Leaders from Workday, Unilever and Webber Wentzel talk return-to-work strategy

CHRO SA hosted a webinar on how best to approach returning to the workplace. 

With lockdown restrictions being relaxed to level 1, most organisations will be planning to have employees back in their offices. Fortunately, CHRO SA recently hosted a webinar in which leaders from Workday, Unilever and Webber Wentzel offered guidance on how best to approach returning to the workplace. 

Richard Doherty, senior director product marketing EMEA, kicked the discussion off at Workday, saying only six of Workday's offices across the globe were actually open. 

“Furthermore, nobody is expected to return to office buildings until August 2021 at the earliest,” said Richard, adding that the People and Purpose team (that's what HR is called at Workday) has been plotting the journey back to offices based on four key principles.

4 principles

The first principle is ‘Lag, don’t lead’. Richard referred to Workday's preference in seeing how other companies are returning and taking lessons from their experiences. So theirs is very much a wait-and-see approach.

“We don't want to be among the first to return. We would rather look at what other companies are doing and learn from them. If you are in an industry where it's important to get back to the office, look outside your industry to see what others have done,” he said. 

The second principle as to ‘Empower local decision making’. Richard said it was important to Allow different locations to make their own decisions.

“Some offices require employees to commute via public transport as is the case with our London office where there is barely any parking available in the city. So that office is likely to open later than offices that people can drive to work,” said Richard.

The fourth principle is ‘Be flexible’, which speaks to the manner in which employees are enabled to adapt and change based on all the elements that may come into play. Richard said this meant the multidisciplinary teams involved in driving the return to work had to get into a mode of continuous planning in order to be able to respond to the ever-changing environment.

The last principle, ‘Be transparent and embrace open communication’ refers to the importance of playing open cards with employees even when the organisation doesn’t have the answers.

Two phenomenal South African HR leaders in Unilever Africa HR vice president Mechell Chetty and Webber Wentzel HR director Rachel Masuku also provided insight on how they had handled returning to work in their respective organisations. 

Changes were already underway

Mechell said Unilver had already begun adopting flexible work before the pandemic. The organisation had started revamping workspaces to enable agile working. This meant moving from offices and desks allocated to specific individuals to quiet spaces and collaboration spaces that were all open to everyone.

"We were starting to move from people saying 'it's not my desk' to 'it's a desk that can be used whenever I want to get some emails done. So the notion of having a given desk in an office space was beginning to die down anyway," said Mechell. "What we are going through now will just amplify that. Even if you do go back to the office, you are going to find that you are going there for collaboration or just to find a quiet space."

Similarly, at Webber Wentzel, the organisation had also already prepped for flexible working by replicating employees' offices in their home environments so that, whether they worked in the office or at home, the experience was the same.

Said Rachel: “We had a poll during the hard lockdown - as we were preempting the move from level 5 to level 4 and, strangely at that point, about 47 percent of our employees indicated that they were comfortable with coming back to work. Our industry is unique in the sense that collaboration and being in the office is quite important. We have had to make sure that we have to find a balance between remote working and working from home.”

Rachel said it was also important to have regular engagement with employees because that allowed the multidisciplinary Covid task team to incorporate employees' feedback when it was building a prototype of the return-to-work plan. This “enabled us to get buy-in from employees and made the process of returning to work much easier.”

She says this early engagement allowed Webber Wentzel to customise most of its policies to align them to the new way of working. 

“Webber Wentzel already had flexible work practices but with the advent of Covid and the hard lockdown, we ramped up the rollout of the flexible work policy but also coupled it with an additional remote working policy. As a firm, we had to look at other emerging requirements such as how to ensure that our client data is secure and making sure we can accommodate changing organisational needs. We also began to start thinking about how we respond to an outbreak of infectious diseases in general. Because today it's Covid but tomorrow it could be something else. We've developed a policy,” she said. 

Encourage leave

Both Rachel and Mechell explained that, even though their organisations had experienced an uptick in productivity, they were concerned about burnout.

Because the company provides health and hygiene products, as well as food products, Unilever was deemed as providing essential services from day one. The sheer demand from consumers caused the organisation to go into accelerated activity from day one and, Mechell said they learned a lot about how work can be done at speed. 

Said Mechell: “We have broken factory records as a result of that. What we don't want is for employees to start burning out as a result. We are trying to make sure people are not working excessively and still making time for their wellness. We've seen cases of people saying they are starting to burn out or they just can't focus during meetings”

Unilever used this feedback to encourage employees to take leave but realised that this was easier said than done when, after “one of our town halls, our CEO received feedback from employees saying he was still responding to emails while he was on leave. That was a moment that made us realise that nobody is going to take us seriously when we say leave is important.”

At Webber Wentzel, where performance is tracked by billable hours, employees are encouraged to take a break when they are billing way more hours than normal. 

The webinar closed with attendees with an understanding that there will be times when employees need to come together on a project and there will be other times when people need to focus on getting things done. Achieving that balance, however, will be something that every company will have to do based on the nature of their sector and organisational culture.