Firms across the UK have had to move to a home working model wherever possible in recent months, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This will have included many who previously thought that home working wouldn’t suit the needs of their business. Five months in felt like the right time to catch up with two very different organisations to ask how they were getting on.
We caught up with Jill Whittaker, Managing Director of HIT Training, and Heather Cracknell, Director of People Development at Serocor Solutions, about their companies’ experiences with working from home.
Serocor is a recruiter specialising in STEM and director-level roles, and as such is a very sales-driven business. “Recruitment can be a bit old school” says Heather, “but we had been making a slow and steady move towards flexible working since I joined seven years ago. We introduced variable hours so people could start and finish at different times to suit their needs, and people did work from home for specific reasons – like if they had a specific project they wanted to focus on or a healthcare appointment – but it wasn’t the norm.”
Like many businesses, Serocor leadership had valid concerns over how well their business model would translate into remote teams – with so much of sales being about comradery and teamwork. But when the pandemic hit, they threw their weight behind it to see if they could make it work. “I met with managers very early on and explained that this was going to be their opportunity to show that working from home could work for our business” says Heather. And the response from staff was incredibly positive, with people going the extra mile to support clients and fill roles. “It just goes to show that if you trust and give people the responsibility, they will perform.”
For Jill, it was a different challenge altogether. As a specialist training and apprenticeship provider, HIT Training had traditionally delivered learning one-to-one and in person, but had already laid down plans to move portions of that learning online – via interactive online workshops. The reluctance to move online in HIT’s case actually came from the employees – who enjoyed the face-to-face tutorials and interactions with learners.
“On 16 March, we had a meeting with all of the managers, about 100 people [about the move towards delivering our learning online], and almost universally they said ‘the staff aren’t going to like this, they like being on the road, they don’t want to be stuck behind a desk’. Well, within a few days, we entered lockdown, and had no choice but to move our services online in a more extreme way.” And of course, that meant employees moving to a home working model too – which can be hard, especially when people do not usually do so.
But then something interesting happened. “Within a week or two” said Jill, “people were starting to say, ‘this is really interesting’ – they could see the benefits, and attitudes started to change.”
Home working can improve productivity
For both companies, the move to home working has had productivity-boosting benefits. “Our customer service has improved as we’re actually more available for our clients; we can respond to their queries faster and do things at shorter notice” says Jill. “We’re not spending three hours a day in the car, so we can do our admin as we go along, as opposed to it waiting until the end of the week.”
On top of that, it’s much easier for Jill to connect with her different teams, who are usually spread out across 25 different UK offices. “I can just drop into their team meetings virtually to see how everyone’s doing – I’m actually seeing more of some teams rather than less!”
It’s a similar story for Heather, with noticeable boosts to their productivity. “We have fewer candidates and fewer jobs, but are actually increasing the amount of interviews and offers. It’s really helped the business to see that people, if you give them the flexibility, and meet them halfway, can actually work better.” In fact, the improvement was so marked, that Serocor decided to reward its employees with nine-day fortnights through June and July, to recognise how employees really came through for the business to deliver positive outcomes in tough circumstances.
Not to mention the green benefits
With the huge reduction in commuting, the green benefits of working from home are plain to see. HIT Training saved 336 tonnes of CO2 since the start of lockdown – which according to Jill is equivalent to 58,500 trees, or powering 209 homes for a year. This has also meant a huge saving of £100,000 a month on travel expenses.
But home working isn’t a dream for everyone
For Jill, it’s important to recognise that home working, especially during the pandemic, will be a really different experience for everyone. “We have a real mixture of people – some people live in shared houses and have to work from their bedrooms, some are single parents, some are in small flats, some live on their own. We surveyed everyone to ask if they would feel comfortable working from home a few days a week – and there were 20 people (out of 500) who really did not want to because of personal circumstances.”
It was a similar story for Heather: “About a month into lockdown, we were hearing from our managers that some people were struggling. A lot of it was people living alone or with young children that can’t be by themselves – it’s a tough situation to be in.” Serocor responded to those mental health concerns by putting in weekly calls to support those struggling, and by ensuring there were still plenty of informal and social ways for colleagues to connect – whether coffee calls, quizzes or fitness classes.
Mental health is also a topic that Jill picked up on: “One of the big issues has been the mental health of our staff. Enforced change, isolation, exhaustion – you have to be very conscious that this will impact people in different ways. And our learners are undergoing the same issues; there’s a lot of uncertainty – everyone you talk to is in an uncertain situation – which is why that mental health piece is so important.”
What does the future hold for Serocor and HIT Training?
It’s clear that both organisations, while facing challenges in the move to home working, have embraced change and made the most of the situation. HIT Training employees who were unsure about the move to delivering training online, are looking forward to continuing home working as part of their routines going forward. “Where we still need offices, we’re keeping them. But most of our staff were on the road anyway, and only went in once or twice a month” says Jill. For HIT, the future looks like a blend of face-to-face in- person training as well as face-to-face online training and interactive online learning – which means home working will continue to be part of how they do business going forward
For Serocor and Heather, it’s been a similar story: “We thought everyone would want to stay at home, but people do crave that social aspect and need to get out of the house. And not everyone can work comfortably from home. Culture, teambuilding – it’s an important part of who we are and what we value. So we’d never go completely home working, but I can confidently say that the future for Serocor will be a lot more flexible.”
“And all that means we can recruit from a far wider variety of places – whether that’s to do with physical location, employing people with disabilities or caring responsibilities. Our employee network can be so much larger now.”
What advice would you give to other businesses?
We rounded up by asking Jill and Heather to share any advice for other businesses looking to make home working part of their long-term strategies.
“The first thing is to trust your people” says Jill; “not being able to see what people are doing is a bit nerve wracking – if you don’t trust your people, you will never be able to embrace flexible working. The second is to look at what it is your clients are demanding from you, and how you can deliver that flexibly, in order to be efficient as a business and meet your staff lifestyle needs.”
For Heather, it’s also a matter of trust: “Your culture must be one of honesty, accountability and trust – it’s fundamental. It’s also important to consider that managing a remote team is also a skill that has to be learnt, so equip your people to do it.
“The only other piece of advice I’d give is to be aware of your workforce – their needs and requirements – that’s where we’ve won hearts and influenced people. We’ve had those honest conversations about what we need, but also about how we can accommodate their needs too.”