With hybrid working on the horizon for many people, the way we manage and optimise our professional lives is again in transition. Throughout much of the pandemic, the challenges of homeworking were tempered by benefits — more flexibility, no commute and for some the ability to contribute more in online meetings or team projects through doing it remotely.
But while we might not have missed the ‘9-5’ per se, there’s no doubt that communication, team building, sociability and the ability to keep work and home life separate are all boosted by going into an office. Now, with a unique chance to combine the best of the two, businesses and employees are looking at how to adapt and thrive in this new world of work. The desire is certainly there - in a survey by Atlas Cloud, 73% of UK office workers said they wanted to work both from home and the office regularly. Tech and processes for remote working should all be in place, although they may require fine-tuning to suit new processes — but crucially moving to a blend of remote and office work will require a new set of expectations, and a need for clarity, agility and emotional intelligence. In addition, questions of isolation, inequality, visibility and measuring productivity will again come to the fore, as the business environment is reshaped. It’s largely uncharted territory, for businesses as well as employees, and for most it will be a ‘work in progress’ for a while. Nevertheless, there are still things that you can put in place to ensure that your hybrid working experience is a positive and effective one. We look at five key ways to bring your best self back to the office.
Think about… expectations
Clarifying what your hybrid working pattern looks like ahead of time is essential — a suggestion to just ‘come back as needed’ will increase the risk of stress, overwork and put the onus on you to ‘sort it out’, as well as potentially opening up a risk of workforce discrimination. How and where you’re working and when, and the way in which performance is being measured are all key points to discuss. As the work environment shifts, outcomes, contribution and value, as opposed to time spent in one place, will necessarily have to become the metrics by which performance is judged. However, in these early days, knowing what the requirements of your job look like in a hybrid style is a baseline worth establishing. Communication, etiquette and boundaries are also important to define. ‘Have an explicit discussion about how and when you’re going to communicate, who has access to what information, who needs to be in which meetings, and who needs to be in on which decisions,’ says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. She also recommends reaching an agreement on communication ‘norms’ — when to include the entire team, whether every message needs acknowledgement and which channel to use for which purpose — and to communicate clearly how you intend to structure your working hours. ‘The end of the day is becoming nebulous. People out of the office may want flexibility and the freedom to rework their hours, and the people in the office may want more structure. Sometimes compromises will be necessary.’
Think about…matching location to task
Once you’re clear on your personal or company model for the ‘new normal’, how do you make sure that you’re using those days in the office each week or month to best effect? One way is to employ each environment’s qualities strategically and to your advantage. Time spent in person can be reserved for sociable tasks that require the energy of other people for success, such as collaboration, while remote work is the perfect time for tasks that need focus and contemplation such as report writing. Meetings can fall somewhere in the middle; a brief team catch up online, a more strategic one in person. If you’re a leader, then think about designing a workplace guide that outlines which type of work environment should be used for certain types of tasks to give your team a central reference point — and make sure that everyone is equally accountable for being on-site or off-site at the designated times. And don’t be afraid to be creative about blending the benefits of environments under one project too – for example, a study showed that remote brainstorming could enhance creative performance by almost 50% over in-person sessions, reducing the possibility of dominant participants taking over the session and increasing the diversity of ideas by reducing the pressure to conform to group think. Allowing people to submit ideas online and then later come together physically to evaluate them could offer the best of both worlds.
Inclusive environments take into account the needs, wishes and potential barriers of all their employees and for every person that is looking forward to hybrid working there will be another with concerns or questions about anything from efficacy to safety. As a leader or manager, bring inclusion to discussions around hybrid working by not making any assumptions about your team members’ wishes, and try to speak to people individually so they can be fully honest with you. ‘Allow people to admit how they’re feeling’ says Hill. ‘Listen and offer support. Demonstrate that you’re committed to making the situation work for everyone on the team. People want to feel safe and that they’re being cared for.’ A discussion with a line manager, or employee, can also highlight opportunities to use flexible working to improve wellbeing and productivity as well as helping to raise potential problems, such as the fact that not everyone has space for a home office or super-fast broadband. Younger employees living in flat-shares, for example, may not find homeworking productive at all and therefore could feel pressured to do more of it than is comfortable. Considering the unique situations of all and asking how you can best support colleagues and team members to do their best work in a hybrid working situation will be key to a successful environment for all.
As disparate teams reunite, the group mojo might need a jumpstart when you’re back in the office. How can team leaders pull people together again in real life and optimise the dynamic of hybrid working together? Starting with a social meeting such as a team lunch is a great way to acknowledge the challenges of the past year, congratulate everyone on how hard they’ve worked and have a bit of gentle fun — indeed, YouGov research showed that for 65% of workers, socialising was what they missed most when working remotely. Once back in the office together, one-to-one catch-ups allow you to check in with team members and flag up potential issues with hybrid working that you can support them with, while group discussions on ways, places, times and channels to work will be important to acknowledge both individual needs and the team dynamic. Within your team, there are likely to be different variations of remote and office working patterns. To that end, consider what parts of the job need face-to-face collaboration, which successful remote working patterns you can adapt and whether a weekly in person team meeting could be a useful focal point, engendering visibility, equality and connection? Running regular events alongside work critical activity to build back team spirit could also be useful, from weekly socials to creative projects or company challenges. And with employees having found connection in remote ways over the past year there’s no need to throw that out with new working process. Instead use it to reinforce the idea of a real life/online hybrid environment — keep your slack channels for ‘watercooler’ chat, online coffee breaks or virtual workouts as a valuable part of creating a connected and vibrant hybrid ecosystem.
Think about…connection and visibility
The issue of staying connected to your team while working remotely will have been considered and fine-tuned during the pandemic. However, it will be important to address this anew now that the playing field is not as even as it was during lockdown. It’s simpler to have a remote team of 20, than 15 people in the room and five remote workers, and issues of unevenly implemented hybrid working and behavioural bias could lead to an influence gap between more ‘visible’ office-based people and more remote colleagues. And this could have a knock-on effect on diversity and inclusion as more women, carers or introverts take the remote options. Making sure everyone’s voices are heard and everyone is equally visible in the team will require conscious management. The CIPD recommends focusing on fairness of opportunity by providing ongoing access to development and career conversations for all employees, and designing work processes that suit all locations, concentrating particularly on knowledge-sharing and the co-ordination of work and team relationships to encourage performance and innovation. What is sure is that constant awareness around the engagement of each team member within the dynamic will be needed by managers, at least until hybrid working is fully bedded in — with employees also needing to ensure they are proactive about checking in and speaking up regularly to maintain their visibility.