As hybrid working looks set to become the norm post-Covid, Elaine Burke asks company leaders with experience managing hybrid teams for some best practice advice.
Under Covid-19, some workplaces have gone fully remote while others, as restrictions allow, have welcomed a limited number of employees back to the office. While the practice has been introduced under unprecedented circumstances, hybrid working is set to become a reasonable expectation in the future of work.
In an Adecco Group survey of thousands of workers around the world, more than three-quarters said that a mix of office-based and remote work is the best model in this new era of work. And 79pc want more flexibility in how and where they work overall.
What modern workers want
For Denis Canty, global vice-president of developer services and technology labs for McKesson, the availability of hybrid working options has hugely influenced his career choices over the past decade.
“I selected companies and positions that would allow a certain amount of hybrid working,” said Canty, who recently moved to Limerick to be close to family even though his office is located in Cork. “I’ve been lucky to work for great companies who never created barriers to progressing my personal life.”
‘One could say these Covid-19 restrictions, in one way, are getting societies more prepared for the future of work’
– DENIS CANTY
Canty did on-site work exclusively for the first five years of his career and found this gave him a solid grounding before taking up hybrid working, which now benefits the way he lives as well as the way he works.
“Working in a hybrid model globally these past 10 years has developed me as an adaptable leader who thrives on being outside my comfort zone. I love what I do, so flexibility even allows me to influence globally across time zones without sacrificing work-life balance. And not commuting helps on our carbon footprint, which is important to me,” he said.
Technology has already revolutionised how teams like Canty’s can work across borders, and new innovations are coming down the line with the power to disrupt the workplace further. “We are seeing the convergence of technologies such as augmented and virtual reality with artificial intelligence, which is creating new virtual ways of working and living. One could say these Covid-19 restrictions, in one way, are getting societies more prepared for the future of work.”
The advantages of flexiblity
Indeed, companies that were already accustomed to remote and flexible working had a significant advantage when the pandemic hit. Firefly Learning, a London-based edtech company, decided to experiment with hybrid working back in October 2019 and head of product Lars Dyrelund was thankful for those few months’ experience when it came to Covid-19.
“We were prepared, and more so than we realised,” said Dyrelund. “The Covid-19 transition hasn’t really been noticed as much as I feared.”
At fellow London company Houseof, an online lighting retailer, blended working was always available to employees but was not fully realised before Covid-19. “We were not set up for working as flexibly as we are now,” explained co-founder Helen White.
“We noticed quite quickly that our old routines would not fit home working. One team meeting a week quickly changed to three, and working hours were shifted from 9am to 6pm to a more flexible approach where people worked when they worked best. For me, this means working solidly in the morning and on/off in the afternoon.”
This approach of designing the structure of work around what works best for the individual is also favoured by Dyrelund. “We are all different, and driven by different things. When you go remote you need to look at each person’s job and identify areas where we are no longer playing to their strength and try to find ways around it. Then you need to trust them to grow into their remote role and organise their day,” he said.
Structuring hybrid working days
But how do you organise days around varying schedules and physically separate teams? First, from a management perspective, you have to learn to let go in order to reap the benefits.
“Having a team working from home does mean that you start to relinquish a little control over your workforce,” said White. “Personally, I think that it has empowered our employees to be more independent and confident.”
With Canty’s experience, he was able to mentor his team when there was a mass shift to work from home. “I was used to self-organising my time, setting boundaries physically and mentally when living and working in the same place. That doesn’t happen overnight,” he explained.
“What was unique with Covid-19 was the choice to go to the office was not available. That’s when it gets tough. If working at home got too much [pre-Covid], you could take a break and immerse yourself in the office culture again.”
This is exactly why companies using hybrid models make efforts to bring teams together regularly. Firefly Learning allocates one day per week when most team members would be in the office. Scheduling with flexible workers can be tricky, Dyrelund explained, so workshops and get-togethers are always planned in advance.
Now, with Covid-19 restrictions slightly eased in the UK, the team continues to meet in person, in a safe way. “We use the occasion to be creative and collaborate. We make sure to blend work and fun when we finally get a chance to be together in the same physical location,” he said.
Regular face-to-face interaction is what sets hybrid teams apart from their fully remote counterparts, but these teams still face the same challenges when it comes to informal communication.
Software company Sigma Dynamics has found a unique way out of this predicament. Since its founding, Sigma has operated without a formal office space, with teams either working at home or from clients’ premises.
“Since the Covid-19 lockdown, we have continued with this strategy, simply replacing the regular face-to-face team meetings with longer video team meetings,” said managing director Colin Crow. “We are also now running team-building sessions remotely and actively engaging in events such as remote escape rooms, which gives the team an opportunity to work together on more social and fun type activities. We’ve found that the team love the ‘new normal’.”
Sigma also runs short, unstructured virtual employee meet-ups where anything is up for discussion. This practice is common with both remote and hybrid teams and allows for the ‘watercooler moments’ that are subtly significant to workplace dynamics and even innovation.
“You can always create some kind of informal office interaction, no matter how you work and communicate,” said Dmytro Okunyev, founder of collaboration tool Chanty and an advocate for hybrid working. “All in all, informal office interaction depends on the culture you build from scratch, not the location you work from.”
Rules of engagement
Leading a company that is building team communication tools, Okunyev understands the importance of effective communication for any workplace. His advice? Put it in writing.
“For anyone who wants to switch to a hybrid model, I strongly suggest documenting your processes and tools so that everyone knows how to communicate in both settings. Take the time to write a handbook for your employees on how they should behave and work in remote settings. This will also make hiring easier,” he recommended.
In its guidelines, Firefly Learning has a policy that team meetings should either be wholly in-person or fully remote. “It didn’t matter if only one out of five meeting participants were remote. If we weren’t all there in person, everybody went to separate locations in the office and dialled in for the meeting. We found this to be the best way to ensure everybody in the meeting was on a level playing field and had equal means to chip in and participate,” explained Dyrelund.
“Connecting virtually will never be the same as meeting in person, but you can meet online and be creative. It is just different and something teams need to get used to. But we found equalising how everyone connects is the biggest factor to their experience.”
‘Informal office interaction depends on the culture you build from scratch, not the location you work from’
– DMYTRO OKUNYEV
This equitable approach to meetings from Firefly is highly important, as hybrid working can introduce harmful workplace divisions if not handled correctly. If leaders are entirely office-based and fail to acknowledge their remote workers’ performance, for example, this can impact employees’ careers and opportunities and sow discontent among your remote workforce.
One innovation Sigma has introduced to keep internal communication flowing is a Q&A facility where team members can openly ask questions for others to answer, as well as an ‘ideas board’. “The management team have 24 hours to respond and 48 hours to take action on all ideas posted – this keeps them coming,” said Crow.
At McKesson, Canty usually makes sure that he is fully present during the two to three days he spends in-office and available for team interactions and one-on-ones. Global calls are scheduled for when he’s at home and, even though he’s flexible with appointments in his calendar, he makes sure to block off time for respite from work.
“When in leadership roles, you have to put your team first. However, to ensure you don’t burn out from the intense variability that leading across time zones can bring, you must put in structures to avoid this,” he advised.
“I always have one day a week blocked out for ‘deep work’, which is usually Friday. If you have an open-ended calendar, it is not anyone’s fault if they put something into your evenings, so I block out two to three evenings a week after 7pm to ensure work-life balance.”
The hybrid ideal
With the right measures in place, Canty is confident that hybrid working can be the best-of-both-worlds ideal that it promises.
“With a hybrid model, you get and give more trust and freedom, which creates even more diverse innovation,” he said. “I can’t count how many times my team has come to me and said things like, ‘I was out walking the dog before lunch and I had this idea for that challenge we have.’ Some people spark and work better at different times of the day.”
It does seem that for the 21st-century worker, hybrid offers the ideal blend of workplace interaction and remote autonomy, and its advocates prize this mix above all else. “All of the methods we have put into place do not negate the need for face-to-face meetings; humans are pack animals and like to socialise and be together. We will initiate regular [in-person] team meetings once we are legally able to do so,” said Crow of Sigma Dynamics.
Firefly’s Dyrelund is similarly keen to keep the physical connection alongside the remote flexibility, especially after four months where his team could not meet at all. “We probably won’t be 100pc remote, since there are individuals who prefer to work from the office. As the world opens up again, we will start to see more team members spending days in the office but will not be mandating office days, so it will be entirely up to teams and individuals within to organise themselves post-Covid-19,” he said.
At Houseof, White said the company has cancelled its office contract and is now seeking a flexible workspace. “We know that the physical connection is still important but also want to harness the confidence and empowerment that working from home brings.”