Transitioning to WFH – The ups and downs of maintaining a happy, healthy and fully operational SME workforce

It’s hard to believe that in March this year we were sat in our office with little more than a passing thought to the prospect of COVID-19 having an impact on our daily lives.

And yet 4 months later, we can all agree that our working and home lives have changed immeasurably and in ways we could not have foreseen.

As an SME with a total team of 23 across 2 offices, we’ve always considered our ability to react, respond and implement change in a timely manner one of our key strengths.   This was certainly put to the test at the end of March.

Fortunately, we already had the fundamentals in place thanks to a comprehensive business risk register contained within our ISO9001 certified Business Management System.

The ongoing investment in IT infrastructure within RAA meant we had already moved away from dedicated high spec workstations for each team member to a centralised remote workstation setup. This meant that all team members have been using the Remote workplace infrastructure since the beginning of 2020 and this allowed us to switch from office based working to home working overnight.  Over the last 18 months RAA have moved all their InfoWorks ICM simulations to dedicated high spec machines housed in a local datacentre, which has allowed for more resilience and ensured reliability of this key IT resource for the RAA modelling teams.

With all team members already having office 365 accounts, we were able to hit the ground running with using Microsoft Teams for daily catch up calls and project team meetings.  We also actively encouraged smaller breakout style coffee breaks via Teams which has helped to keep up the informal social interactions that would take place in the office.

We have also implemented the use of other apps in the Office 365 package, including Forms for sending out quick surveys/polls on opinion or technical issues and Stream for sharing videos of online events and meetings.

What we have noticed is that it is certainly not a one size fits all response. Our workforce is age diverse with our youngest employees being in their early twenties and our more seasoned team members in their sixties.  We have employees with young families who are having to juggle work with childcare and home schooling responsibilities, others with health conditions requiring them to take additional precautions, some sharing limited workspace with partners.  We have endeavoured where possible to support individuals with any problems or barriers they have faced in their remote working set-up. This has included ensuring everyone has the required equipment and support to carry out their duties.

Moving to working from home has been straightforward from an IT point of view due to our forward thinking and investment. This allowed the senior management at RAA to focus more time on our team, and their physical and mental health.  A temporary Working at home Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessment was undertaken by every team member, which allowed us to provide additional equipment to help improve the working setup.  The additional equipment ranged from sending IT equipment such as mice, keyboard and extra monitors to pop up cardboard desks.

An additional challenge presented itself following the recruitment of two new graduate hydraulic modellers just prior to full lockdown.  One managed to spend 3 days in the office, the other started in the role remotely. Full induction training was undertaken using Teams video call functionality and we also took the opportunity to record some of the sessions to keep on file for future use as refresher training or for new starters if training resource is limited.  Obviously, the integration of a new starter goes far beyond their technical training and the lack of informal social interaction with the team was a concern.  From the beginning of lockdown a weekly ‘after work drinks’ call was set up on a Friday afternoon using Teams initially but then moving to Zoom for the additional functionality of multiple video links on screen at the same time (a feature teams has recently rolled out).  Each week employees are encouraged to suggest quiz questions and activities and share some downtime chatting with the team.  A benefit of this has been a bringing together of the 2 offices, who can socially interact in a way that they didn’t before.  We have certainly all learnt a lot about our co-workers’ home situations – from children and animals popping up in the background to noticing our colleagues home décor and favourite tipple – it has all added to bring us closer together in a way that we probably wouldn’t have done so regularly before.

Inspired by one of our key clients Severn Trent Water’s step challenge which we joined in with last year, we set up an internal step challenge competition early in lockdown with 4 teams of four competing to win team of the week, overall leader and individual high stepper.  We actively encourage our people to take regular breaks away from the screen and get out in the fresh air but we know how sometimes it’s hard to be motivated. Hopefully a little competition has invoked that motivation.

When surveyed, the most popular benefit for our employees is the lack of daily commute – not only are they saving money on fuel and saving time sat in the car, our environmentally focused team have been quick to point out the environmental benefits. As part of our ISO14001 certification we offset our carbon emissions – reporting for 2020 is certainly going to look very different to previous years.  The reduced time spent travelling has also enabled some members of the team to feel they have a better work/life balance, with more time for spending with family/partner or activities such as cooking or exercising.


So, what next?

When we will all be back in the office will entirely depend on government guidelines. We have already undertaken full risk assessments on our offices and implemented social distancing and hygiene measures to ensure they are COVID-19 ready for when restrictions are relaxed and return to the office is permitted for all.  Some of the team have already been back in the office, particularly the Remote Aerial Survey team who have continued to work on critical infrastructure drone surveys for Network Rail.

One thing for sure is that this experience will have a lasting impact.  As an Investor in People we are already looking at ways in which we can facilitate a more flexible home working pattern for those employees who would like to continue to enjoy the benefits on a long term basis.






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