Frank O'Kelly Written by Frank O'Kelly

Managing people in a flexible working environment

Four months after the government made work from home compulsory where possible, and with many businesses not returning to their offices until 2021, this blog has given me the chance to share my thoughts on flexible working, including the lessons learnt from this unprecedented period. While many argue that working from home has brought significant challenges and barriers to productive working, we should not view these changes as challenges, and instead view the ‘new normal’ as just a different way of working. 

Developing trust in your working practices 

Customers are the most important part of any business, which means that your customer-facing teams are either the biggest strength or the biggest weakness of your business. A pandemic only serves to highlight this, meaning businesses need to retain their customer service levels or risk losing customers and therefore revenue. The challenge, then, is retaining this level of customer service in a home working environment.

However, in my experience, this should not be a challenge. Working from home is only a problem if businesses are micromanaging. If this is the case, existing issues become magnified, which demotivates staff and prevents them from performing at the necessary level. Flexible working should not result in reduced or increased productivity – it is just a different way of working.

To ensure employees operate at the right level – in any environment – businesses need to invest in training and trust their teams and staff from their very first day. If it has taken an event like a coronavirus pandemic to initiate this type of training, it is probably not a positive or effective working environment in the first place. Hierarchy does not work well in a flexible working environment. With a flat structure, businesses are open to anything their employees say, enabling them to benefit from their skills, ideas, and experiences.

The use of video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams has become an integral part of daily operations, facilitating both internal and external communication in a work from home environment. 

Establishing a communication plan

From the first day of government-enforced working from home, most businesses will have established a daily meeting or briefing call for their teams and employees. At Ragus, for example, we have our customer services team video meeting at 9:30 every day. This concept is nothing new. But what have we learnt four months down the line? The most important part of these video calls is the social interaction between you and your colleagues, not allocating tasks or talking about customer feedback.

If we have learnt only one thing from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that health, both mental and physical, is the most important thing in our lives. As such, managers have a responsibility to do a wellbeing check. If a member of your team is struggling with their wellbeing, everything else is irrelevant, because their mind will not be set on the task at hand. These meetings form a crucial part in structuring people’s days, so it is important they remain positive and upbeat as your words have an impact.

Furthermore, there is a disconnect between working and social life in the office, which is not replicated when working from home. Without the right kind of support and communication, this type of worry and stress can build. It is essential that managers use these meetings to unearth these worries and communicate them. More significantly, businesses should not overload their staff with work ‘to keep them busy’ just because they are working from home – they should trust their employees to deliver the same output.

How does flexible working affect customer services teams in the sugar industry?

In a sugar industry context, how does working from home translate to our relationships working with customers and our production team? In a trusted working environment, there should be zero impact on the customers – if a customer has a demand you should be able to supply that demand irrespective of working set up.

On the customer side, many food manufacturers are working at a slower pace due to social distancing regulations. However, on the customer service side, that does not affect the manufacturer’s ability to deliver on-time and in-full. As mentioned earlier, flexible working is just a different way of working, and with productivity levels the same, team members still need to factor in order turnaround times into their daily schedules, ensuring that customer service levels remain the same.

Therefore, customer service levels should not dip. Instead, they just change form, often through video calls on Zoom, Skype, Teams or whatever video conferencing tool the business uses. One of the most interesting parts of our daily team meeting at Ragus is learning about customer feedback. If you don’t keep close contact with your customers, then you don’t receive feedback. Feedback is a vital component we use to inform how we can manage our customer support better and also learn about market developments. This could be something as straightforward as creating an advertising strategy to coincide with pubs, bars and restaurants reopening, supplemented by a comment that local establishments are thriving as a result.

The significance of developing reciprocal working relationships cannot be overstated. Building a level of trust helps form a happier working environment – at home, in the office, or in the production facility – for both manager and employee. Our teams should be applauded for doing their jobs independently, and our managers and directors should be applauded for allowing their workers to take on this responsibility.

Ragus has over 90 years’ experience manufacturing pure sugars and syrups for industry. Contact our customer services team on +44 (0)1753 575353 or sales@ragus.co.uk to arrange your order today. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.