Different activities are suited to different working environments, so do you really need to make a decision on whether people work from the office, work from home or work from anywhere? Get these 3 strategic priorities right, and create the hybrid model that works best for your business.
It’s interesting. Right now it feels like we’re sat at a crossroads where one path leads to the office and the other to home. Only a brave few have made their intentions clear for the future of work. HSBC has decided to move towards permanent flexible working, whereas Goldman Sachs has ordered all employees to return to the office, and WeWork – whose entire business model is reliant on office space – has had to re-imagine what that looks like when people wish to work where and how they want.
It seems no-one is yet clear on the right path to tread.
And it’s a tough decision to make. While some people have loved more time with their kids, others have struggled to maintain culture through a screen and miss the camaraderie that comes from being in the same room as their colleagues. Some people have enjoyed less distractions at home and found themselves more productive, but others can’t cope with the loneliness that silence brings. And while some people are desperate to get back to the office simply for a break, we can’t ignore how fabulous remote working has been for global projects over the last year. Normally, it’s the programme team working from the office that get a bigger share of voice, but when we were all forced to work remotely and dial in, it levelled everyone. Suddenly we had equal access to leadership and equal say in discussions – teams became so close and connected despite having never met before. We need to recognise the power in that to build a proper global team and consider that perhaps it’s not a case of ‘office vs. home’, but a blend of both.
It’s such a subjective matter, and it’s hard (if not impossible) to please everyone. But while it’s an interesting debate, in many ways it’s purely academic. The reality is our world has undergone significant change over the last 18-months. We engaged the shared wisdom of The Change Society, who believe that logically, the next step has to be towards some version of a hybrid model, and how there are three strategic priorities to get it right:
LISTEN TO PEOPLE
It might seem obvious, but to determine what hybrid working looks like for your organisation, you need to ask your people what they want.
Red Sprout Media is a prime example of a company whose leadership team thought they knew what was best for its employees and decided to trial a 4-day working week. But within days they knew it was all wrong. By talking openly to people they realised that for them a ‘work whenever, wherever’ model, with people focused on outcomes rather than clocking hours, would better suit the needs of their customers and their people.
But before you book-in this important conversation, you need to consider a couple of things…
The majority of employees are nervous about returning to the office. Make time to find out why, because the cause will affect the outcome. For example, if the fear stems from concerns over their health during the morning commute, you could help with alternative transport, like cycling or taxis. Or if the worry is about how to re-organise their childcare around staggered drop-offs and pick-ups, perhaps you could offer flexible hours or a compressed week.
From a legal perspective, you need to check your employment contract. This will state an employees’ ‘typical’ place of work, which could have implications for additional expenses they may be entitled to. And longer-term, you may wish to update the wording to accommodate your new hybrid working model.
Also, what does the law of the country say? Companies have a legal responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to allow employees to work effectively and safely – regardless of whether that’s due to physical or mental health issues. Short-term, the best option might be to work from home full-time. But you need to consider whether it’s possible for someone to perform their role from home forever, and if not, how you may need to consider changing the person.
DEMONSTRATE STRONG LEADERSHIP
When Goldman Sachs announced its intention for employees to return to the office full-time, it was met with much online criticism. But regardless of whether you agree or disagree, you have to admire the strength of the CEO. When the media is awash with headlines about hybrid models, and presumably employees sharing their desires to continue working from home for at least some of the time, it takes strong leadership to push against ‘the new norm’.
You would hope that the CEO has done the necessary due diligence to make such a bold decision. But when research from HBR shows that 40% of leaders don’t have confidence to manage remote employees, there is a fear about whether returning to the office is an ‘easy’ option?
A more interesting question to consider is: How confident are your leaders about managing employees generally?
Often, leaders are promoted into a position of authority and aren’t properly equipped with the skills to manage. This leads to issues like presenteeism and clocking hours because they simply don’t know how to manage by outcomes, and fear they risk losing control if they can’t see their team at their desks. Lockdown certainly had a big impact on leaders, requiring them to use a different approach to management. But perhaps if we offered all leaders more general training, coaching and mentoring, they would become confident at how to manage their team to get the best from them – regardless of where they choose to work.
Furthermore, it’s likely that everyone is going to feel a little apprehensive about life back in the office. For starters, it will look different with Covid safety measures, there may be concerns about how team events or group presentations will work, as well as the need for lateral flow testing. Perhaps we should take the lead from the Irish Government, who prepared a Return to Work Safely Protocol, which advocates the use of coaching and training to help people return to the office.
EMBRACE LOCATION FLEXIBILITY
Different activities naturally lend themselves to different work environments. For example deep work is more conducive to home working without distractions, while strategy meetings are better suited to the office where we can read subtle body language and hear the unspoken conversations, and whiteboarding has proved to be a great hybrid activity where everyone gets the same share of voice regardless of whether they’re in the office or dial in remotely.
Therefore, perhaps the best path is to take every path?
Organisations that fail to offer flexibility around where and how people work, risk losing the competitive war on talent to those who embrace location flexibility as an ongoing part of the future. Thankfully, there are already innovative tools to help support you implement this model. One of our associates is currently working with a client who is using RICHO Spaces to optimise their business with hot desk and meeting room bookings, as well as wayfinding and workplace insights to keep the office safe.
Be mindful that any model you implement needs to be adaptive because the business now faces change as a constant. If you think about the activity being undertaken, you can offer up the best environment to complete the work. Also, this flexibility will be particularly helpful in the early days if people are nervous, because you can give them what they need to gain their trust.
Customer experience (CX) should always sit at the heart of everything because ultimately, you need people to buy what you have to offer if you’re to stay in business. When CX is the new battlefield, first build a model to suit the critical roles and key staff that deal with customers…
And then consider the employee experience. To remove friction in the workplace, engage staff, ask what they want and check in on how they’re feeling. Even if you can’t address it all, at least you know what you’re dealing with. And set boundaries to encourage people to get off camera, get up and walk around.
EMBRACE CHANGE AS A CONSTANT
Rather than think about a return to the office as a short-term change project, consider it as a long-term transformation that becomes the fabric of your organisational working model for the future.
Emma Dark is Chief Customer Experience Officer at Sullivan and Stanley