This Working Life

How to find a solution to the great workplace conundrum

Listen to your employees and to your customers and put ways of working in place which deliver for both

Business owners across a range of sectors are facing the same conundrum: do I bring my staff back to the office, do I keep them working remotely, or do I try to devise a hybrid version?

Cathy Summers is chief executive of the CX Company, which advises companies on how to grow and improve their business by delivering actions that will improve customers’ experiences.

Business owners across a range of sectors are now facing the same conundrum. Do I bring my staff back to the office, do I keep them working remotely, or do I try to devise a hybrid version?

There are some sectors where a return to the workplace will be mandatory because of the nature of the role, like those in construction, retail and services. But what about the others?

It’s a challenging one. Older and younger employees may have completely different views on what they want and what’s important to them from a career perspective. Introverts may have a very different take on what constitutes a good working day compared to their extrovert colleagues.

There may be some employees who are happy to work apart from someone they view as a difficult colleague, and others who really are suffering because they are missing the social interaction they thrive on during and after the working day. This is new territory for all and unhelpfully there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

To make sense of what’s right for your people it’s best to start with the customer. The annual CXi Survey, carried out by the CX Company in Ireland, shows that customer experience (CX) scores are at a seven-year low.

Many customers feel that the rise in digital, although often convenient, has become too prevalent, and they struggle to reach or talk to an actual person when something goes wrong. While digital is excellent at a functional level, reaching out and showing empathy to a customer is still beyond its capacity. Remote working is not helping this.

While working from home suits some staff, recent research has shown that for many others it can be a stressful and anxious experience. If staff are suffering from anxiety, stress and feelings of isolation it’s imperative for their wellbeing and long-term mental health that the causes are addressed as soon as possible and that the necessary supports are put in place.

From a business and CX perspective it’s also vital that these issues are addressed, as employees who are under stress will not be able to provide a positive customer experience. If the remote working model isn’t working for customers or staff, something has to give.

As every business will face a different situation, the introduction of an immediate all staff back in approach represents a high-risk gamble. Employees may not react well if they are rushed back into the office.

It is best to do this gently and on a phased based, ideally starting with the hybrid model of a mix of remote working and being back in the workplace. It should then be possible to gradually increase time in the office for those for whom it works best. Time will tell which individuals are most productive in which environment. Your customers will have valuable insights, so it’s important to ask and even more important to listen to what they need and how they rate their experiences.

Your employees are your most important resource and differentiate you from your competitors. They have built up invaluable experience and knowledge of your customer base. This is a critical time to engage with them, to listen to them, and to review how teams and individuals are performing and what working model works best for them. This is especially important in the current tight labour market.

Do your staff need to collaborate on a regular basis? Do they need to work on research and innovation together? An office environment can be much more productive in these scenarios, so you need to facilitate that.

Similarly, if you have young staff who need to meet and learn from more experienced colleagues, you need to devise ways of doing that. Are there unresolved issues which need to be addressed? Generally, it’s better to resolve these in person than online, so again you need to have the structures in place to facilitate this.

Finally, staff care and mental health support represent a sound business investment. The impact of not focusing on these may result in significant increases in sick leave and burnout, both of which have knock-on effects for customers and recruitment. If you don’t have these supports in place, phase them in and keep reviewing.

We are coming out of an extremely challenging period, so it’s important to get this step right. Listen to your staff and to your customers and put ways of working in place which deliver for both. The bottom line: if your employee experience is positive, they will deliver a positive customer experience.