Deep dive: Seven rules for ‘hybrid’ remote and office working

Written by Seb Murray & Matthew Rock Tuesday 02 February 2021
When we do finally head back to workplaces and offices, managers and leaders should learn these effective lessons in remote, flexible and ‘hybrid’ working
Desk from above: with coffee, laptop, pens, mouse, notebook

There’s a chance that, come the spring of 2021, everything will just return to normal. COVID vaccines will be rolled out. City centres will fill up. Trains, skies and motorways will clog up. Pret will again run out of those nice duck rolls by midday.

But then that seems pretty unlikely.

“I think what we have learned this year is that we had a dysfunctional relationship with our workplaces,” says Bruce Daisley, a former Twitter executive and now a big-time business podcaster. “Commuting for an hour each way to sit at your desk answering emails – in hindsight that looks like an act of collective lunacy.”

Deloitte research into employees across seven European countries suggests that more than 100 million people in Europe have made the shift to remote working during the COVID-19 crisis, with nearly 45 million doing so for the first time. Many are not rushing to return to the office. Instead, employers are embracing “hybrid working”, blending on-site and off-site approaches.

CMI’s Management Transformed project has surfaced many of the management and leadership challenges that flow from this. To support that study, we’ve talked to a group of forward-thinking leaders about the emerging norms that they’re applying.

What’s apparent is that managers need to move quickly. Tim Oldman, chief executive of the productivity thinktank Leesman, warns of “sentiment drift” as the months wear on and employees struggle with fatigue, ever-changing rules, mental health issues and, often, an inability to switch off. “[Employees will be] expecting their employers to take the opportunity to make meaningful changes to the office environment that reflect their newly learned workstyle,” he says. “Inaction from employers now would be hugely harmful.”

And it won’t be easy. Leaders have a wildly diverse set of new skills to acquire: empathetic listening; cameras on versus cameras off in online meetings; whether to appoint a director of remote working (yes, this is apparently a thing).

However you decide to move forward, investing time and effort now will pay dividends in the future, because the new normal is almost bound to involve more remote working and less contact time in the office. So what are the new management behaviours that will be required? We’ve taken a deep dive into the future…

1) Managing by outcomes brings out the best in people

When Britain went into lockdown in March 2020, consultants at Deloitte had to adopt remote working overnight. This meant allowing employees to set their own hours and schedules around family and other commitments. In these circumstances, it can be hard for managers and leaders to ensure accountability and still monitor performance. “Productivity has traditionally been measured by how many hours people worked,” says Shivani Maitra, Deloitte’s global human capital growth leader.

Remote working is now changing the definition of productivity, she says. “At Deloitte, we’ve adopted a more outcome-focused rather than output-focused approach.”

And this is having positive results. The crisis has prompted greater technology adoption which, in turn, has made it easier for physically dispersed teams to collaborate across functional areas. With greater diversity of thought has come improved creativity. “The ideas generated by these teams have 166% greater appeal with clients than those teams who work on ideas alone,” says Maitra.

2) Lean in on trust, it’s the bedrock of hybrid working

One of the big fears going into lockdown was that employees would run wild. The physical workplace had become an agent of control; without it, managers feared performance and productivity would slump. In many cases, the opposite has been the case.

Twitter is one company that, in the words of Karen Mangia, has “leaned in on trust”. In her new book Working from Home, she quotes James Loduca, director of global inclusion and diversity at Twitter. “Trust people to design their lifestyles,” he says. “Work from anywhere is a tool to deepen, not reduce, trust across teams.” It’s a striking phrase.

The law firm Clyde & Co is also going long on trust and embracing new ways of working. “One might have thought people could become complacent; out of sight, out of mind,” says Sophie Wakenell, its global head of operational projects and change. Yet, because staff can’t make a physical impression, “people are perhaps putting in more effort to show they are still there”. Output among fee-earners has increased since the law firm shifted to hybrid working, driven also by a rise in billable hours. The importance of trust was a key finding in CMI’s Management Transformed study. “Trust is critical to productivity in the era of Covid,” it found. “The location that staff work in has little impact as to whether managers perceive that productivity has increased.

Critically, managers should avoid the temptation to micro-manage. “The less control people have in their jobs, the more they feel exhausted and estranged,” says Daisley. “If we make people feel trusted and autonomous, it enables them to do their best work.” Sadly, Paul Armstrong, an emerging technology adviser with the consultancy Here/ Forth, reports that he’s seen four times the usual amount of surveillance software being purchased in the pandemic. “It’s quite insidious,” he says.

3) Work is no longer where you go, it's what you do

Under a hybrid model, managers need to understand which type of work is more effective – at home (individual, transactional) or in the office (collaborative, innovative) – and then build systems that play to the strengths of each.

At Clyde & Co, they have great collaborative technology but many people are coming into the office in order to collaborate with colleagues. Up to 20% of the workforce comes in at any one time, says Wakenell. Sure, some of this is for reviewing documents (which can be cumbersome online) but a lot of it is for brainstorming sessions where a whiteboard, Post-it notes and a bit of good old-fashioned spontaneity get the juices flowing.

Home offices, by contrast, can be great for what Georgetown University professor Cal Newport calls “deep work”. “Concentration was largely absent from the open-plan office,” says Daisley. “Remember wondering around looking for a quiet spot for a phone call, or to review a document? We have to be honest about that frustration.”

The numbers suggest that the office remains an important part of the mix. A company called Free Office Finder has found that the world’s top tech companies are dramatically increasing their office footprint. Netflix is reportedly going to triple its office space in London. Google is said to be leasing an additional 70,000 sq ft of workspace in London. Amazon recently acquired the Taylor flagship building in midtown Manhattan.

Many companies insist the office is still crucial for attracting talent, onboarding, networking, fostering collaboration and catalysing innovation, which will all be crucial for companies as they look to recover from the ongoing crisis.

Organisations are also experimenting with office formats. Some are looking at satellite spaces closer to employees’ homes, saving time and money otherwise lost to the dreaded commute. This would also offer the chance to recreate that sense of community so sorely missed during lockdown. Big, open “collaborative” spaces are likely to be common.

“We closed our office ahead of the government guidance because we could see the infection numbers rising and we knew what it meant,” says Rajarshi Banerjee, founder of medtech company Perspectum. Now, with access managed according to local virus levels, the office is more of a perk than a workplace. “It’s like a gym membership – it’s there if you want it.”

4) Focus on workforce planning and middle manager engagement

Hybrid working demands pretty intense workforce planning. At Clyde & Co, Wakenell reports that managers are having to do more coordination with teams that come into the office, through the firm’s online booking system. Uptake of office desks is of course affected by external factors such as local lockdowns, but Wakenell wants to make sure that hybrid working doesn’t create dividing lines between people in the office and those at home. “Remote work should not feel like a lesser experience,” she says.

One way to avoid this is through learning and development. Clyde & Co aims to make sure that “people feel connected to us even from a distance and that they stay engaged and feel supported. We make sure line managers don’t forget to have career conversations with someone just because they are working from home.”

This is particularly important for middle managers, says Karen Mangia. “The real crux of the work-from-home culture falls on the shoulders of those who are caught in the middle – those who are asked to monitor and supervise a workforce they can’t see, while managing up to a leadership team that might not really understand.

“The centre is where your organisation needs to focus, if you want to develop a sustainable culture of engagement, high performance and trust.”

Mangia adds that “for middle managers to be successful, they have to own the process”. They also need the very best training and support. “I’m talking about innovative training programmes: programmes designed to help people remotely manage both up and down, programmes built around effective video communications, programmes assembled around mindfulness and wellbeing during this global pandemic. How else can managers battle their own burnout and recognise the signs in members of their teams?”

5) Listen intently, then communicate personally

When the world went into lockdown, the best managers started listening. As we move towards widespread hybrid working, this process of active listening needs to continue. While offices can impose a certain workforce conformity, hybrid working throws into relief an individual’s personal circumstances. People take the lead in designing their own working lives. It’s no surprise that companies such as Clyde & Co have been assiduous in running internal employee surveys.

As the international executive coach Peter Ivanov says, “the most basic and powerful way to connect with another person is to just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we can ever give to each other is our attention.”

Listening is a distinct management skill, and it may require training. On an individual level, Ivanov recommends these phrases to use for generous listening:

  • That’s a great idea!
  • Can you talk more about that?
  • What would that make possible
  • What else
  • What would that allow
  • Help me understand...

Hand in hand with listening comes communication. All the emerging evidence suggests that this must be personalised, regular and done with positive intent. The remote-working champion Lisette Sutherland recommends the following:

  • Use video regularly, especially for meetings. Video is great for sending complex information, she says. A video message can be much more effective than email. Many managers are also using audio or text messages.
  • Always have multiple communication channels. Certain individuals will respond better to different channels.
  • Make it easy to move from asynchronous modes (email or text) to live ones (phone or video).
  • Agree on the tools you’re going to use and be disciplined about using them. Sutherland warns that often, in remote teams, people will just start using whatever tools they like the best. But, she says, communication works best when a team agrees on a tool and the etiquette around it.

And finally, don’t forget to recognise individual achievements. “Human beings have an innate need for achievement, status and affiliation,” says Daniel Sanchez Reina, a research director at Gartner. “But remote workers don’t have the chance to get informal praise in the corridor after a meeting.” Managers need to give employees more recognition for achievements in a crisis in order to combat their heightened anxiety and uncertainty.

6) Be constantly attentive to employee wellbeing

One of the most vivid phrases in CMI’s recent ‘Management Transformed’ study came from Carl Ennis, GB & Ireland CEO at Siemens. Talking about remote working, he recalled that “one colleague said it was a bit like ‘sleeping in the office’ rather than working from home”.

“The thing that companies and employees have to watch out for is the ‘just one more syndrome’,” says Karen Mangia. “Whether it’s just one more task, one more email, one more meeting, or one more episode on Netflix, the ‘just one more syndrome’ is just not sustainable.”

According to mental health charity Mind, more than half of adults said their mental health worsened during lockdown, an effect driven in part by health concerns and loneliness. Many companies have chosen to invest in an employee assistance hotline, especially given rising concerns over domestic abuse and bereavement.

Anna Purchas, KPMG’s UK head of people, says the company is “placing extra focus on mental wellbeing”. Special attention is being given to younger recruits who need more support and who often live in shared accommodation.

KPMG has introduced a “buddy network” where new hires are assigned a colleague to help them settle in. The company also ran a summit for some 60,000 global employees who got advice from experts on taking charge of their own mental health and supporting others.

At Deloitte, they’ve ramped up mental health support, including making the leadership more available to have open conversations about how staff are feeling. “It’s not about offering a tokenistic gym pass; wellbeing has to be embedded into everyday communication,” says Maitra.

7) You'll have to run meetings differently

Perhaps nothing has changed more during the crisis than meetings. No one now needs reminding to turn off the mute button when they want to speak.

But beneath the tech details, some deep changes are taking place. At consulting company Accenture, three-hour meetings used to be the norm, but now they’re obsolete. Instead, notes Karen Mangia in Working from Home, those customer strategy sessions have been broken down into a series of five 90-minute meetings over the course of a week.

KPMG is encouraging staff to take conference calls on walks. This is to combat “the monotony of sitting in the same chair every day, staring at a screen for potentially months as the days get shorter,” says Purchas. In many companies there is a lively debate about whether to impose a cameras-on or cameras-off rule. Cameras on ensures that people are visible; cameras off ensures that people occasionally leave the room.

In Working from Home, Mangia opens up an interesting discussion about whether meetings should be recorded. She quotes Bari Baumgardner, founder of Sage Event Management, who insists that events shouldn’t be recorded. “If you come to an in-person event and you miss a session because you step out to take a call or you show up late, you don’t get access to that session.” Harsh, possibly, but it would certainly focus the mind.

We’d love to hear CMI members’ experiences of hybrid working. What works, what doesn’t, what are the main management challenges? If you’d like to share your story, email us here

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