Until fairly recently, remote working was always a bit of a novelty. Perhaps you were on a small team of remote workers or the rare individual that worked remotely and had to educate colleagues and peers on how to best communicate and collaborate with you. Or, perhaps you worked for one of the handful of large organizations with widespread remote working policies, many of which reverted to in-office policies in highly-publicized turnarounds before COVID suddenly made remote working the norm.
When in-office work was the standard, it was relatively easy to treat remote workers as “second class citizens,” whether intentionally or unintentionally. Technophobes could safely ignore tools like Teams and Slack while dropping less-than-subtle hints that remote workers could always come into the office if they wanted a better experience.
With most knowledge workers forced to adapt to remote working rapidly, no longer could one feign ignorance of how to find the right document on Slack or how to connect to a Zoom meeting. In a stark role reversal, the few workers going to physical offices find themselves chained to their laptops, webcams, and headphones, participating in video conferences with remote workers rather than in-person meetings with the entire team. Essentially, they’re working remotely from company real estate.
Hybrid Becomes Normal
Too many companies have struggled with the rather myopic debate of what constitutes a “hybrid model,” producing presentations, policies, and procedures for what most workers have intuitively developed. We gave our workers the freedom to figure out how to remain productive in the face of uncertainty, and trying to wrap restrictions around what has largely been successful is an exercise in futility.
So too, may be attempting to apply rigid definitions of hybrid working models. Mandating a certain number of days in the office is a recipe for damaging trust unless there is a compelling reason why such a policy might make work easier or more efficient for a remote worker. As leaders, we’ve essentially asked that much of our workforce turn their homes into a place of business. Expecting that we can then layer on arbitrary dictates will breed mistrust at best, and might push employees out the door at worst.
Rather than rigid policies and procedures, ask what you as a leader can do to help further the efforts of teams and individuals. Are there additional tools or capabilities that would make their jobs easier? Are they clamoring for some in-person interactions that you can help facilitate? Can you offer guidance or lessons from other groups that they might find helpful?
Just as your teams were willing to improvise to make your organization successful during a challenging time, strive to return the favor rather than forcing them to abandon what’s worked. Hybrid working need not be some special condition. Rather, it has been proven as an effective and desirable way to work for many people. Allowing and facilitating individual choice in how to work will be more effective than mandates in the near and short-term.
Always be Learning
In most organizations, there have been dozens of innovations in how, where, and when work is delivered, most of them developed by individuals or small groups. Seek to capture what has worked and use it to share “winning practices” rather than attempting to create a monolithic policy based on what has worked for some teams but might be ineffective for others.
This might be as simple as creating “photo albums” of interesting home office or desk configurations, or as complex as scaling up a workflow a team built using spreadsheets and emails into an automated tool.
The sad thing about most innovations that are developed informally close to where they provide impact is that they often go unnoticed. Your company has paid for these innovations in the form of the “sweat equity” invested in their development, so why not maximize the return on that investment by seeking to learn and share versus mandate and proscribe?
Integrate Your Partners
An often-underestimated source of remote and hybrid working model knowledge is your ecosystem of vendors and partners. Companies like BairesDev have been working across large geographies for years, and are generally happy to share anecdotes about how they’ve further refined their approaches to work throughout the pandemic.
Beyond anecdotes, these partners may have access to custom or off-the-shelf tools for everything from managing physical office space to creating ad-hoc collaborations across departments or teams.
Non-competing peer organizations, suppliers, and customers are also potential sources for hard-won lessons on what works and what doesn’t in the new working model. They may have already instituted policies you’re considering, allowing you to learn from someone else’s efforts. They may have met with wild success (or spectacular failure) with everything from mandatory in-office days to that snazzy new collaboration software.
Start with the Employee, and the Work will Follow
Perhaps one of the greatest innovations in how products and services are delivered in the last couple of decades was a focus on customer experience. Developing a detailed understanding of a customer’s needs and wants and identifying where and how your organization can meet those desires revolutionized most products and services. Similarly, thinking about how your company works from an employee perspective will provide the same benefit.
Simple tests like actually asking employees if free lunch and in-office yoga lessons are more valuable than avoiding 90 minutes of traffic can prevent investments in initiatives that might backfire. Anticipating employee needs and filling them will likely have better results than process maps and new policy handbooks.
We’ve asked much from our employees over the last couple of years. A bit of investment in understanding what innovations they’ve created and sharing those is a start. Following that investment with further reimagining of where, when, and how we work through the employees’ eyes will create more productive, more satisfied, and more effective workers than yet another debate about how your company defines hybrid versus remote working.