2020 was the year that work changed forever. With Covid forcing so many of us away from our workplace and into our home office, attic, or garden shed, remote and flexible working have seen a dramatic change in status, from ‘nice to have’ perks, to absolute necessities.
As things return to something like normal (in this corner of the globe at least), it’s telling to see how many organisations are not simply going back to the way things were. Managers and employees alike have realised that remote working is possible and has real benefits for both parties. For the employee the increased flexibility, better work life balance and opportunity to miss busy commuting times all make flexible working appealing. For the employer, the benefits include higher employee satisfaction and therefore retention, as well as reduced cost on space. Indeed, flexible working models can reduce the cost of space by between 30% and 50%.
In truth, as we have suggested in previous articles, this shift towards more flexible working models was already underway. However, Covid has served to accelerate the process, and as a result managers everywhere have to adapt quickly and acquire the skills to lead a team in flexible working. Having consulted for some of the most recognised brands in Australia and New Zealand on their move to flexible working models, we felt now would be a good time to share a little of what we’ve learned.
Communication is everything
Good communication is essential in any leadership role, though flexible working will require a leader to adapt their communication skills and establish new ways of operating. With the convenience of being able to pop into a colleague’s office to ask a question no longer a given, there is the potential for communication to break down. Effective leaders will act quickly to mitigate this risk, and to ensure that the move to flexible working does not negatively impact productivity. Establishing regular rhythms for both team meetings and staff 1:1s is essential, as it will enable you to ensure all members of the team are focused on the right tasks.
Three key points to remember when deciding how your team will communicate:
1. Make video the default
As much as possible, we’d recommend using video for meetings, whether just one person or multiple people are connecting virtually, as so much of our understanding comes from someone’s body language and facial expressions. Whereas the tone or content of an email can easily be misinterpreted, speaking over video leaves less room for misunderstandings. As well as helping leaders to give clear directions, video also enables them to ‘check-in’ on staff wellbeing; again, facial expressions and tone of voice can tell us more about mood than we would get over the phone or via email.
Slow internet connections may have made video more frustrating than useful in the past, but now that the technology is finally fit for purpose, we’d advise using it wherever you can.
2.Create a communication guideline
Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and any other number of communication tools have become invaluable to companies over the last six months, enabling work to continue in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible if Covid had struck just a decade earlier. But while they are all fantastic tools in their own right, it’s important to set out clearly from the start how each should be used. Agreeing as a team, for example, that videoconferencing will be used for weekly meetings, direct messaging for urgent tasks, etc. can help avoid confusion and irritation.
As well as facilitating communications, most work management software has a way to store and share important information. This has proved crucial, and one thing many have found frustrating with the sudden switch to remote work is how much longer it can take to find information. As well as a clear communication policy, it can be helpful to establish early on a system for how and where people can find important files, policies etc. and make sure this is clearly organised.
3.Keep the social element alive
Finally, don’t forget this importance of the office coffee break. The social connections made in the workplace are often just as important to an employee’s enjoyment of their role as the work or the pay. There is a risk with flexible and remote working that these connections are lost; indeed, many have reported the rapport with colleagues as one of the factors they have missed the most during lockdown. So while it might feel contrived and unnatural, build in time for virtual hangouts and informal conversations. This could be anything from a channel in your Slack dedicated purely to less serious topics, or a dedicated, virtual coffee once a week, where teams catch up informally.
While establishing and maintaining clear lines of communication should be a priority, there are other factors a leader should consider to make flexible working a success.
Tailor your approach
Leading flexible or remote teams requires a leader to take a far more individualised approach to their team members. In an office environment it’s common for the same rules to apply for everyone; in a flexible working model it is for the manager to understand what each person needs in order to do their best work. Those with childcare commitments for example may need to catch up on hours in the evening. While this may take more time and effort, ultimately it will mean your team feels valued and supported in their remote work.
For some managers, the hardest part of the move to flexible and remote work will be the shift from a ‘line of sight’ management approach, to one that is more goal-oriented and based on trust. Some companies have managed this hurdle by insisting employees turn on a video call all day to prove they are at their desk, or by investing in surveillance software that tracks work or takes random screenshots of an employee’s computer. This approach is far from ideal, and leaves employees demotivated and feeling like their privacy has been invaded.
Most employees actually thrive when given the extra trust to work flexibly from another location, or to manage their own time, with creativity, productivity and motivation all boosted.
Of course, it’s important to emphasise that the trust needs to go both ways; employees need to demonstrate that they will work hard and deliver agreed goals and outcomes when the boss isn’t just down the corridor. But if everyone is clear that flexible working is based on trust, the results in the long run could well be better for the company, and its people.
Flexible working will mean something different for every company, and indeed, for every role within a company. It is unlikely you will get everything right straight away, and you should be upfront and honest with your team about this. By being open minded, and actively observing what has worked well and what needs to change in your flexible working models, you will be able to design the approach that best works for your company.
Decide on a timeframe for reviewing the model and communicate to your staff how this will happen. You should also give them a clear channel via which to feedback their flexible working experiences, and to put forward suggestions.
Covid has merely accelerated a shift in workplace culture that was already underway. Forward thinking companies and leaders had begun to embrace flexible working models long before the pandemic struck, and with good reason. Higher job satisfaction for employees, and reduced need for space for employers meant this was a rare ‘win-win’ approach. By using technology effectively, trusting a team to work when not directly supervised, and being willing to adapt and learn, leaders can help their teams to succeed in the new world of work.
By Annabel Khoo, Senior Change Management Consultant at Meta5 Group
Meta5 are a consultancy specialising in office space and technology solutions for the workplace. We have worked with some of Australia and New Zealand’s largest brands, helping design effective procedures for remote and flexible working models. Contact us to find out how we could help you succeed in the new world of work.