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The collective spirit: managing staff after Covid-19

By: Christian Nelleman– Founder and Executive Chairman of XLN

Despite often being described as such, the remote working trend that arose during Covid-19 wasn’t something entirely new.

In industries where it was possible, huge numbers of staff were working flexibly long before the virus emerged.

In reality, what’s happened during the pandemic – as is the case with e-commerce or automation across various industries – is an acceleration of an existing trend, rather than the creation of a new one.

But what an acceleration it has been.

In August 2020, a McKinsey survey suggested that the biggest businesses on the planet are planning to reduce their office space by around 30%. It’s a seismic change – the kind of shift that transforms how entire cities operate and interact.

And now, as the first signs emerge of what the end of Covid-19 might look like, business leaders like me are considering how best to manage a workforce that in many cases has had its first taste of remote working.

Remote but connected

The first and most important point is that remote working simply doesn’t work for all industries – or indeed, all parts of your business. It’s estimated that around only 25% of the workforces in advanced economies can work from home between three and five days a week without a drop in productivity.

At XLN, we had already introduced remote working for various parts of our business before the pandemic. However, large parts – namely our customer service and support teams – didn’t work remotely.

So, the decision to facilitate our entire workforce to work from home several days before the first lockdown was announced in March 2020 was a significant one.

Aside from all the obvious challenges and learnings – infrastructural and practical for the most part – the biggest takeaway was how well staff responded to the trust we showed in them.

We were the first in our industry to facilitate remote working for our entire business. And I truly believe that my service team’s incredible performance during the pandemic (recognised with 3 wins at the 2021 UK Business Awards) was a direct response to that trust.

Our team leaders managed with the same energy and vigour as they had in the office. Our frontline service agents still focused tirelessly on maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction. And our sales agents, many of whom switched to service roles temporarily, hit the ground running.

Productivity didn’t drop. Remote working seemed to work.

But as I write this from my office in our headquarters in London, most of our staff are back – safely of course.

Which begs the question: if productivity didn’t drop, why are we all here again?

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The magic of camaraderie

Now we are able to facilitate remote working across the business, we offer far more flexible working. We’ve learned to respect the value of remote working, and in turn, respect employee demand for it.

But there is an undeniable limit to how connected a business can be at a distance.

I’m an entrepreneur – but I’m also a salesperson. That’s how I started in business. And I’ve seen, throughout my career, the power of camaraderie in helping businesses to grow.

Success can be quite a strange and imperceptible thing among employees. And yet it spreads like wildfire in offices with a positive working culture.

Top performers lift their colleagues. They rapidly improve the success of others around them – I’ve seen it happen.

Equally, the people who struggle learn so much through camaraderie with their colleagues. There’s a collective spirit in good businesses which I’m proud to say exists at XLN. If you could bottle that energy and sell it, you’d make a fortune.

Put simply, a great office culture is absolutely priceless.

The best of both worlds

As many workers return to many workplaces, I see two clear lessons.

The first is about adaptability. The pandemic has crushed companies that have been unable to adapt quickly enough. The world has changed, and we now have to be ready to adapt again. Employee expectations have transformed, and as business leaders we have to recognise that.

The second is about company culture. The best businesses live or die on the culture they create. And building and maintaining that culture remotely has its limits – that is without question.

So, as we enter the post pandemic world, the most successful businesses will be the ones that recognise and react to this new, complex reality.

We can’t pretend that Covid-19 hasn’t happened – and that the wants and needs of our employees haven’t changed. Equally, we can’t pretend that our employees can operate happily in indefinite isolation. They need real, human camaraderie – we all do.

Many CEOs conversing with their CFOs will look excitedly at how much they could save by cutting their office space with employees working remotely.

But don’t forget to converse with everyone else in your business too. You might just discover that they’re far more eager to return to the office than you’d thought.


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