Working remotely during lockdown has been hard. There’s been the isolation, the homeschooling and the Zoom fatigue. We’ve all been missing the water-cooler moments and the camaraderie of colleagues in our office.
But as the vaccine kicks in, the numbers go down, and we start to think about returning to our workplaces, we have a chance for a big reset.
Returning to work could be exciting but…
What people don’t want: the way it was
The general consensus from our clients and our own research is: working from home hasn’t been perfect, but the worst thing that could happen is that we all go back to the way it was before the pandemic.
Before the pandemic (remember that?), lots of organisations were against remote working, but the reality is that people have enjoyed not commuting, and according to a study by Sectigo, nearly 50% of those polled reported that their productivity increased since they were asked to WFH, so there isn’t a real case to make against it now.
Designing for the return to work
At the same time, everyone recognises the importance and the value of meeting face to face. My goodness, do we recognise the value of that.
As a result many organisations are considering a blend of remote and back-in-the-office working.
But… we know how to work in the old way. We now know how to work remotely. We have not got our heads around how it works when the two are blended. Especially when everyone has different preferences and concerns.
So it is not clear what the new blended, dynamic, agile working will look like in practice, which will be a concern for people when they are looking to bosses and managers for guidance.
As nobody really knows what’s best until you do it, how should you approach this?
It looks increasingly likely that most organisations are going to be thinking about creating a blend between three kinds of workspaces:
- working remotely from home
- working remotely but not from home (ie in cafes or co-working spaces)
- working in the office
This raises interesting questions:
1. What kinds of things should you be doing in these different spaces?
What work do you use each different space for? Is it different? For example if you’re going to come into the office, should you be meeting, talking and building trust, rather than doing tasks?
2. How do meetings work if some people are in and some out?
Virtual meetings require a different approach to face-to-face ones. The ground rules are different. The clues we pick up from body language are different. So will it work to have meetings where some people are in the office and others are online? And if not, what do you do?
3. How do you manage projects?
If people are in and out, how do you manage projects and keep the communication flowing so the projects complete efficiently?
4. How often do you come into the office?
If you’re offering a blend of remote and face-to-face working, should people come in once a week, once a fortnight, or once a month? Do you do a couple of days back-to-back? Or spread out over the week?
5. Just how important is it?
Whether it matters and whether blended working will affect the work, how you do the work or your relationships with each other will depend on your unique situation.
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash
Another issue to consider: if return-to-work is centrally planned, it’s not where the work happens
Most organisations will be grappling with these issues and starting to plan for the return in the centre – for example senior managers or an OD team – and then telling their people what is expected of them.
There is a risk here because the work is not done in the centre. Nor is the value created there. If you legislate too rigidly you may restrict people’s ability to contribute effectively because only the people who do the work fully understand what they need.
For example Google have announced that from September staff will be expected to show up for 3 days a week, and will have to formally apply if they want to work remotely more than that. That seems too heavy to us.
There is balance to be struck between total freedom and total control over the way people manage their work.
If your organisation prefers control and wants people to come into the office, you may find people are less willing to comply when they know there is an alternative that can be just as productive.
Our advice is not to legislate too heavily. Better to create a flexible framework that people can adapt to suit themselves. But that has to be worked out at a team level, making it very clear how much flexibility people can have.
So if you are building guidance for your organisation, we recommend you start with a conversation with your team that explores:
- What are your expectations of each other?
- What have you learned over the last 12 months?
- How, where, and what platforms do you use?
- How frequently should you be communicating? And what’s the purpose of that communication?
- What should you do when you’re together?
- How can you work more effectively in a blended way and what should that look like?
To help you think about these post-pandemic returning to work questions, we’ve come up with a Return to Work Charter:
The Return to Work Charter
10 design principles to make dynamic and blended working better
1. Do your people have the right to choose where they work?
Where should people work? Be clear with your team if they can choose where they work or not. If you want to dictate what they do, you’ll have to accept that not everyone will like it. If you give people the choice, you’ll need to create a framework that meets the needs of your situation and that includes for example, attendance at team meetings, how often to face-to-face with a manager or reports, and how often to see key stakeholders.
2. Include the people at the coalface in your planning
If return to work planning is happening in the centre, make sure you enable people to have conversations about it at the coalface, because that is where the experience of work happens, and that is where people make sense of it. Having a framework that is open to local adaptation will help here.
3. Negotiate with your people for a happier workforce
When drawing up the plans, think about what works best for people as well as what works best for the organisation. Consider the implications of new policies on your team. What is it that makes your people happy? What is it that enables them to feel empowered, healthy, safe and engaged in their work without compromise? Find out by asking and include these factors for a happier more productive workforce going forward.
4. Agree how you will meet, and the protocols and tools you will use
Think really hard about how you create connection and effective communication. What equipment and software do you need? It creates unnecessary stress when things are unclear, or when everyone uses different channels to communicate. So can you agree how you use email, or when you’ll use tools like Teams or other chat platforms like Slack or WhatsApp? Do people know how to get the most out of these tools? Are you clear on which to use for what? And for example: will you use Zoom or Teams for online meetings? Will you aim to only have meetings in the office? Can you agree that if one person is remote all should be remote?
5. Keep talking about what’s working and what’s not
Keep talking about how it’s going and adjust things as you learn more about what works and what doesn’t. For example, back-to-back meetings and managing video calls and Teams chats on top of email and task boards can be overwhelming. You could all agree for example that you’re going to make all meetings 50 minutes long rather than 1 hour. Even if they’re online. Because you recognise that everyone needs 10 minutes to gather their thoughts and go for a wee. Those are the kinds of conversations you should be thinking about.
6. Put an end to burnout. No more blurred work-life boundaries
Working from home all the time made it hard to separate work from life. No one wants people working into the evening anymore just because they can and they don’t have any boundaries. We all want that to go away. Let’s agree it’s inappropriate to expect people to just keep working because they have fears and assumptions about what is expected of them. That’s what’s leading to burnout. So encourage your team to have clear boundaries, and find ways to make sure it happens.
7. Location, location, location: work out what to do when you meet
Work out why you want to meet in person. What do you expect to happen at those moments? What are the things that can only happen face-to-face or at the office? If you’re going to meet up just to have the same conversations that you could have had on a Zoom call or a Team’s chat – such as an update meeting on tasks – then don’t make people do that. Is there any benefit in getting 12 people to travel all the way in for that?
8. Invest in relationships: make the most of face-to face time
If you’re going to meet, if people are going to make an effort to come in, make the most of that face-to-face time. Use it to generate ideas or go for a walk together, or to build trust or resolve conflict. Invest in your relationships and it’ll make collaboration more possible.
9. Zoom is still great
Zoom and Teams are still efficient ways to meet. You can meet three people in one morning, and they could literally be on different continents. Because of this, working collaboratively is now easier than ever. So embrace all the tools and the patterns and things you learned during the pandemic to become more collaborative.
10. Design ways to break silos to solve your wicked problems
The pandemic has thrown up some very tricky things for many organisations. Entire operating models have been knocked sideways. To solve these big challenges people from across the organisation – with diverse skills and ideas – will need to be engaged in the conversations… Lots of organisations are not good at these cross-silo challenges. So when you go back, design into your plans new ways of intermingling, collaborating and meeting people, so that you can find the best solutions to these challenges.
A framework is the first bit, managers also need support
Having the right framework for returning to work is essential.
To implement the plan in a way that will work, you also need to support managers to have the conversations with their teams – to make sense of it for the work they do, the dynamic of their group, and the needs of their individuals and stakeholders.
Are your managers confident to have conversations like this? Do they need some support to be able to use the framework? Many will but some might need help.
Going back to the office might reveal bigger cracks