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Operations in a post-Covid world

Dale Smith

The pandemic has thrown the structure of working life completely out of shape. Since the many lockdowns forced companies to adopt remote working overnight, the pressures on operation teams are greater than ever before.

Before Covid, operations were often the unsung hero of businesses. Tasked with managing and organising the workforce and ensuring work is delivered on time, the operation department is often dubbed the “fixers”, whose vital work can go unnoticed until something goes wrong.

Operations were swiftly brought to the forefront when businesses faced the unprecedented challenge of adapting to an unstable “new normal”. Now, as vaccination programmes have unlocked most Covid restrictions, the burning question for organisations is: what should operations and working life look like in the future?

A hybrid work in progress

Covid accelerated an existing trend for increased flexibility. Before the pandemic, employers who wanted to be modern and competitive were actively addressing the topic of work-life balance. Some were ahead of their time. Software development company GitLab had gone all-remote with its 1,300-strong workforce before the pandemic hit. But most companies still expected bums on seats between 9 and 5.

At The Frameworks, we had already moved from desktops to laptops, used online tools such as the communication platform Slack and conducted a large percentage of our client meetings over Zoom. As a consultancy with offices and clients in different time zones, this flexible connectivity was crucial. However, we never anticipated that these decisions would ensure our survival when the unthinkable happened.

We are privileged that our industry’s main output is ideas and digital communications. Many others couldn’t adapt to a remote, laptop-based model – they needed their workers to be physically present – and, for them, operations have been extremely challenging.

The UK government dropped the working from home guidelines this summer. But for companies that have shown remote working is possible, it’s not as simple as returning to the office full-time overnight. Of course, there are still concerns about Covid transmission, but, more than that, many employees and employers have seen the personal benefits of remote working.

A hybrid model, combining remote and office working is currently a popular solution, but some businesses are wary of adopting it beyond a short-term option. Industries such as law and finance are starting to mandate returns to the office; law firm Slaughter & May asked employees to return for three to four days a week in September, while David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has declared that remote or flexible working is “not a new normal” for his sector. But some companies in media and creative industries have trail-blazed the hybrid work model. Spotify revealed a Work From Anywhere model, and Twitter has told its more than 4,000 employees they can work from home forever, if they want.

Employee engagement and buy-in are important; they will impact the success of a business model, staff retention and a business’s success. At The Frameworks, we surveyed our people and discovered they like their improved work-life balance but missed the social aspects of the office that are tricky to replicate online. We hope a hybrid model will fulfil this. But making it work will demand organised – and alert – operations.

Remote benefits

When much of the world started to work from home, issues around visibility and the impact on project delivery were high priorities for operations. If managers can’t see employees, how do they know they are working effectively? Surely, they’ll all be slacking off in front of Netflix by lunchtime?

We soon found the opposite to be true. By creating a supportive environment and equipping our team with the right tools, we found employees were more conscientious as they didn’t want to hold up the chain of delivery.

At The Frameworks, we were lucky to have most of the technology already in place to enable employees to do this, but we’ve still had to maintain our systems to make the process feel seamless. It has been worth it. We’ve boosted productivity and accelerated delivery, giving us confidence as we adopt a hybrid model.

Client-friendly working

Remote working posed a particular challenge for client-facing teams. Technology, once again, saved the day, and meetings were easily shifted online, with Zoom reaping the benefits as its revenues rocketed to $2.65 billion in 2020, up from $622.7 million. But there have always been concerns about the long-term effect on client relationships.

From an operations perspective, video meetings aren’t a bad thing. People aren’t travelling to meet clients in person, so they save time and money. And clients see the benefit too. The time saved means we can action decisions – and deliver work – faster, and we can work with clients literally anywhere in the world. But for client services teams, the pressure is on. An abruptly ended Zoom call doesn’t leave room to deepen client relationships through informal, post-meeting chatter. Many businesses will hope that a hybrid model will help to bring this back, but operation leaders must monitor the situation and focus on how to make this work in a way that is consistent and client-friendly.

A balancing act

Managing the gap between remote and in-office operations may complicate things moving forward. Businesses will invariably have to employ trial and error as employees find their rhythm in a hybrid model, and operations will have to react when that unfolds.

For fully remote or flexible-working businesses, a dedicated Remote Operations Manager could be the answer. The likes of Facebook and Quora have already created dedicated remote work managers to manage their fold of workers outside of the office.

For businesses that are tentatively adopting a hybrid model, that extra resource may feel excessive. But they still need to equip existing operations teams with the tools to balance the demands of a workforce scattered across multiple locations.

From refurbishing our office space, leaning into more social and collaborative aspects of working life, to using online HR tools to survey our team weekly, The Frameworks is taking an employee-led, tech-supported approach to our new, evolving operations.

The world has not found its “new normal” yet, and further challenges are certainly on the horizon as the professional community tries to find its feet again. Operations leaders must listen and remain alert to navigate any potential bumps along the way. But if the pandemic has shown us anything, whatever form working life takes – we know we can adapt.