The businesses that evolve will succeed; open-minded leaders are setting the pace by embracing a mix of home- and office-based work
By Chris Shannon, CEO Fotech
August 2021, Hampshire, England – The COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to adapt to entire teams working from home but many unexpected benefits have emerged. It is now up to leaders to make hybrid working – a mix of working from home and offices – succeed so the benefits can be harnessed.
Remote working yielded a number of advantages. In many ways, it helped level the playing field by closing gender and socio-economic divides. And it gave greater voice to those who may have been limited by childcare. For those who have been empowered by remote working, returning to a 100 per cent office-based model, or even a hybrid set-up, could disadvantage them again.
Transport figures indicate that plenty of people are still working from home – in mid-May, London’s tube passenger numbers were at just 35 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. This is reflected across the UK – public transport capacity remains limited in cities such as Manchester and Glasgow.
But not all employers are keen on indefinite remote working. Some employees feel that human interaction in the workplace is vital, while for others, the prospect of returning to the office causes anxiety. If we approach the opportunity to embrace hybrid working with flexibility and genuine, open-minded curiosity, businesses can create models that play to everyone’s strengths by making the most of the advantages we discovered during remote working.
Greater flexibility will empower your team
Leaders of hybrid workplaces need to focus on creating resilient, sustainable teams that are equally – if not more – productive than a fully office-based team. Embracing flexibility and actively promoting a good work/life balance may seem counterintuitive, but they will reap rewards in terms of engagement, productivity and results, as well as supporting good mental wellbeing.
Get the practicalities right for long-term success
After more than a year of remote working, most leaders already have a good idea of what is effective and what is not, but moving to hybrid working still needs careful planning. Empowering people with the right tools is an important first step. People often cite missing whiteboards and Post-It notes for brainstorming, but online tools can be as effective – sessions just need practice and planning.
When you consider what environment will best support hybrid working, your organisation’s physical space is likely to need re-purposing. Leaders need to take a strategic view: the workplace may need a complete overhaul to create a hybrid working model based on the lessons from everyone‘s unique remote working experiences. Alternatively, a few modifications and a deep clean may be all that is required.
Many offices are transitioning from having many desks and separate offices for board-level roles to hot desks and collaboration spaces with a few one-to-one and creative areas with sofas and screens, and no separate offices for anyone, regardless of title.
Shaping attitudes that include and celebrate choice
Creating new working models requires leaders to pay close attention to the narratives and attitudes that drive the choices people make. Will there be an unconscious bias against those who choose to work remotely in preference to those who regularly come to the office? Being aware of potential issues and underlying feelings is the first step. Then leaders can act to circumvent unhelpful narratives, ensure inclusivity and consciously stop biases developing.
Leading can be more of an art than a science, and some productive processes may emerge unexpectedly. Remote working may improve engagement for companies with multi-site employees; for example, staff who are not based at company headquarters now feel on the same level as their head office colleagues.
Embedding transparency into all processes
Transparency is more important than ever with hybrid and remote working – leaders can’t just assume people are automatically aware of issues. The process of distilling information must be carefully handled. Do not just pass it on to internal communications or HR teams – it’s something leaders need to be conscious of and actively engage in. This builds transparency, which in turn fosters trust.
Don’t be afraid of conflict – difficult calls can lead to great breakthroughs
Leaders and managers must be mindful of the tendency to hide behind screens. We don’t need to be afraid of conflict – it’s important to learn how to deal with difficult conversations over video calls. Early in the pandemic, difficult discussions were often pushed further down the line in the hope of delaying face-to-face confrontations. But finding ways to communicate effectively, even if a conversation is challenging, is an important step to enable successful remote working.
Video call training can be helpful to ensure team members feel confident having any conversation – alongside a commitment to transparency, trust and an openness about mental wellbeing.
There are plenty of proverbs about trying something different to achieve different results. Now is the time for leaders to ask not when but how they will create the new working model that is best for their business. Don’t let fear or resistance to change impede you. Flexibility is a friend, not a foe – and leaders need to go beyond their comfort zone courageously to calibrate what works best for them and their team.