After working from home for over a year now, it’s time to look ahead and begin preparations for the future way of working. Will work be office or home based? Or a hybrid method of working?
By adopting a hybrid model of working it allows the future of work to be purpose led. Individuals will still have some autonomy based on the requirements of their role and the need to collaborate and connect. In this method, there are no strict restrictions or policies imposed on employees to how and where they work in the future.
In October, Microsoft gave their annual Future of Work keynote in which they stated that due to the pandemic we are now in a new era of digitisation. Traditional objections to working remotely and flexibility have been made obsolete as the shift to remote work has shown employers that “we can trust people to do their best even when there is no one watching”.
Across the globe companies have developed innovative initiatives to tackle the new ways of working from home to balance home and work life, which you can read more about here in our reflections on the new ways of working. Now we have to determine what the future of work looks like by adapting the existing concepts we have and champion the benefits (both of office and home working) to find the balance.
This process begins with managing expectations in organisational policies. On an individual and personal level, it’s about ensuring employees have good wellbeing, avoid burnout, set firm boundaries between work and home life and have access to suitable professional development. There needs to be agile options for individuals to choose a way to work that works for them within the overarching organisation objectives to ensure all objectives on an individual, team and organisation level are met.
Our prediction is that the future of work could be a hybrid of office and home work. In our view, the future office space would be used for:
Thorny Decision Making
Relationships & Cohesion
The space may not be a traditional office space, but it might be informal meeting room or renting out a public space for collaborative work to take place. In this hybrid way of working as well as time in the office, there would be time to work at home or in a local space such as a café or co-working space.
Remote working would be ideal for tasks that require:
One to One’s
‘All employee’ comms
This balance of home and office-based work breeds a culture and adopts behaviours that address the benefits and vices of working from home full-time throughout the pandemic.
As the vaccine roll out continues, the future of work and how we return to the office is fast approaching, so it’s important to act now. The change is happening now, our ways of working are still evolving so it’s important to keep reviewing them and remain agile. Be the change you want to see and lead by example with bold strategies that ensure personal and professional wellbeing is prioritised.
This is a plea to Exec teams and HRD’s not to fall into the trap of mandating the work location patterns of their organisation. Surely the pandemic has taught us that those of us with ‘office jobs’ can be flexible, communicative, productive and responsible employees when working from home? Throughout the last 12 months workplace surveys overwhelmingly indicated >75% of employees enjoyed being able to work from home and found themselves to be equally or more productive as a result, and the organisational leaders we speak to concur.
Similar surveys tell us our staff want to work in flexible ways beyond the pandemic, although nearly half are worried this will not be supported by their organisation and are considering leaving if this is true. There is a perception some ‘office roles’ are not suitable for home working; we have to challenge this as much as we can. For example, we have spoken to many ‘call-centre’ and ‘support’ workers worried they will be forced to return to the office; yet the service we have received from them has been excellent and we would have had no idea they were home-working, other than a curiosity to ask them and enquire about how it is working out – so far everyone we’ve spoken to has been loving it.
Naturally, when we are in a more mixed economy of working protocols it will be important for organisations to acknowledge this and find ways to ensure some kind of two tier system does not develop. We hope employers will encourage other flexible working options alongside home working, which can be one of the many ways to ensure as level a playing field as possible, and we are sure more creative ideas will emerge. We will almost certainly need a more flexible and creative approach to our reward structures.
Some organisations are seeking to ensure both collaboration and fairness by mandating ‘2 days in the office, and 3 at home.’ However this is not going to satisfy employees according to our research.
It will take away the trusted and empowered ways of working which have been so valued by many during this COVID-19 pandemic, and prior within some organisations. We need a global shift in focus to output rather than input, and a significant evolution in how we ‘manage performance‘. For those organisations who have not experienced positive productivity during lockdown home-working, we would argue there is an opportunity to learn from those who have.
Of course not everyone can or wants to work from home, and very few people want to work from home every single day. There are lots of benefits of being together in one space to build relationships, collaborate, connect, innovate, and solve problems through deep dialogue. Many people want to see and be with colleagues, have fun times together in teams in the daytime, and perhaps socially in the evening. Physically being together can relieve us from the sometimes endless and draining screen time of online meetings, or from the unsuitability of some home environments for home working.
Blending work in the office, with work at home, as well as from cafes, cars, client-sites, community-centres, gyms, parks or anywhere with Wi-Fi is what people want, to be able to be productive with their work time, and to live a balanced life. The key to success is CHOICE, in the same way Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle) built their successful flexible ‘anytime-anyplace’ trust and outcomes based work culture across EMEA nearly 20 years ago.*
CHOICE is about allowing individuals to fluidly choose where it is most productive and convenient to work on different days, and indeed during different phases of their lives; and to ask them to blend this with the (genuine not control led) requirements of their role, colleagues, and organisational purpose and goals.
We believe teams can be encouraged to discuss and work out the ‘office v elsewhere’ patterns for themselves, in a similar way that happens now when organising the rhythm and dates for internal and external meetings. We appreciate this will be a revolution in working patterns for some organisations. This may feel overwhelming and is triggering some ‘denial’ responses in some leaders and organisations. However we urge those struggling with the concept to think again. Insisting people are ‘office-based’ or mandating employees to travel into the office twice a week, is counter to the purpose lead empowerment workers now expect.
There is of course a balance to be stuck – the psychological contract between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the individual must come together in a harmony which works for both. Organisations should rightly expect their employees to organise and attend important purpose-led collaborative meetings with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders.
Internal communication and engagement will require a rethink, based on what we have learned from experimentation this year. We will continue to use more social channels. We have an opportunity to pre-plan an annual calendar of ‘gatherings’ which combine ‘physically present for all’ and ‘virtual for all’ events. Many employees described a phenomenon of ‘hierarchical equalisation’ and feeling ‘more connected than ever’ to their senior leaders because of regular virtual briefing & Q&A sessions, in which their leaders felt more accessible and personable; let’s keep this benefit by keeping some of the virtual sessions. Conversely some leaders felt more disengaged from the people outside their immediate teams; so how do we find creative, and some virtual, solutions to this challenge such as the ‘virtual fireside chats’ and ‘virtual birthday breakfasts’ some have experimented with?
We can be agile and encourage our teams to regularly review what is working and not working and keep adjusting accordingly. Let’s make it our aspiration to learn how to create high performance cultures in this flexible world of working.
We can build and nurture team relationships from close and afar to ensure everyone stays in good relationships with one another. New collaboration tools and technologies are coming along all the time to help us. If we keep experimenting, listening, and talking (face-to-face and virtually) we can successfully evolve to do this.
We can employ a ‘pull factor’ to bring people together through exciting choices about ‘office’ design. We hope to see inclusive hub-style spaces where people can collaborate, innovate, connect, have fun; and some spaces for ‘concentration or desk-work’ too if this is what is productive for them. We can create ‘neighbourhoods’ of ‘drop in tables’ and we might even keep some ‘allocated tables’ for those who might want them now, or those who might want them in the future. Flexible meeting room structures can allow café spaces & meeting rooms to be reconfigured for lots of different sized meetings from two people to hundreds of people.
It will take time to evolve our policies and collective working spaces, so let’s ask our employees to be flexible and patient and collaborate with us on this journey, and in return gain true flexibility in their working locations and patterns. Let’s get creative, embrace this flexible working pattern and unleash the innovative thinking we need for our organisations to thrive today, tomorrow and in twenty years’ time.
Will your organisation continue to evolve the flexible working options after the pandemic?
*We played a leading role in this project and can share the learning with anyone who is interested. We have operated as a virtual organisation for over 25 years, with the corresponding benefits including enjoyment, flexibility, and productivity.
25 years ago we worked with an enlightened TechCo who offered a super-flexible menu of performance management tools – one literally a ‘Blank Piece of Paper’ – with individuals able to choose what to use instead of the typical ‘appraisal’ process most of us recognise as well past its sell-by-date.
Ever since, along with most HR/OD/leadership professions, we have grappled with how to put human connection and conversation at the heart of performance, supported by the positive psychology movement. Much progress has been made, and many leaders embrace the fact that performance differential comes from engaged, inclusive, inspired people who believe in themselves and colleagues, and know their efforts and skills are appreciated and make a difference.
During lockdown we have seen and heard about brilliant examples of senior leaders being more engaged than ever with front-line workers, and of many other great initiatives including inclusive colleague-family-pet virtual coffee meetups.
At the same time organisations are grappling with many contradictions. For example whilst positive engagement has been high during this global home-working period, there is evidence it is beginning to erode as an increasing number of conversations turn to financial sustainability and restructuring, or the insistence on the target levels set pre-Covid & how to ‘measure’ the performance and productivity of people continuing to work from home.
Organisations are reviewing analytics about home-workers email/system log-in and activity patterns, and whilst we hope this is in an effort to avoid employee burn-out, we are concerned about possible misinterpretations of colleagues performance if for example they are not at ‘their desks’ by 9.00am. In a recent CIPD study 45% of employees think tech surveillance is taking place in their workplace; with 73% believing this will damage trust with their employer.
We passionately believe performance and productivity do not change simply because of working from the car, home, or local park; or from local cafés, gyms and other social locations when allowed during the ever-changing phases of lockdown. Much research has shown individual productivity typically increases with home-working options.
Although this may not always be healthy productivity, with the danger of over-working for some, and loss of human connection for others. Or individual productivity gains can be overshadowed by the loss of collective intelligence, know-how, and deep collaboration if we do not pay sufficient attention to important sharing, learning and reflective processes as part of our virtual approaches.
We believe those organisations whose leaders can skilfully ‘hold’ these and the many other contradictions and integrate their organisation’s needs with the individualised needs of their people, will be the ones thriving and full of talent for the future. And we think high-performance is ultimately bought about by working the many subtleties of the psychological contract between individuals and employers; alongside a strong collaborative and communicative culture.
We leaders have a lot to enable (not do) through our people, and to ensure our people ‘processes’ match our aspirations for agility and sustainability. How can the conventional three-pronged performance management process respond to these increasing contradictions we are experiencing?
We believe they can’t! We need holistic flexible approaches, built on the great experimentation which has taken place in recent years, for example:
Trust and empowerment are key.
We need to put the power of performance in the hands of individuals and teams themselves. Have compelling conversations about organisational purpose and ambitions then enable teams & individual to co-create their own focus and targets in relation to these. We need to collaboratively review progress in performance.
Continue to upskill leaders/managers to have frequent high quality conversations with individuals which include: supporting their aspirations and values; triangulate with any multi-source multi-dimensional feedback; and link this to the expectations of business-performance and likely future realities, and their role.
Focus the conversations on feed-forward i.e. what approaches, behaviours and skills do we want to encourage for future success in our rapidly evolving organisations. Looking back at past-performance is less & less helpful in the agile 2020s. Instead leaders need to become committed to regular check-ins with employees to reflect, learn and adjust. Time to review is not a ‘nice-to-do’ but an ‘essential’ dialogue if working life is to evolve positively.
Hold regular reflective dialogue with your leader community as a whole; on their progress in enabling the super-balance between organisational vs. individual needs.
The importance of paradox management has been heightening in recent years, and polarities are popping up to the surface even more because of this intense period of Covid challenge and change. Leaders need the skills to raise awareness through holding discussion about the seeming contradictions we face, e.g. control v empowerment, going back to the office v working at home, etc. Through these conscious conversations we can explore the tensions and how the benefits of both polarities can be maximised through a commitment to agile and inclusive ways of working together across our organisations.
Pay particular attention to leaders/managers who have typically avoided or find these conversations hard, and to quote a client have ‘gone backwards during lockdown:’ Create specific virtual peer-learning groups (cross-organisationally or multi-organisation) to encourage their learning about what can support their transition to contemporary leader, alongside facilitated support to put this into practice; help them connect with consequences of not making this leadership shift in the 2020’s.
Individual Performance and Team Contributors
Continue with any existing corporate ‘setting-expectation’ tools which your workers genuinely report are helpful to guide the expectations of their performance e.g. co-created values statements, brief role-profiles, online skills definitions, learning platform resources on career transitions, etc
Invest less resource in ‘training’ and more into formalised facilitated ‘peer-reflection-groups’ which can work virtually and at multiple levels e.g. i) enable people to explore their talents and hone reflective learning skills ii) build individual self-awareness and resilience iii) enable conversations about particular organisational challenges and paradoxes such as agility, financial sustainability, etc; iv) offer tailored support for any marginalised or struggling groups v) create broader deeper networks of supportive peers across the organisation
This last one is particularly important as virtual working research has shown working remotely can increase negative productivity judgements between colleagues if there is insufficient relational connection or understanding of one another’s contexts.
These groups can also support colleagues to hear about and experience the diverse talents of their colleagues and how to capitalise on these, as again research has shown these become harder to know and spot as work becomes more virtual.
Professionally facilitated groups can significantly reduce the need for more external counselling and employee assistance programmes, as support becomes more sustainably built into the organisation, even more so when a sensitive link is developed between these groups and the leadership of the organisation through a two-way feedback mechanism or similar. When done properly this form of performance development enables empowered adult-adult cultures to thrive in organisations.
Supplement the above with highly accessible and interesting data and information to enable everyone to constructively reflect on their multiple dimensions of performance; ideally using apps and agile tools, alongside more conventional methods such as 360.
Ensure your reward strategy is flexible and includes intrinsic rewards linked to individuals’ values such as additional days for holidays or volunteering, and can differentiate between people at the extremes of the performance spectrum (perceived fairness). This way performance management is both relevant to the individual and the organisation as a whole.
So, can we agree a date when we HR/OD people will ceremonially ‘rip up’ outmoded performance ‘management’?