By Sue Colton, Associate Business Psychologist and Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant
Now that hybrid working has become so widespread, many organisations are struggling to manage it effectively. In particular, many senior leaders would like to have more of their employees back in the office more of the time, but they are wary of being perceived as too controlling or old fashioned.
Others feel like their employees are letting personal preferences or personal circumstances dictate what they expect in terms of flexible working. Then there are those that just don’t know where to start when it comes to developing a workable policy.
Part of the problem is that, while the shift towards flexible working was dictated by law, the change back is up to companies to manage on their own without government guidance.
The needs of individuals vs the needs of organisations
This is a challenge because in many cases we can now see a conflict – or a potential conflict – between the needs of individuals versus the needs of organisations. Frankly, lots of people now have the expectation that they can choose to work however they like, while companies’ authority seems to have been stripped away after a long period in which it was a legal obligation to stay away from the office.
So where should companies start? What principles can they follow?
To answer these very questions, we came up with the following decision-making framework to help companies decide who needs to return to the office, why, and for roughly how long. This is not designed to be a strict set of rules, and we can’t assign a certain number of points to peoples’ situations because, as we’ll explore in a little more detail, there are too many variables involved.
Instead, we have come up with several factors for consideration that each form a continuum, to help you assess your business, your teams and your people’s best way to work. It’s our hope that the framework below can serve as a starting point on your journey towards wrestling back confidence in managing your organisation’s work schedules.
Moving past subjective opinion
The purpose of this article is to help people make better decisions and come to a logical and sensible conclusion that they can walk through with their team. Our hope is that you can take this framework and use it as a practical tool to assess your likely working scenarios with a degree of objectivity. Applied consistently, it will provide you with clear justification for determining a way ahead that’s best for your people and your business.
Initial questions to ask
Before applying our framework to your situation and your business, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions about your team, so that you can be 100% clear about the context in which you and your team operate:
- WHAT is our business?
- WHERE is our business? (Are you impacted by logistical issues such as lack of reliable transport, for example?)
- What FACILITIES do we have? (And have they been scaled or reconfigured to suit the current situation?)
- What are our POLICIES and PRACTICES generally?
- What BENEFITS are we providing?
Once you have your context, it’s time to move on to review each factor with our framework:
The hybrid working decision framework
|Office or remote?
|To what extent does my role require me to work closely with others? For example, IT professionals or people who write code can do so anywhere in the world with a conducive work environment and a decent internet connection and router. If working on complex, collaborative, or creative tasks, you need to work with others face to face at least some of the time. Examples of collaboration might be working on a marketing campaign, or preparing to launch a new software product, or constructing a building.
|The more you need to collaborate, the more time you’re likely to need to spend in the office. The more you can work independently, the more you can work remotely.
|How senior are you in your organisation? It’s hard to get a good sense of what’s going on in your business if you are never there. Pre-pandemic, many CEOs of large global firms spent a lot of time travelling. They built relationships and dealt with things face to face. There’s a reason that travel was justified – because they need to get out there and see their people.
|The more senior and accountable you are, the more likely you need to spend more time in the office.
|To what extent does your work require you to be in a specific place? Surgeons may be able to spend a couple of days a week at home doing remote consultations or paperwork, but surgery requires being in an operating theatre. Elon Musk was recently criticised for stating that Tesla employees needed to be back in the office. As a manufacturer, most of what Tesla does is site-dependent. If you’re in manufacturing, you’ll also need to spend most of your time at the plant – including if you’re in an administrative or HR role, for example.
|The more site-specific your business and ‘hands on’ your role, the more time you need to spend there.
|Who are your internal and external stakeholders – or ‘clients’ – and where do they spend their time? If you’re in Marketing and you need to spend lots of time talking to people in Sales, you probably need to be in on the same days, otherwise you’ll have a disconnect that makes collaboration much more difficult. If you deal with procurement, your stakeholders may be eternal suppliers and you’ll probably need to mirror them.
|Coordinate what days you’re in the office with the clients and internal stakeholders you need to work with most often. Coordinating when you’re in work also helps to break down siloes that could be building up as in-groups and out-groups form inadvertently.
|How new to your organisation are you? If you’re new, you need to be going to your place of business more regularly. Building relationships is vital for getting to know the culture of your new workplace, the goals of the organisation, and what your individual objectives are or should be. This is far easier and more effective when done face to face.
|The newer you are at your organisation, the more you need to be in the office to build relationships. The newer you are at your profession or industry, the more you need to be in the workplace to learn from more experienced colleagues.
A few key examples
This framework is just a starting point. It is not meant to be taken as gospel. Your organisation will have some unique aspects to it and so will your team. Specific health situations, for example. If you have a team member with long Covid, or with an immunodeficiency disorder, it may still be too dangerous for them to come in.
Here are some more specific examples that show how the framework could be applied.
Say you’re the manager of a rapidly-growing team. You need to spend more time in the office to help those people become embedded, to build rapport, to get them up to speed, and to train them. You may feel that you can handle all of that remotely, but you would be doing your new starters a disservice if you didn’t respect their needs by coming into the office to work with them face to face.
Similarly, deciding how and when you come in is shaped by your stakeholders. This requires you to understand who those people are and to come to some kind of common agreement about when and how to work together. Take the example of an executive or personal assistant. A lot of their day-to-day work can be completed remotely.
However, an EA needs to have a conversation with their boss about when he or she is planning to be in the office. More than likely, it makes sense for the EA to mirror those in-office days and be there at the same time.
What you decide is up to you
As we said before, while the shift to remote working was government mandated, the return to work is not so clear cut. In the absence of clear guidance, this framework should provide you with a basis for making decisions or having a discussion with your team members about what makes sense. One that can proceed within a logical framework of how best to work together.
After all, at the end of the day, that’s why we work, isn’t it? To get the job done as best we can. We all need to feel equipped to grasp these issues objectively and to take the initiative before bad habits become too ingrained, or inappropriate and disabling siloes are created .