How to make hybrid working work

 In Change management, Culture, Uncategorized

How often have you heard we’re considering a hybrid workplace recently? This is one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic. It starts with a policy statement – this gives permission for the change to happen. It starts the action. You also need to test what works for your teams. To design a hybrid workplace you need to test new approaches, learn and adapt. After that come the behaviours, practices and culture that make it sustainable

So, who has publicly embraced hybrid working?  

  • BA has said it’s looking for a buyer for Waterside, its huge head office site, as it announced hybrid working
  • BP has told employees they can work from home for two days a week.
  • Nationwide Building Society is asking employees where they want to work.
  • Earlier this month the boss of IWG, which provides office space across the world, told the BBC he expected hybrid working “to become the norm” for many companies.
  • And Mark Dixon, IWG’s CEO said, “It works for companies because it’s a lot cheaper. It’s also much, much better for the environment.”

A change in working practices

We are at a junction. We have an opportunity to replace out of date working patterns and processes with new ones. And design a workplace more suited to teamwork, inclusivity and collaboration. But we need processes. Processes provide a rhythm that takes us from chaos to innovation and new efficiency.

Our discussions with some teams highlight opposing reactions. People are experiencing more autonomy through hybrid working. Yet they find it harder to decide on more strategic, longer-term steps. Such strategic decisions often require multiple parts, currently working separately, to work together.

We’ve reached the starting point; we have permission for a hybrid work policy (and let’s not underestimate what an achievement that is). Now we have to bring that to life and integrate it into the fundamentals of daily work. That will require new mindsets followed by some new processes, practices and finally ways of working.

Needs new mindsets and practices

Now that we’ve got the policy we need the right mindset. The requisite mindset allows teams to experiment and learn. We must switch from the old model of the boss knowing the answers to a model which liberates teams to have conversations where they design appropriate and effective work styles for us.

This will need discussion to look at what has worked well in the past and how to move forward. These discussions should lead to experimentation, people saying they don’t know, asking questions, listening and trying things out. And the outcome of these discussions should be a mindset of hybrid working. Not one that falls back on what has worked in the past.

We need processes and practices.  Virtual teams can have stronger routines and identities than physical teams. Yet, we still need to build these.  Ask yourself:

  • What processes do you introduce?
  • How can you introduce new patterns?

Finding our new patterns

Humans LOVE patterns. Humans have to have A SYSTEM. We love and need order.

Everything we do works to patterns and the order that creates. Without a pattern, without order, there’s a huge impact on the people involved, on their wellbeing, group dynamics and efficiency.

When we were office-based, our patterns made us efficient. Patterns helped us know what to do and gave us certainty. Through these office patterns, we have behavioural blueprints to make decisions, communicate and get lots done. And while this gives us structure and behaviour – a workplace can also breed cultural trust between workers and leaders. When this is negative, it can be destructive to productivity.

Previously at work, we had formal and informal structures to the day such as going into the building, coffee breaks, and lunchtime. We also had meeting structures (not always good – in fact rarely so), a decision structure and communication style. We knew where we were and what we had to do.

Leaders and employees often agree that many of these processes are ready for a rethink.

  • Meetings need more autonomy for people to say, ‘Why am I here, does this make sense?’
  • Decision making needs to create space for more equal contributions and a diversity of thought.
  • We need better processes for wellbeing and taking care of each other.

And we need to re-write these processes for a collaborative world of work. In fact, a different model of trust between leaders and employees can enhance collaboration and diversity of input. Therefore, our routines need to be based around something other than location.

Where we are now is that most team members are working in a different pattern and place to each other at the moment. And we are trying to rebuild a hybrid workplace within this.  As one leader puts it, “it’s a bit like being lost in space where we’re all floating around with no gravity.”

Decision-making as an example

When we went into lockdown last year, our teams were effectively given freedom to decide how they work – to a certain extent. Our discussions with teams found that they love this autonomy.

Yet over time, teams are finding it hard to make decisions that extend beyond their direct remit.  And often there is no consensus to make a decision hold. The outcome is that decision-making becomes unstructured talk with little action or movement towards an end goal. While operational and daily decisions may stick, teams have lost the capacity to make long term decisions.

And while the loss of a physical workplace disrupts these patterns – there is an opportunity here. We can introduce and design new patterns that work better on a collaborative basis. Moreover, these patterns can suit the new autonomous way of working.

Seeing processes as a good thing

Many teams we talk to have an allergic reaction to the word ‘process’ because of the connotations, the mental frame of control that comes with the word.

As Vicky Grinnell-Wright, Team Rules and Rhythms Coach from Ways of Working (WoW) Labs says:

Vicky GRINNELL-WRIGHTProcesses are often seen as inflexible, top-down and designed to homogenise. But, we do need some form of organising principles to keep us all safe, sane and productive. What we need now is intentionally designed, co-created  local rules and rhythms, designed by and for the teams’ needs, to enable collaboration AND flexibility.

If we called processes ‘patterns’ or ‘ceremonies’ we’d get on with them much better. That word process is just a bit uncool and tainted with an expectation of hierarchical control. The word pattern doesn’t suffer from the same taint. So let’s say we need new patterns, ceremonies, or dances to make things work.

Let’s look at ‘Self-organising Teams’ as an example to help us focus on the concepts rather than the words used for them.

Recently, there has been a lot of positive talk about self-organising teams. Now, we must be clear on the factors underpinning the design of such teams. These teams have been given autonomy and trust. BUT they work to very exact processes, routines and structures.  Self-organising teams often have MORE regimented patterns to help them function. However, these patterns are built for collaboration, not authoritarian control.

There are commonly understood behavioural rules on ‘slack’ and anyone who has worked in an agile team will know that the ceremonies and routines are tight. Almost religiously so. But people love them because they are built on the basis of trust and autonomy.

Replacing our building-based processes

We have lost many workplace patterns now the building has all but gone. But patterns (processes) don’t need to be building based.

Research has shown, for example, that virtual teams can actually form tighter identities than office-based ones even though they may have never met. But there are certain factors that have to be in place.

Teams need an online space that acts as their home and has all of the strong ceremonies and team cues to create a bond.  There the language and social norms create a shared identity, together with patterns and behavioural norms which demonstrate – the way we do things around here. That can be virtual. There is plenty of research showing how well it can work. Social media posts and the influence they have to illustrate how patterns, ceremonies and ties can form online.

Our advice

At Making Change Happen, we combine the latest thinking on team psychology, group identity and collaborative practices. We help teams create the conditions they need to have conversations about how best to work together. Then we look at the needs of today’s workplace. Including the innovative, inclusive and collaborative behaviours to make change happen. This change contributes to the big challenges we face today in building a responsible business, making a solid contribution to the future.

Although this sounds like something we’d all surely wish for, to achieve it is psychologically harder than you think.  Subconsciously we’re all getting pulled back to the norms we know from the past. That’s how humans work. We have patterns and behavioural blueprints we can’t just switch off.

The work we do creates space that teams need where they can openly look at who they are and how they work. We create a space full of psychological safety for a team to explore, innovate, to put forward crazy ideas. And to ask why we are doing things this way. This allows a team to move on designing and putting into action the hybrid workplace.

Your team can collaborate to explore what processes enable innovation, collaboration and inclusivity. They can consider what is needed to make good decisions, and how they can keep learning and growing and communicating together to ensure everyone is heard and cared for.  They can approach work afresh.

If you are returning to a hybrid workplace, book a discovery call to understand how we can help.

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