Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

Fully Equipped: How to Empower Your People in 2021

February 24, 2021

In 2020, countless businesses were forced to switch to remote working. Most of them found the technology worked surprisingly well — perhaps even better than they expected. But while they may have the right technology for the next normal in place, many of them have yet to fully empower the people using it.

Business leaders can’t afford to ignore this issue any longer. While 2020 was all about unexpected and unavoidable change, in 2021 they need to take what they’ve learned and give it substance. Because if they don’t have a clear strategy for moving forward, they risk being caught out by a rapid pivot out of the lockdown period.

Make no mistake: people won’t put up with sub-standard experiences once we’re no longer in a ‘forced’ remote working environment. Everyone wants — and deserves — a quiet, comfortable and productive place to work from. A kitchen countertop or cramped corner of a bedroom is no good. People should be able to step into a space that allows them to easily shift from being ‘mum’ or ‘son’ to employee. And in 2021 businesses should formalise the support they offer in terms of creating it.

Up to now, governments haven’t provided much guidance on what people should expect from their remote working space. But that doesn’t mean businesses don’t have a duty of care toward their staff. I’ve spoken to people who are working day-in, day-out on dining chairs, which are only designed to be sat on for thirty-odd minutes at a time. Likewise, no one should be spending eight hours a day hunched over a laptop. They’re mobile devices designed for on-the-go working; using them as a primary computer is a recipe for health issues that could undermine the positive aspects of the next normal.

Decent desks, keyboards — even adequate heating and ventilation — are also key components of a proper remote working environment. If you don’t have a robust policy around screen time, physical health problems caused by substandard equipment could be compounded by mental health ones too. And of course, no one should be forced to fight for bandwidth with their kids in order to do their job properly.

Better Broadband

In 2021, businesses can’t afford to let the broadband burden fall solely on the shoulders of their employees. Yes, some of them may be footing half the bill already. But if you’re competing with your child’s home-schooling sessions, half of a single broadband line may not be enough to guarantee stable video calls.

If something goes wrong with your connection today, you’re often left in the dark on the cause. IT teams that are always on-hand in an office are currently working remotely. In many cases, this means that people have had to become their own IT department, which adds a huge amount of extra effort and stress to the working day. In other words, while we’re all discovering new tools and features that will make the next normal more enjoyable and productive, some of the most basic elements of the remote working experience are still not as good as they should be.

A simple dashboard that provides people with insight into what’s taking up all their bandwidth would go some way to alleviating this problem, along with scheduling tools that can automatically ramp up or ramp down demand on the network at certain times of day. But aside from good broadband and ergonomically sound equipment, it’s also important to consider what remote working environments shouldn’t include.

Individual Needs

Once your people are no longer in the office, you naturally have less say over how they decorate their workspace. But would you allow, for instance, a flag with certain ideological connotations to be displayed in the background while they’re on a video call? What about a row of alcoholic beverages or a bookshelf dotted with controversial works? If you don’t have a policy, then you could have a problem.

To get a feel for what people think is acceptable, as well as everything they need to thrive in the next normal, businesses should start by asking them. Staff surveys can show you where there might be gaps in your current IT provision, for example. You should also be asking people where they’d like to work from in future. Do they feel they’re most effective in the office? Or are they finding remote working a better fit for their personality and role?

Different employees will, of course, have different desires. A recent graduate, for instance, will have different requirements and feelings about remote working to a long-time employee or parent. Just think: at the moment, younger employees are missing out on a whole heap of social experiences that should be part and parcel of one of the most exciting and energising periods in their career. So even though you might be focusing on returning people with critical job roles to the office, it’s equally important to ensure younger team members who crave human interaction aren’t left behind.

Bringing People Together

My final reflection on 2020 is that while we did our best, leaders naturally focused on keeping the lights on. The speed at which things changed meant they had little chance to lead into the pandemic. But as we move through 2021, they’ll have a real opportunity to lead out of it.

True leadership is also about making people feel part of something bigger than themselves, a valued member of a supportive team — and that’s something all leaders will need to focus on this year.

Yes, we all enjoyed the virtual drinks and virtual quizzes in 2020. Some of us even dressed up over the Christmas period, and others have tried all manner of things to remind people they’re not just a face on a screen, but a valued member of the team. But all these events are ultimately based on one-to-many rather than one-on-one interactions. So, I don’t think we’ve truly solved the team-building aspect of the next normal yet.

People develop friendships and trust in one another due to the immense amount of time they spend working and socialising together. We celebrate the wins, we go out for dinner and attend events, and this helps to bond us together. Many of those experiences are impossible to replicate remotely — including those random or serendipitous moments we all took for granted before the pandemic struck.

Because we’re spending so much time on video calls and our days are often tightly scheduled, many of us are currently missing out on the quick catchups that help to build social connections — those “how are the kids?” or “how are you doing?” moments. But we have to find a way of addressing this issue this year, whether it’s by scheduling regular meetups in person or some other means. If we don’t, people simply aren’t going to develop the trust and friendships that are the foundation of any successful team.

Ultimately, the big question businesses asked themselves last year was “are we productive?” But in 2021, they need to go deeper and ask: “Do our people truly feel empowered by remote working? And if not, what can we do to help them out?” Otherwise, once the pivot out of lockdown begins, they may find they’re left behind by those businesses that asked the right questions now and, more importantly, listened to what their people told them.


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