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In November 2021, over 60 HR and business leaders gathered virtually for our latest Conversation Series event, to discuss hybrid working and, the nature of ‘trust, agility and inclusion’ in this new world.
We began with some core questions, about how we:
Find balance – from exorcising the spectre of presenteeism, and working effectively as a team in the office and remotely, to protecting people from burnout, and ensuring a sense of fairness
Ensure inclusion – sustaining connection and belonging, especially across global organisations with multiple generations and diverse needs, and creating inclusive cultures when sub-cultures emerge that illustrate very different values or approaches around hybrid working
Sustain energy – taking the learnings and innovation, and the energy and can-do attitude, from the pandemic and carry them into the new normal (without regressing), and encouraging a ‘growth mindset’
Manage complexity – managing the expectations of leaders and the employee experience, which can be different and sometimes in conflict, and aligning our people’s needs with those of our customers
The future workplace will be about an experience, not about necessity.
A state of transition
What seems to be helpful is where the organisation as a whole creates boundaries (and articulates principles) for hybrid working, within which each team can figure out how it will work (and how it will work with other hybrid teams).
Self-managing hybrid is a huge change for teams; and as with all change, people
will have some strong reactions. To navigate such change, there needs to be time
to reflect and together make sense of the change, and collaborate and co-create
what the future looks like. Yet time to think is scarce. Trust is central to how people perform in this new way of working – and we can see that the psychological contract is fundamentally changing.
Experience, experimentation, and structure
We are seeing some workplaces shift from the office as a place of necessity to a place of experience, and many organisations are coming up against the challenge of configuring time and space in a way that maximises productivity, creativity and well- being – and supports business outcomes.
This leads to a degree of experimentation – to try things out and see what they feel like. In effect, ‘try out, fail fast, learn, adapt, repeat’. But there’s also an inherent tension between the need for practical discovery and the desire for a template or guidance to implement now, stemming from the practical paradox of wanting structure and shape whilst promoting accountable freedom.
We're never going back
There are challenges facing organisations in the new workplace. We need to help people to realise we’re never going to ‘return’ to the old normal – so we need to talk about work in new ways, and anchor work not in a place but in the person.
The pressure from below (employees) and above (investors, shareholders) to develop a picture for the future of work is immense, yet we’re trying to build the new normal whilst in the midst of the pandemic. A rush for quick solutions will not help; and our solutions need to be flexible – equality, inclusion and fairness are not the same things and uniformity can be a blunt instrument.
Organisations are reimagining the workplace – as places of innovation, celebration and collaboration, where quality, connection, community and consistency are prioritised. And with that, comes a need to re-recruit (and re-engage) our existing workforce, and find the trapped capacity and identify who we are not hearing from, in order to bridge our perceived shortages of talent. Further, different countries (culturally and regulatory) will need different approaches.
We’re not necessarily going forward either!
We may not be going back to the old ways of working, but it doesn’t always feel like we are accelerating ahead. In some geographies, we’re still at a very early stage of evolution – and when you consider the challenge for ground rules across time-zones, there is not a consistent view of the new way of working.
Indeed, it is easy to forget that the narrative of the ‘new normal’ does not apply to many frontline organisations: in retail, for example, there’s only the ‘old normal’, and this gap is creating a disparity amongst working populations even in the same organisations.
There’s a notion that perhaps we were only able to cope through the pandemic, to keep producing, performing because of the multiple-years of experience we all have. Many younger and newer people don’t have that to build on.
We’re still figuring out how we develop cultures without the interactions, the side conversations, the happenstance creativity that took place in old office life; and how we develop the capacity and skill of new workers.
The employee value proposition is changing and labour pools are reconfiguring
The idea of the hybrid workplace as a place of experience, community and collaboration, implies a new employee value proposition. The idea that the hybrid workplace allows our teams to extend in space and time changes our understanding of our available labour pools – we can now bring jobs to where people are, rather than how people can be persuaded to move to job locations.
Can we redesign our offices to guide the emergence of new behaviours? Can we use hybrid working to expand our potential talent pools, leverage our global resources, and offer additional career paths within our organisations? And do we need to re- recruit our employees to reflect the change in time and place?
Such hybrid working arrangements compel us to be outcome focused, bringing management-by-objectives back to the fore. Yet some senior people are struggling to accept the change and yearn from the old world of co-presence, control, clear boundaries, and visible hierarchy.
There is a no doubt that this is a great opportunity to envisage a new future based on careful learning from recent experience – and how we nurture effective organisations and satisfying lifestyles.
The human factor has returned to the workplace with a vengeance.
Whatever we do we need to signal that the future is different. We need to re-recruit our employees into the new normal and re-imagine our employee value proposition.
The role of people leaders is crucial
The human factor also re-emphasises the role of people leaders. We see the emergence of ‘enterprise leadership’ – a mindset of what’s right for the business first, function second. This in turn takes the focus away from hierarchy – focusing on the work and the people first – and makes the performance manager more of a people enabler and facilitator.
In itself, this requires an on point ‘tone from the top’ where leaders message what matters – and model it; as well as refreshed success parameters and behaviours (involving employees) to drive and sustain the culture.
Leaders can help teams manage their work-life balance challenges by explicitly giving permission to team members to manage their own boundaries and reminding them that they have some agency to say ‘no’. They can also demonstrate more ‘care’ by intentionally and deliberately scheduling ‘agenda-less’ coffee chats and meetings to ‘connect’ and create psychological safety and intimacy.
In many ways, there is a new normal of Order – Disorder – Reorder. Some leaders
try to drive through this, simply by working long hours and applying complicated responses to complex unknowns, when what would serve them best is the time and space to appreciate the nature of the change and to adapt their responses to suit the reality of it – in effect, the ability to probe, sense and then respond.
Many leaders do already have the capability and resources to be able to lead in this ‘new normal’ but they need to be reminded of what they already know – so all of their soft skills (actively listening, inspiring, team leadership) are still vital.
There is a rallying call for Leaders to show more confident direction and drive – yet also remain flexible with a ‘fail fast and learn’ mindset.
The sustained role modelling of behaviours by leaders is critical in driving trust and inclusion. A challenge we are all working on.
Breaking down hierarchies
The pandemic disrupted some organisations for the better – many have taken the opportunity to move on from the last vestiges of ‘command and control’ to a more trusting, collaborative model (which could not have been achieved organically or without external stimulus).
Organisations are finding leadership potential in new places – with much more focus on learning agility, critical thinking and sense-making. The challenge is how to spot these nuanced human skills (no machine learning shortcuts here!).
The breakdown of traditional control mechanisms asks leaders to trust without proof that new ways of working will work (albeit most businesses have been high performing through the pandemic). It requires:
Recognising that hierarchy is a managerial construct
Challenging the belief that leaders need to have the answers
Unpicking the past ways of working, relinquishing control
Relying less on just hard data and more on emotional intuition
Engagement and cocreation to drive inclusion
Flexible frameworks which enable empowerment to make decisions
Many lingering questions
Our conversations showed that there are still so many urgent questions that we need to find answers to; yet, we shouldn’t be rushing in to find quick solutions that may become set in stone.
Some of the lingering questions focused on practical questions, the ‘how to’: such as eliminating bias, supporting new hires who want to be in the office to work closely with experienced people (who may want to work from home), being more conscious about psychological and social sustainability, leveraging technology and gamification, innovating around onboarding, and fundamentally understanding how best to use our time!
So much of our discussion came back to leaders – and that authentic leadership is more important than ever before. People are – and will be – looking to their leaders to show the way AND follow through on their actions.
Leaders do, in the main, know what they can draw on and what they need to do now. The effort and attention need to be given to the how.
Significantly, the leadership challenge is completely location and industry agnostic. There is so much we can learn from each other as we’re all experiencing similar challenges.
Successful leaders are making time for people and connection – now more than ever!
Please do get in touch if this content has resonated with you and you’d like to talk further.