Go back not even 6 months ago, and the vast majority of "office workers" across the UK spent 100% of their time based where the name suggests - at the office. For managers of people and teams, this was a familiar landscape and one that came with tried and tested theories, models, templates and best practice on everything from managing performance to supporting employee wellbeing. This was a simpler time, a familiar time and with the exception of a few radically thinking employers and the odd employee is given a day a week to work from home, this was normality.
More recently, that normality was flipped on its head and replaced with the "New Normal", a term that has gone full circle from being in vogue to being almost taboo at this point. Rather than being in the office, the vast majority of those office workers were now working remotely from kitchen tables, bedrooms and home offices up and down the country with only a few exceptions where staff remained on site.
This was a new, scary challenge and one that was written, blogged and vlogged about at great length by a great many people. But before too long, this scary new challenge had been firmly adapted to with video and collaboration technology coming to the fore. And so managers were able to adapt, tweak their processes and find ways to still apply best practice, drive performance and support wellbeing even though in many cases we may not have seen our people in the flesh for months.
What comes next, and what is already being faced by many managers and teams, could be the toughest challenge yet - hybrid working. This is the term being applied to the model of working likely to become the norm for many, where some days are worked from home and some in the office, or some staff from home and some staff in the office. If you're unsure why this would be any more of a challenge than having everyone remote, read on...
I'm conscious that none of the potential drawbacks of hybrid working are insurmountable, and logistical issues are always resolvable. They do need thought though. One that definitely needs thought is the logistical issues around a variable workplace. We have heard stories of businesses that literally have staff walking into the building with a computer monitor under each arm on a Monday, taking it home on a Wednesday to use at home Thursday and Friday, then repeating the following week. That's not ideal. There is also the question of desks, and whether to hot desk or to have people coming into their own desk each time. If the former, who cleans the space each time and where do staff put their stuff? If the latter, how do you get a socially distanced system that works with every desk potentially in play?
Many businesses have operated hot desk systems for years so there is a template for this, but with the health and distancing considerations now in the mix it may be trickier than first thought. Thinking through the correct set-up to keep people safe is a given, but thinking through the practicalities that keep people comfortable is also key.
With everyone working in the office it can be straightforward to promote team cohesiveness and immediately spot any situation where it is threatened. With everyone at home, it may be a little more difficult but at least there is a consistency to the situation and everyone being in the same boat can help. In fact, with people being pushed to proactively communicate it can actually be an opportunity to boost team cohesion.
Having some in and some out can complicate this. For example, if you have people split into fixed teams do you create an inevitable situation where people only really communicate with those in their pod, where previously they may have picked up the phone or called someone else through Teams who would be better placed to help? What if you have somebody feeling a bit put out about the team they have been assigned to? As a manager, what if your direct team is split - do you split into one of the teams or do you spend all of your time at the office so you see everyone equally? Could cliques start to form where none previously existed? Do you inadvertently create a conspiracy that there is A team and a B team, particularly given some businesses are actually using those designations?
On paper, this shouldn't be any more of an issue than it would be normally, but anytime you have people involved and emotions are in play, it's the small things like these can create big problems if not considered.
Every Wednesday morning we hold a weekly team meeting that by its nature involves the full team. Much like the situation above, with everyone in the building, it's easy to run these and with everyone at home on a camera it's also easy to run, but having half the team on camera and half in the room requires a bit more thought.
Now video conferencing with people split across locations is not a new thing, and indeed most international or multi-site businesses will see this kind of thing as bread and butter. But what if you've never had to worry about that in your business before? Is there a conference space set up with a mic, screen and camera? Does anyone know how to use it? If that's not an option to you ask people in the room to each sit at their desk and run the meeting as though still fully remote? What about if the discussion starts to flow in the room and the video software can't keep pace (we've all been there I would imagine). Do the voices of those present carry more weight?
If hybrid meetings are new to your team, making sure consideration is given to the right tech set up, the right format and the correct rules of engagement around communication will go a long way to helping meetings flow and keep the full team engaged.
Sometimes it's being on top of the small things and the little interactions throughout a day that is central to managerial effectiveness. Hybrid working will pose challenges to this, especially if there are any gaps in communication in the business at present.
Most would agree that clarity of purpose and consistency of message goes a long way to keeping a team on track. But what if on the day you are working from home, another senior stakeholder in the office delivers a different message or asks one of your team to divert attention elsewhere to your intentions? How long does it take for you to catch this, and how many employees will say no to the person in the room to follow the course of the person based elsewhere?
There's also the challenge of considering how your communication with your team differs when you are present with them to when you're remote. Naturally, those in the room are likely to command more of your time (and potentially grab more of your attention) than those based at home if that isn't carefully watched.
Personally speaking, I'm excited at the prospect of long-term changes to the way we work and to seeing the hybrid model become the norm going forwards. Change is never easy and sure, there a few things to think about and get right - the devil is always in the detail. Get them right, and the chance is there to create a long-term employee-centred model for working that promises benefits for everyone.