As an FD at Microsoft, Oliver Deacon was almost working in a hybrid workplace by default. The main campus was so huge, comprising an estimated eight million square feet of office space, that teams were meeting remotely within the office. “It was a strangely hybrid situation anyway. It was quite normal for teams just to spend a couple of days a week working at home,” Deacon told ICAEW Insights.
Since then he has become a leadership coach with a specialism in technology and the future of work. He is currently running a short course on hybrid working for finance teams, covering all the elements of managing a team in a hybrid environment.
Hybrid working can be tricky to get right and finance leaders need to address several challenges to make it work. The first is communication; striking the right balance between too much and too few touchpoints.
Building a strategy
It’s critical that organisations have a clear communication strategy for the hybrid working environment.
“Rather than just picking your tools, it’s actually about how we're going to communicate, when we communicate and structuring communication. It’s really key. That would probably be one of the main areas that people come and talk about.”
What that strategy will look like depends on the organisation. Finance leaders should consider what communication issues they are currently facing, and work with their team to determine how to address them. It’s also important to set a solid structure for communication to maximise productivity. Consider how that might break down across the week, and the purposes of each communication touchpoint, from the weekly team meeting to daily stand-ups and one-to-one check-ins.
In a hybrid environment, managers also have to consider equality. People in the office have a naturally unfair advantage, Deacon explains. Presenteeism and proximity bias can easily come into play.
“If you think about two people of roughly similar ability: who's most likely to get promoted? The person the boss never sees and just gets their work done or the person that the boss sees diligently at their desk. It's much easier to know exactly what you need to do to get promoted if you're in the office, in some ways.”
To ensure that you treat all workers the same, you need to consider your culture. You need to take a remote-first approach, Deacon explains, which doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be working at home all the time. Instead, it means that teams should approach everything in the same way as if they were all working at home.
“That means if you have a team meeting, you don't stick half the team in the conference room and everyone else at home. The team in the conference room have a completely different experience to everyone at home. In the office, everybody should sit at their own desk with headphones. You all have the same experience wherever you are.”
These are simple changes, but they will help to cultivate a culture where remote working is an integral part. Without this step, the hybrid approach will collapse and people will drift back to office working – which may result in a dip in morale and a reduction in staff retention. “You need to think about what kind of organisation everyone wants to be in and the benefits of having people work remotely.”
Introducing remote working puts your company culture on steroids, Deacon explains. Any flaws within it are writ large. Bad company cultures were exposed when organisations were forced into remote working at the start of the pandemic. If you’re going to get hybrid right, you need to be more explicit and thoughtful about your team or company culture, which leads to the next step.
Get everyone involved
Everyone on the team needs to be engaged and involved with the development of your new hybrid culture and working environment. If you treat it as a top-down exercise, you won’t get the outcomes you’re looking for, Deacon explains. Make sure you have a regular conversation with your team about the progress and solicit feedback regularly.
“When you look at the big tech companies and how they're approaching this, each of them is doing it differently,” says Deacon. “It's that combination of what the organisation needs matched with how all employees feel they want to work.”
Leaders need to listen, but they also need to ensure that middle management is engaged and following the approach that they are developing. The hybrid workplace can expose manager weaknesses, so make sure that you invest in management training to make sure that all managers know how to operate in the new culture. “There is a role for everyone across the organisation to play.”
Thinking about purpose and context
When you incorporate remote working into your culture, it can easily feel like your employees are working in a vacuum. They can become disconnected from the wider organisation, with only their line manager as an information source.
Most of the misgivings that managers have had about remote working – misalignment, a drop in productivity and motivation, more mistakes – come about because of this sense of disconnect. By clearly articulating context and purpose, you can rectify all of these issues, says Deacon.
“The context of ‘why’ is so critical in getting people motivated,” he says. “It naturally permeates around us when we're in the office. We take it in subconsciously. But when we're at home, many in the organisation end up in this massive void. It is critical for leaders to clearly set out the difference it would make for the organisation going forward.”
Create an environment of empowerment
Micromanagement cannot scale in a remote or hybrid environment. It doesn’t work to keep track of everyone constantly. You can overwhelm people with communication and sap their morale completely. Leaders need to ship everyone away from an environment of control to an environment of empowerment. Trust is paramount, says Deacon. Teams should use the auditor’s trust but verify models for their future management approach.
“You've got to trust people, but at the same time, we all have that person working for us that is never going to hit that deadline. So how do you build an environment where you can set really clear outcomes of what I want at the end of the week, and make sure both parties are clear about what will be delivered? It’s basically using a system of public accountability, with individuals committing to what they're going to do with check-ins against that.
Rather than focusing on blame when outcomes aren’t achieved, have a discussion with people about any blockers they have and how you can help to change things in order to get results.
This current move to hybrid is part of a wider macro trend: over the next decade, there will be a huge shift by all finance organisations and functions from paper-based working to a wholly digital, cloud-hosted approach. The pandemic has sped up that process, says Deacon. “Organisations have no choice anymore; we have to move to software that can be accessed safely anywhere.”
Insights special: Hybrid working
Moving to a more digital workplace will create opportunities – better insights using data analytics, improved decision making, new skills and talent – but it also comes with challenges. ICAEW Insights takes a closer look.
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