With companies and employees having experienced so much upheaval in the past year, it’s quite hard to define what a normal office environment should look like. For more than a year, most employees have been working from home and leaders have had to adapt to managing teams remotely. Now with the economy opening up and businesses returning to office spaces, there is a great deal to take into consideration.
Should it be mandatory for all employees to return to the office? Should companies offer flexible working arrangements and could employees demand it? The past year has proven that not only is it possible but also that it can also be very effective. It’s a very interesting debate with many different points of view and no single solution.
The overwhelming consensus is that most people would like an element of flexible working for the rest of their career. But what does that look like? Keeping in mind that what works for one person or one company may not work for another. In this post, I’ll unpack some of the key challenges and considerations for leaders to help determine what the best approach could be for managing your teams.
Benefits beyond flexibility
There has been a sense of enlightenment that has accompanied the shift to remote working. Despite some of the challenges there are many benefits. People that used to commute to the office every day have gained an additional two to three hours in their day. With that in mind, nobody really wants to return to the rat race, either sitting in traffic or on a train when they could be spending time with their family, playing sport or simply relaxing.
Technology has enabled teams to remain connected, demonstrating that as long as a person has a computer and internet connection, there’s really no restriction on where they could work. For many employees it has been empowering to be able to plan their own day according to their priorities and a relief not to have a manager looking over their shoulder all the time checking what they’re doing.
Despite the concerns that many companies had when employees started working from home, productivity didn’t drop off. If anything it was the opposite. Employees were more productive and many companies actually gained more value from their teams as a result.
Another benefit was that it broadened the hiring opportunities. Not limited by geographical location, companies could hire people who lived elsewhere, even overseas. This gave them access to a greater talent pool or provided access to specific expertise that they may not have had access to locally.
Key challenges of working remotely
Managing teams remotely required major adaptation. In a way it added to the workload of managers because staying connected with everyone and coordinating calendars and tasks all had to be managed remotely. In an office environment it’s sometimes easier to get a sense of how employees are feeling, just by observing interactions and behaviour in the office. Even then, most of the underlying factors are not seen or talked about, and what managers think is a minor problem could just be the tip of the iceberg. In reality the underlying problem is much bigger. With employees working from home managers can’t even get a view of the iceberg, never mind the underlying issues that might be impacting productivity.
Zoom fatigue is real. Managers and employees alike have struggled with on screen meetings taking up most of their day. Trying to find a balance between staying connected with everyone in the team and allowing enough time for daily tasks isn’t easy. When asked what would motivate people to go back to the office, many say they’re looking forward to interacting with colleagues in person again.
This is particularly prevalent for the younger generation where so much of their identity can be tied up in work and much of their social structure is linked to work. For them lockdown was really isolating and lonely and many are eager to get back to a work environment where they can socialise with colleagues.
What’s best? Back in the office, remote working or a hybrid working arrangement?
Many companies are at the junction where they’re wondering what the best path forward is. They know remote working can work, both for the business and employees, but it was always only intended as a temporary solution. Is it time for everyone to return to the office?
Much will be determined by the company culture and leadership. If the policy is vague, employees are likely to follow the example set by leadership. Before making a unilateral decision, however, remember that the past year has been stressful for everyone and most employees have shown significant commitment despite challenging circumstances. They need to be included in the decision making process because it is something that directly impacts them and how they feel about the company.
Some of the questions that business leaders could consider are:
• What do individuals want?
• Which roles are suited to flexible working and are there any that aren’t?
• How do we create a policy that is fair to everyone?
• How flexible can we be? What are the logistical, operational, training or management challenges involved?
• What are the impacts of full-time back in the office versus fully remote or a hybrid model?
• How are other sectors of the industry responding? Are clients and suppliers returning to the office?
• The bigger picture – will it work for the business in the long term?
Five Management Takeaways
There’s no doubt that the biggest impact will be on business leaders. They are the one’s having to make the policies, while trying to figure out what will be best for everyone involved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even within the same organisation, the situation and challenges can be different in different regions or countries. For now, while there is still a degree of uncertainty, it’s best to make decisions based on local circumstances. So what is the best approach? What skills do leaders need to be able to navigate the months ahead?
1. Communication and connection
In an office environment having regular one-on-one meetings with team members is the norm, but working remotely this can become more challenging. It’s critical that leaders keep good communications up with their team. It is through this that leaders will know what’s important to their staff, what they’re struggling with and how motivated they’re feeling towards their work. More importantly, how are they doing in terms of mental health and well-being? Is remote working what they want or do they want to be back in the office with colleagues? People communicate better when there is a level of trust and when they think they’ll be heard. When leaders make communication a priority it builds that trust.
Employees will have different preferences based on their experiences of the past year and teams may already be working in a hybrid model with some employees remaining fully remote while other return part-time to the office. The next consideration is how much choice to give to employees? And what will be fair to everyone involved? It’s challenging for a team to operate cohesively when they’re not working in the same way, but is it fair to dictate that everyone should conform to the same policy? Where directives are given for employees to return to the office, there may be some push back from employees that prefer to work remotely. Once again, achieving the best outcome will require clear communication.
3. Consideration and empathy
Many people’s situation may have changed. Employees may well have lost loved ones, or now have to care for elderly family members, or spouses may have lost their jobs. Some may not have coped with the stress of lockdown very well, others may still be feeling very vulnerable and uncertain. For others, working from home enabled them to spend more time with family and to adjust their work schedule to balance family needs. Having to return to the office 9-5 could completely upend that. All of these elements need to be taken into consideration by leaders when making decisions about working policies. Where empathy and understanding is displayed it is likely to generate goodwill and more loyalty from those employees.
Managing hybrid teams will require a commitment to greater collaboration. This will include ensuring that team members have the right tools and technologies at their disposal and access to information and systems. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for companies is when teams build up expertise but keep it to themselves, creating silo’s within the organisation. Regardless of whether teams are working remotely or in office, collaboration needs to become part of the culture. It’s up to leaders to create a working environment where collaboration and information sharing becomes the norm as this is what leads to growth and innovation.
5. Contingencies for changing circumstances
If the past year has taught us anything it’s that change can happen quickly and be dramatic. It has shown the value in having the ability to be agile and respond quickly to changing circumstances. Agility is a cultural element driven by company leadership. Employees will respond better to change if it is seen as something positive. When deciding on flexible working policies it needs to have contingencies for changing circumstances. When this is thought through in advance the company will be better prepared for change when it occurs.
Leadership has been challenged in the past year and this will continue in the future. How well leaders communicate, what level of choice they entrust to their teams, how they demonstrate consideration and empathy, how they support and encourage collaboration and create contingencies for changing circumstances will have a big impact on the company culture and how engaged and committed employees continue to be. Managing hybrid teams is likely to be one of the biggest challenges in the immediate future and leaders need to equip themselves to be able to make the right decisions.
Client Solutions Director