Jim has a working partner and a primary-age daughter. Recently he has begun work as a freelance contractor. Meanwhile, his wife works full-time. Both of them work from home, although his partner does spend a couple of days in the office.
Jim can’t see himself going back to full-time, let alone working in an office any time soon. He loves walking his daughter to school, the chance to take her out in the afternoon, and especially the freedom to cut loose with her during holidays.
Both he and his partner are illustrative of people who had to work on their screens from home and now want to keep that work-from-home approach going.
A consistent result from surveys of office workers in Bangladesh, New Zealand, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US is that large proportions want to keep hybrid work, being able to work some weekdays at home. Most prefer two-three days in the office, in the middle of the week. Offices and city centres look to continue being quieter on Mondays and Fridays.
From a productivity point of view, there is good evidence (measuring indicators such as emails sent, and work charged) that the productivity of home workers increases by small but significant increments. That could be the result of fewer distractions, less time wasted in commutes, and less time in unproductive meetings.
How about the interpersonal dynamic of working alongside colleagues? What about the serendipitous chat over coffee or before the meeting starts that leads to the opportunity for collaboration or the spark that ignites innovation? AUT Business School Professor Jarrod Haar studied hybrid workers and found, relative to those working entirely remotely or entirely in the office, that they were the happiest and most innovative employees. Maybe the few shared days in the office are enough?
Hybrid work flips the model of work. From going to the office to work in a cubicle, to using the office for team-building and going home for head-down work.
As hybrid work becomes the way we do things there are significant demands on people leaders. The new reality is that different team members will be working different patterns. Some of the team might feel that their home office is inadequate – it might be a shared kitchen table or a grungy sofa. They might prefer putting in all their work days in the convivial office.
Some of the team might have young children, immuno-compromised family members, or other reasons not to want to show up at the office any day of the week.
The people leader needs to develop approaches to manage this diversity and ensure productivity, collaboration, development of team members and the team, and of course people’s wellbeing. For leaders, there is not a convenient one-size fits all model. The balance has shifted to knowing, empathising with and valuing all of the individual contributors.
In her book Sevens Sisters, Rikki Swannell emphasises the value of a people-first culture in achieving sporting success. Her main storyline is how the women’s Sevens rugby team won gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after being relegated to silver at the previous Olympics.
Swannell illustrates how effective coaches (and supportive teammates) understand what works for the different women in the team. Leading to team members delivering the results needed.
An excellent pre-pandemic review of the work-from-home research by Kristen Shockley of City University of New York highlights five priorities for people leaders:
Build the self-efficacy of your people – this is fundamental to people taking on challenges and keeping going. That means reinforcing the evidence of their effectiveness, ideally encouraging them to articulate what they are good at. There is a moment in the 2021 Olympics semi-final game against Fiji when coach Alan Bunting chooses Gayle Broughton as a substitute. Broughton has doubts about whether she is up for it, but is encouraged by Bunting and her teammates on the field, and scores the winning try.
Include people – isolation and feelings of exclusion have bad consequences, including triggering thoughts of leaving. How can you keep your dispersed team in the loop? Individual check-ins and team sessions can be more systematic and inclusive online than a random ‘management by walking around’ stroll. Check your level of emotional presence when you are connecting online: Camera on? Doing email? Using polls or quizzes or encouraging games?
Ensure that recognition, cool work opportunities, development experiences, promotion and pay and benefits are related to actual output and not face-time or efforts at ingratiation.
Don’t single out remote workers for micro-management. Manage all your workers the same with an emphasis on managing the work, not the worker. That means taking the time to clarify work roles and tangible goals. By building a participative approach to decision-making you trade off some of your power and build team accountability for results. The team needs to work out their own ground rules (eg, cameras on, response times to chat or email, meetings with other teams, agreeing to rotate a person to look after the team process). Articulating “you can rely on me” builds the confidence of the team to push for results while maintaining shared approaches. Rugby player Broughton describes what coach Alan Bunting said when she expressed her doubts: “Before I went on the field he said, ‘No matter what happens I’m still going to love you’.”
Give support to your team members to set up and then work in the home office. It’s more than a laptop and an internet connection. Work together with team members to plan their home office. And give training and support around how to make it work, including managing the other aspects of working from home, including family, flatmates or pets.
Hybrid working can mean that the world of work is a little more inclusive. Despite unique situations and individual styles, with your support all of the team are better able to participate and contribute.