Our CEO Clare Gleghorn writes on the future of hybrid working and shares her tips on what businesses should consider as we adapt to new working rhythms.

Earlier this year my firm partnered with Pitcher Partners and our sister agency, Bastion Insights, to release a special edition of the Adapting to the New Normal study: Hybrid Working 2021. We commissioned this study because of the endless stream of surveys and polls in the market that simply kept asking the same question of workers, “what is your preference?”.

These polls were in market while the threat of COVID remained real and present, while many were still emerging from the trauma and shock of significant periods of lockdown, while some were managing home-schooling and changed home routines, and while more still were simply high-fiving ourselves for making it through another week of video calls in collared shirts and fluffy slippers (not to mention the exceeding comfort of the elastic-waisted trouser in what had been a long and cold winter of comfort eating).

It was a useful but perhaps redundant question that captured a moment in time and one half of the conversation. When faced with the choice of a genuine threat to physical and mental wellbeing and the comfort and security of being able to work from home, I know what my preference was.

So, we flipped it, asking both employers and employees not only what they would prefer for long-term hybrid working models but why, and how they saw this benefitting or challenging them and their workplaces in the long-term.

The findings revealed some interesting trends and similarities. Without question, the accidental year-long social experiment of working from home has proven what has long eluded those engaged in workplace design – working from home works, and can even net impressive results for productivity, performance, employee engagement and a sense of empowerment and autonomy.

Social researchers, industrial relations experts, human resource managers, video conferencing creators and commercial space fitter-outerers (my word) take note and rejoice – working from home is no longer a fringe pursuit of a small group of workers but a mainstream mainstay of a modern workplace.

But our findings also revealed some trend lines that start to diverge when we look ahead. Employees are worried about isolation and a lack of socialisation with colleagues. Employers are worried about collaboration, team culture and performance management of staff. When you have groups of staff working from home feeling isolated and removed from colleagues, and managers concerned about staff performance, you can quickly start to see a trust gap appear and the concerns about workplace culture becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This isn’t just the working of my imagination running wild either. On the back of a recent ABC radio interview I did, I received an email from a senior healthcare worker who had been sent home to work remotely at the start of lockdown in Melbourne, only to wait 12 weeks before she heard from her line manager. Feeling demoralised and isolated, she resigned and has since retired from the workforce, a lifetime of dedicated service seemingly tarnished by these final weeks of despair and poor communication. In her note to me she wrote, “Thank you. I now know it wasn’t me.”

So, what have I taken from this study and the response to it? Here are my thoughts on what business leaders, people managers, HR teams, and employees should be contemplating over the coming months as we all adapt to these new ways of working.

1. Clarity on context – is this about safety or performance?

When we were reviewing the findings, I kept asking people for what word would best describe two people having a conversation they both thought they understood and were in furious agreement about, only to walk away and realise they were both speaking about completely different things. More than one person helpfully suggested the word I was after was “marriage”. Despite the joke, it’s an excellent analogy. Business leaders and employers need to be absolutely clear that they’re talking about the same thing lest they walk away misunderstanding the other.

From the outset, remote working has been about a forced (and in some cases mandated) response to a global health crisis. It was about public health and safety. But, as we’ve learned that there can be genuine workplace benefits to productivity and performance outcomes, some leaders are now talking about optimal business operating models and how hybrid working can contribute to high performing teams. This is brilliant and such a great conversation to have, but not one you can even contemplate when you’re talking to a team still legitimately focused on their own safety, security, shelter, and wellbeing.

COVIDsafe work plans are not the same as optimal hybrid working arrangements. These terms have been used interchangeably but if we’re going to elevate the conversation, this distinction is important because it goes right to the heart of what we are trying to achieve together.

Our response to COVID-19 was all about the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, providing much needed safety, security and shelter from a highly infectious virus. We can raise our eyes and look to the top of that hierarchy for self-actualisation and empowerment, but we need to make sure everyone is ready for that conversation.

2. Trust is key

I’ve heard a lot of anecdotes recently of staff who had been asked to share their preferences for working arrangements with their employer, only to have this overruled by blanket protocols or dismissed as not in line with the manager’s idea of optimal working arrangements. If you’re unable to accept an answer different to what you were expecting or unwilling to act on it once you do, then don’t ask the question. This is the quickest way to erode trust and start to put in motion the very things that our study found both employers and employees said they saw as challenges. If you’re asking to inform decision making, make clear to staff that their exact preferred arrangement may not be where you land.

That means deeply listening to the views, concerns and ideas of employees and business leaders alike, and acknowledging that everyone is figuring this out as we go but ultimately the intention is the same – to deliver the best possible working environment that produces the best possible outcomes.

3. Caution on notions of “productivity”

According to our study and many like it, everyone agrees that working from home without distractions and interruptions is fantastic for getting things done, for ticking through the to-do list with the efficiency and precision of a modern machine. But I challenge this as the only measure of “productivity” if we’re looking at what constitutes the best possible outcomes.

The definition of productivity is, “the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input”. So, working from home has produced insanely good metrics on output but are we getting the right inputs to create the best outcomes?

While the incidental side chat in the kitchen or idea yelled over a partition might be distracting, it’s also where ideas are sparked, and concepts challenged. Sure, there are always moments when you’re on a deadline and need to produce a 30-page strategy or report but ensuring that you’ve sought the right inputs to make that report the best it can be still matters.

Working from home or in a hybrid format doesn’t change the 80/20 rule in planning and preparing appropriately and it certainly shouldn’t dictate quantity and getting sh*t done over consideration, insights, collaboration and all those things that influence the quality of the output.

4. You say socialising I say collaborating – what’s important is connection equals performance

This brings me to my next point. Employees in our study talked about the lack of social connection with work colleagues as a big challenge they saw of hybrid working and working from home. Equally, employers identified collaboration and workplace culture as being potentially negatively impacted by a future hybrid working model.

Effectively, they’re saying the same thing and don’t even realise it (back to my quest for the perfect descriptive word here…)

What is most valued in any modern workplace are the connections that make is the best possible workplace environment that produces the best possible outcomes. In this regard, you cannot separate the social connection from collaboration or culture, it’s just that employees express this in terms of social value and employers express it as workplace value.

The concept of only coming into an office environment to socialise and support workplace culture is complete anathema to how we currently think and arguably to how businesses actually function. But, if we agree that these connections create value to the wellbeing of people and the wellbeing of business, suddenly wellbeing becomes a key economic and performance indicator and a business imperative.

5. It’s not you, but me who needs to change

Without unravelling a century of management theory and industrial relations methodology, what the study shows us is that traditionally held notions of management and leadership are being challenged and likely need to change.

While we assume both disciplines are designed to create efficiency, motivate, inspire and manage optimal performance, we know that this isn’t (always) the case. Doing so remotely was a challenge, doing this in a hybrid format where some staff are on site and others at home, becomes almost impossible.

It will require ongoing experimentation, openness, new forms of communication, training, an absolute commitment to “showing up” and levels of empathy we’ve not previously appreciated.

6. Inflexible flexibility breaks

With all the talk up to now about our own preferred working arrangements and the overlay of businesses trying to develop plans that work for them (and are safe), we have potentially created an overly complex and unrealistic approach to flexible working.

Flexible means just that, flexible. It is how far we can bend and stretch and move without breaking.

When embarking on a conversation about flexible working in a world that is so uncertain and ever changing, we must accept that flexibility is not just about what works for us and our lifestyles, or what works for our organisations to run efficiently and profitably, or even what is safe and compliant. It means constant shaping, adapting, evolving, compromising, and talking.

A rigid approach to flexible working makes an oxymoron out of us all.

7. Not about expectations but agreement making

There are innumerable podcasts and TED Talks that examine the concepts of expectation setting versus agreement making. As leaders and managers, we often assume that if we’re clear on the expectations we are setting then we have a specific and measurable baseline on which to measure performance.

But think for a moment about operating in a truly trusting and flexible hybrid working environment.

Imagine that we agree collectively that these are our priorities for the week or month or quarter, and then discuss openly how best we can achieve these, where these tasks are best performed (at home or in a shared working space), who should be involved, and what specifically we will deliver. Then we trust each other to undertake the project with full autonomy about location, checking in occasionally to stay on track, offering input and troubleshooting any issues.

In exchange for that level of trust and autonomy and flexibility about home or office, you agree to a specific outcome and you also commit to ensuring the right people have collaborated on the task at the right time.

By agreeing to ways of working collectively rather than simply setting expectations of time in or out of the workplace, we are starting to shift the conversation into one about high performance and optimal working rhythms. It is a powerful way to think about the future of work but equally incredibly scary for bosses used to setting expectations and to staff used to receiving direct and overt instructions.

Having a mix of teams in and out of the office at various times and using the office in new ways means this emphasis on shared responsibility and collective decision making becomes paramount to success, but also critical to workplace culture and collaboration.

8. Get excited, because the possibilities are extraordinary

With all the talk of a ‘new normal’ and working from home being here to stay, it is easy to assume that we have entered a new work utopia that seemed previously unattainable. The big question is, has COVID been the catalyst needed to shift workplace practices for good or is the threat of a global health crisis a necessary ingredient to keep the focus on hybrid working as a public health imperative?

The reality I am sure lies somewhere in the middle, as restrictions ease and people start returning to the office. But rather than dwell on the negative impacts and challenges of navigating the next few months and years of recovery, let us take a step back and get excited.

This is a liberating and empowering conversation to engage in. Whether it is about performance outcomes, peer mentoring opportunities, diverse and inclusive hiring practices, office design, the future of home design, project management best practice, the importance of connection and human interaction, empathy and understanding, self-awareness and vulnerability as leaders, business strategy, new business possibilities, supporting technology, legal frameworks, employee benefits, you name it.

What an opportunity we have ahead of us.

The “Adapting to the New Normal: Hybrid Working 2021” full report is available here

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