Future of Work Leadership

Will the well intentioned hybrid re-imagined future of work lead to a disengaged, disconnected and disgruntled workforce?

work from home office setup
Tracey Foulkes
Written by Tracey Foulkes

Though working remotely may just go down as the greatest experiment of the century, companies everywhere are forced to take a full, holistic outside in (and inside out) view to decide what is the best tactical and strategic way forward for them and their workforce. It’s about time!

My sense on the street is that businesses and employees are now anxious to just get the train back on the track. Employers and employees alike, both searching for the right solutions to bring some sort of stability back to work. Though it was nice for a time to be more forgiving of each-other than usual; we’ve had enough of lowering our standards to accept suboptimal systems, disconnected teams, cats and/or kids joining meetings and upside-down schedules.

With everyone shouting for stability and a clear view of what lies ahead, employees want to take charge of their careers and are turning to their employers for a clear map to help them navigate. In most cases I’m coming across this responsibility is falling on the very broad shoulders of people teams across the world. An exciting challenge that we have to get right; the alternative is a high risk disengaged, disconnected and disgruntled future workforce. Not good.

So I’ve been checking in with my HR colleagues across the world. Leaders of teams of 50 through 500 to 50,000 employees. Speaking virtually, I’ve met with them in their homes, over coffee at an outdoor table and most, dancing the empty hallways of their physical office. Employee safety and comfort are first and foremost on everyone’s agenda; despite this, attrition rates are through the ceiling which is proving an interesting juggle against a backdrop of rapid hiring and having to re-build the virtual plane whilst it’s in flight.

Without exception, everyone that I connected with, has made a call on where their future work places will be. Some have chosen the fully remote, work from anywhere (WFA) model, whilst a few are adamant that they will return to fully in-office as soon as it is safe to do so. The majority however, by a landslide, have chosen to move to a hybrid model. Most on a 60/40 split with 2 days mandated as in office, each week. But now, as we start reinventing the new rules of work, the fun and games really begin!

When Claire and I started WNDYR in 2016, we made a conscious and intentional decision to build a fully remote company. Somewhere in the archives, there is a blog post I wrote expressing my fear of the challenge of what lay ahead. This was a bold move “back in the day” but we wanted the flexibility to hire the best team regardless of location and the freedom to work around our lives. We built this from the ground up.

As we expanded across geography’s we got to experimenting with fully virtual and hybrid scenarios. We did the 2 days in office, 3 days WFH. We experimented with our technical team in office full time with the rest of the team virtual. Some weeks worked better than others. On their own, our team naturally shifted back to fully remote. We cancelled our leases and chose to move forward as virtual, WFA.

So speaking from experience and not speculation, I feel quite confident when sharing that hybrid teams have very distinct flaws all to their own. While HR departments are working relentlessly to get things setup to run sweetly for this re-imagined way of work, the efficacy or failure will only be felt around 2 years from now, once the Covid-19 dust has hopefully truly settled.

With too many blog posts, webinars, podcasts and e-books hitting our email inboxes on the hybrid work model right now, most written by teams navigating this new way of work, journalists, or consultants without the contextual (painful) practical experience; many of my colleagues are vacillating between paralysis and “let’s just get this shit done”.

So, for the love of all my busy colleagues who are hoping to get this right; many of whom are way way smarter than me, here’s a list from my learnings over the past 5 years. And yes, you can just read the bold headings if you are too busy right now.

Re-visit your employee experience (EX) across your employee journey for alignment across your new place of work model

I’m putting this first assuming you’ve plugged your most critical holes. Speaking from experience, the slap in the face is that despite your excessive HR workload, the foundational EX that once worked for you so well, is no longer going to cut it I am afraid. Once you have picked your ego up off the floor, you want to go back to the digital drawing board and take a future focused look inwards at what your team really experience across their journey with you; from hiring to retiring.

You already know by now that while you may go faster alone, you really need to get the team involved in the process. It’s their journey after-all. Unless you can safely get them into a very well ventilated room, I suggest you run multiple mini virtual workshop sessions where everyone is invited (make attendance optional) to understand their sentiment, needs and insights to help you better identify opportunities. Prioritise where you need to focus first and backlog the rest to roll out incrementally over the next 9-12 months (yes, it WILL take this long). Get the best basics in place to keep your current team content, but keep your focus on building for your future humans too. Who are they? What do they need and want?

ALL policies and procedures need to be fully re-imagined, tweaking is not an option

As a rule I’ve always believed that companies outgrow their infrastructure at least every 2 years, for start ups and rapidly growing organisations, this time frame is considerably shorter. This means you can’t become complacent with what, how, when and where you work; ever. In normal circumstances a quick review and tweak is often all that’s needed. In today’s circumstances, (even if you are not transitioning to a new type of work place) iteration means full re-imagining. I mean, strip it out, and start again.

While creating policies, HR leaders are sharing their employee concerns about hybridity. In a recent workshop with over 300 soon to be hybrid-ers, their main concerns jumped out of a word cloud as: connection, community, inclusion, fun, asynchronous and flexibility. Knowing that humans are driven by purpose and meaning; the highlighted words are not surprising at all. But do our hybridity policies allow for this?

At a bare minimum, when choosing a hybrid model, you have to consider that everyone (E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E) is a WFA employee. That’s the only way to treat everyone fairly.

Untangle how you re-imagine:

  1. Onboarding : I know a lot of companies are choosing to keep this as a high touch in-person process but I recommend shifting this to fully virtual onboarding while keeping the newbie fully engaged. This will set them up for a hybrid way of work from the onset. There is little use in smoke and mirrors when bringing on new team. You want them immersed in your authentic way of working from the get go. While we’ve always delivered onboarding virtually, we’ve tweaked how we do this with each hiring round from new lessons learnt. It’s critical to be vigilant in ensuring content remains relevant and digestible. The EX needs to be one of great learning in a short period of time, while feeling connected to the tribe and getting onto doing the work they are hired (and usually excited) to do. Everything is new at this stage; make sure it supports your culture. Talking of culture, that needs to be reworked too 🙂
  2. Community & fun : This is a biggie now that water cooler conversations and pre/post meeting small talk and ideation is no longer on the cards (for some). It’s really easy to leave someone out of a conversation, meeting or activity if they are working remotely today, so get into the new habit of assuming everyone is virtual and community/fun/connectivity becomes an intentional part of your workday. We have weekly all team meetings (that kickoff with 15 minutes of open non-work chat), team playground Slack channels, and themed small group coffee dates to help us stay connected to each-other). It’s not difficult, but it’s not spontaneous.
  3. Inclusion : Yay that even smaller companies are taking diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) seriously today; but hybridity is a recipe for disengagement if anyone feels left out. Access to information, planning & running all meetings as if everyone is attending virtually, rules for synchronous conversations and decisions that consider all team members, across all time zones, remote or not; are factors you need to discuss, decide on and document carefully with measures in place to flag, nudge and remind when older habits kick in again (and they will, especially when you are super busy).

Oh, and before I sign out of this paragraph, if you are new to hiring team across the globe (or just across states even), know that when it comes to remuneration; salary, bonus and benefits; equality is critical though highly challenging; made more complicated by complex and varied country employment laws. (Reach out if you want to know how we’ve approached this. I think it’s a little different to what I’ve seen play out across other orgs we interact with, but it’s easy to explain and administer and so far is holding up well).

Re-examine your technology stack. Hybridity calls for a digital first approach.

Let’s start off with the basic assumption that you’ve provided your full workforce with the tools they need to be successful at doing their job both at work and at home (yay for laptops). We provide laptops, screens where necessary and a stipend for headphones of their choice as a standard. I’d love to add a home office allowance for chair, standing desk, fresh paint or whatever … but that is not yet in our budgets; hoping you can add it to yours! But now let’s talk technology.

Yes, I can go crazy with this list so I am going to share just the basics with a focus on the five areas of work: meetings, time, task, communication & documentation.

  1. Video conferencing (where and how we meet) : We’ve all got this sussed by now but maybe you need to set some rules to streamline further. Camera’s on (always) is a good policy to adopt. It doesn’t take long for even the most camera shy employees to get comfortable with this. Access to company virtual backgrounds (update them periodically to celebrate a company win or align with your DE&I policy) should be part of the team’s onboarding pack. Make sure all interactions are run as if everyone is virtual, get your automatic record in action and a process in place to access this information. There is no doubt that there is less fluid engagement in virtual meetings vs their in-person counterparts, so add tools like: mural (every app should have confetti) & mentimeter or slido to spice things up.
  2. Work management tools (where we assign tasks & track time) : as hybridity means you can no longer rely on shouting to a colleague across your desk to get something done; you will need to adopt a less siloed solution and a work management tool (app) that works best for your team. If you can get your company to align on one single tool throughout (good luck!) this is a win. It means you’ll further reduce silo’s and encourage a healthy cross company collaboration. Nice!
  3. Keeping conversations fluid (communication) : New rules of work need to be clearly defined here as you move from a synchronous to asynchronous way of communicating. Tools like Slack are great provided you have some firm rules in place which accommodate different time zones, and minimise silo conversations. I feel it is my moral duty to also mention that email is not an inclusive communication tool. If your team or department are relying on communicating via email; rip off the bandaid while you’re reinventing your work practices and choose, onboard and roll out an alternative.
  4. Access to everything (documentation) : Again I am assuming you have, by now, moved all your information fully to the cloud. Make sure your folder structure, labelling and retention policies are revamped and in place. This means you don’t need to be disturbed when you are sleeping or playing with the kids when someone needs something.

I honestly believe this is a big and exciting time for company’s at large to reinvent themselves for the future of work. We’ve spent multiple millennia since the industrial age building on work flows that no longer suit us. If nothing else, we can say thank you to Covid-19 for this gift to reinvent.

We have a long road ahead to find our new sweet spot(s). I know you are diving in with blinkers off, and choosing a hybrid workspace is even more complex than it’s virtual and in-office counterparts and those need re-invention. There is no set way forward, other than the one you choose to set, but failing to put in the hard graft now is equivalent to building a high rise office block without any foundation.

Please reach out if you want to chat through some of the strategies we’ve tried and tested over the years. I’d be happy to dive into the details in upcoming posts as we all navigate re-discovery while we reinvent. Challenging, wonderful, beautiful times. Thrilled to be alive.

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