When lockdown first brought a necessity to work at home many employees welcomed the opportunity to simplify their working day and support their families as they adjusted to a new normal, but as working from home moves into the long-term, for many businesses there is a risk that some of the workforce becomes isolated and less engaged, leading to health and well-being issues and a fall-off in productivity, according to Victor Christou, partner and head of growth at YFM Equity Partners (YFM).
A seasoned venture capitalist and entrepreneur of 25 years with a strong track record in the tech sector, Victor supports YFM’s investments into fast growing, UK businesses. Part of his role now is to guide portfolio companies as they re-assess their working practices and transition into a post-COVID new normal. With at least one-in-three employees in the UK working remotely, there is a real need to find innovative ways to build structure and cohesion into this new corporate culture to improve employee satisfaction and effectiveness. As we all navigate the personal and societal impact of COVID-19, businesses that demonstrate good employee engagement are not only great places to work, they are also more likely to remain robust in an uncertain future – with higher staff loyalty and greater productivity strengthening their position.
“There’s no doubt that working from home during the pandemic has provided an opportunity for many to put a better work/life balance into practice, however, with it now likely to become a permanent feature of many workplaces, far-sighted businesses need to adapt both the office environment and the social implications of the move,” explains Victor. “Increasingly, I’ve seen that working from home is bringing a sense of isolation to employees that is not simply down to their physical location. People are feeling the absence of a deeper, more complex level of communication now the opportunity to connect with colleagues face-to-face has diminished. Only now do we really see how important that chat by the water cooler or quick catch up at someone’s desk really is.”
“If the dislocation of staff is not carefully thought through there is a real risk of physical and mental health issues for the employee, which not only puts a strain on the individual and their families, but also creates an unhappy and unproductive workplace. Left unchecked this could lead to higher staff turnover and the loss of key skills and valuable knowledge within the company.
Victor continues, “On the positive side, there are many ways in which an informed management and investor base can alleviate these issues of isolation. For example, the workplace can be adapted to provide more communal meeting areas to host small groups in a COVID-safe fashion so that teams can schedule regular, safe catch-ups in the office. Once established, these COVID-safe face-to-face meetings could be extended to multiple departmental teams to bring a more cohesive working culture across a company. Companies can also innovate how they meet virtually. For example, during the summer YFM held an ‘away day’ where we each received a pizza making kit at home to do together on camera in our kitchens, allowing us to connect with each other in a new (and fun) way. Portfolio companies at YFM have found other ways to engage and bind people back together”
“But adapting to working at home goes beyond how companies organise meetings,” says Victor, “businesses need to think carefully about how they can support the individual. It is all too easy for an employee to invisibly buckle under the pressure of managing work and home demands in the context of this pandemic. There needs to be someone who they can turn to in confidence and admit they are struggling, without fearing reprisals in their job. Employers might consider having someone assigned as a point of contact for this or even bring in a qualified counsellor to coach individuals and teams in ways to manage their mental health. We discuss customer success a lot with our portfolio, we’re now beginning to discuss employee success a lot more in this context. Training managers and teams about this continues the mental health conversation in the home working environment.”
“Leadership is vital in a time of isolation; managers must offer an empathetic approach. It is more important than ever that individuals are empowered and encouraged to be open. For some managers, this transition from traditional management techniques will be a challenge. The progressive, post-COVID company will build for the individual, focussing on being responsive and inclusive. While many employees will be grateful and loyal to their company for supporting them through this crisis, those that have struggled with working at home, particularly where they felt their experiences have not been listened to, will feel increasingly distanced from their company, putting businesses at risk of head hunters picking off their talent.”
Victor concludes, “Now is a time for experimentation, whilst being ever mindful of the fact that every company’s most valuable asset is its people. Enlightened managers and investors know this and will transform their businesses into ones that will thrive with these new working conditions beyond COVID. YFM is supporting its current portfolio to do just that. We are actively seeking new management teams and companies that have the vision to recognise the opportunities this new normal brings us.”
Written by: Melanie Rice