Remote working, normalised by the pandemic, isn’t going away. Powerful software tools like Zoom and Slack are keeping our teams connected wherever they are and, as restrictions lift and vaccinations rise, many tech companies are embracing a hybrid model, offering employees the choice of continuing to work remotely even as they pursue a partial return to the office. Hybrid work has always existed, but it has rapidly become the preferred model for many employees and that raises a number of questions that employers – including ourselves – are still striving to answer.
Many businesses have been pleasantly surprised by how smooth the enforced switch to remote working was during the pandemic. However, if employers are to make a more flexible working model successful post-pandemic, they need to make sure they have the right policies, skills and culture in place for talent. For our team at Paddle, this starts by changing the way we talk about work. We’re no longer talking about enabling ‘work-life balance’ but ‘work-life integration’, where each individual is empowered to work in the way that makes most sense for them. We are also trying to move away from thinking of employees as ‘remote’, or ‘hybrid’ or ‘office-based’. Instead, we are trying to build a working culture that is truly ‘digital first’, so that wherever you are working from you are ready to do your best work.
Trust has to start at the top
With fewer face-to-face contact hours between managers and teams, business leaders have to trust teams and employees to make the right decisions, without the old-fashioned in-person, over-the-shoulder supervision that they might have relied on in the past.
The answer to this is not to try and recreate a culture of close monitoring employees through digital channels. That’s infantilising, disempowering and, more likely than not, entirely counterproductive.
Instead, businesses need to establish a workplace culture that treats all employees as trusted adults who are capable of deciding for themselves how, where and when they can do their best work. Whether someone prefers to work remotely full-time, come into the office one or two days a week, or work full-time from an office, they need to feel supported with the right level of fluidity, flexibility, and choice to do their best work wherever they are.
The best way to figure this out is company-wide communication. Make sure that you are having open conversations with employees about how they think they can do their best work. Make these adult-to-adult conversations where good intentions are assumed on all sides, and where the focus is on finding a solution that will work practically for both the individual and the business.
This culture of trust is vital to making a digital-first working model work, and it has to come from the very top of the organisation. It’s crucial that your leadership team is fully aligned and committed to this policy before you begin to roll it out.
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Upskill your managers
Once you’ve committed to a hybrid or digital first approach, you also need to make sure your team leads are ready to manage in this way. Many will have already found ways to do this effectively over the last year, but others might still be struggling to make connections, build relationships or to ensure strong performance across their teams without that in-person connection that has traditionally been so vital.
This is, in many ways, the biggest challenge of this new way of working. There is no doubt that the technology is now readily available to support hybrid and remote teams. If you don’t already have the right collaboration tools or cloud services, it’s relatively simple to put them in place. Hiring and training capable managers is much less straightforward, so this is an area I would strongly recommend prioritising.
Managers need to be able to communicate to the rest of their team, wherever they are, a clear goal, mission, and purpose, that explains “Why does this team exist?”, and “What is it working towards?”. This gives clarity to employees, so they can connect back up to their team and ultimately influences what they achieve in their role.
One of the simplest things a business can do is build a toolkit for its managers that is designed for this new way of working. You will likely need to reinvent, or at least adjust, the tools and processes that you use to set and manage goals, feedback and development across teams working in multiple locations, or even time zones.
A management toolkit should also include processes for ensuring employees still receive the awards and recognition their good work deserves, and that it feeds into their overall development. A progression path must still exist for someone even if they work remotely 100% of the time. Equally, you have to make sure that everyone feels like they have a voice and feel part of the company, regardless of where they are working.
The last year has taken its toll on many aspects of our lives. At a business level, there has been an impressive resilience amongst teams and individuals to ‘power through’ while maintaining productivity. However, as a result, many people have put a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver – and that can damage mental health. With hybrid work, without the physical social interaction you naturally get from working in an office, isolationism can easily creep in and – worse – go unnoticed by the wider organisation.
Businesses should therefore worry less about the quality of work produced, and more about the mental, physical and emotional impact on employees. Again, this is all about the quality of management – leaders can’t just set the tone, they have to equip line managers and team leads to handle these complex issues confidently and sensitively.
Businesses should train managers to talk to their employees one-on-one about how they’re really doing; less talking about work and more about checking in properly. Talking about mental health and personal wellbeing should be an essential part of the manager’s toolkit going forward. The truth is there is no trade-off between productivity and wellbeing, because in the end you cannot have the former without taking care of the latter.
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We’ve all had to make changes to our working lives as a result of the pandemic. However, we’re now at a critical juncture, as we enter yet another ‘new normal’ and try to adapt to this new reality as individuals, teams and businesses. At Paddle, we are committed to embracing a fully ‘digital first’ model that we hope will allow our teams to do their best work and live their best lives. We also expect this approach to be a crucial factor in attracting and retaining the best talent in our (highly competitive) SaaS sector, and to helping us achieve our global ambitions. If we succeed as a digital-first employer, then many of the challenges of opening up new offices and managing a team across markets and time zones will suddenly be much easier to solve.
Of course, the right approach for your business will depend on the work you do, the industry you are in and the culture of your organisation. However, if you do want to move towards a more flexible or hybrid approach, then I recommend keeping in mind the three key principles: trust has to start at the top; good technology is not a substitute for well-trained managers; and focusing on wellbeing will boost, not detract, from productivity.