being.

“The biggest challenge SMEs cite in improving staff well-being is not usually financial, it’s mostly about time and priorities,” says Kevin.

“But we found organisations have got better at listening to employees’ needs due to the pandemic.

“Firms also worry about opening a can of worms by discussing mental health.

“It’s a learning process to get over that and accept you might not get it right first time, but it’s important to try, so employees know you care.”

Reviewing contract requirements

Reviewing employees’ contracts to reflect changes such as flexible, remote or hybrid working can be complicated.

Huw Cooke, a senior associate in the employment law team at Burges Salmon, says that where employees can do their jobs from home, most employers are not changing the place of work in their contract, but are introducing a hybrid working policy.

“This avoids the need to change employment contracts and gives the employer flexibility if the working model needs adjusting,” he says.

“However, employers need to check contracts to avoid unexpected consequences, such as an expenses clause that applies wherever an employee lives.”

Employers also need to ensure that other clauses, such as around health and safety and data protection are suitable.

“However, many of our clients report that job candidates want specific working arrangements written into their employment contracts,” Huw adds.

“In this competitive market, employers may have to make legally binding commitments about working arrangements.”

The CIPD has produced a detailed review of employment law essentials for home and hybrid working.

Final thoughts: Meeting the challenge of redefining work

The changing world of work does not always benefit employers’ relationships with staff.

According to MetLife, 62% of employees and 72% of employers feel their relationship with each other changed, with one in three employers feeling it has weakened.

This helps explain the Great Resignation and is a concern for SMEs desperately trying to fill vacancies and hang on to valuable staff.

It may be hard work and expensive to redefine work and evolve roles to benefit employees and the business.

But if you can achieve that balance, through some of the measures discussed here, you have a much better chance of strengthening relationships with staff, tackling the talent gap, and building a more robust and sustainable workforce.