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Hybrid working: how to manage the transition post-COVID

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Sep 2021

Kevan Hall has been training people in remote and hybrid working since the 90s. He explains the process facing leaders as they try to transition into a new way of working.

When Kevan Hall looked to book a course on effective remote working, he couldn’t find one anywhere in the world. So he created the first, in 1994. Through his company, Global Integration, he’s been training people in remote and hybrid methods of working ever since and has written books on the subject. During the pandemic, he watched demand explode. 

“Up to the pandemic, the big reason why companies didn't embrace remote working was the management attitude to control,” he says. “A lot of managers didn't trust people, fundamentally, to work remotely. That's really been destroyed in the last year and a half. People have shown that generally they're more productive and more engaged.”

There are still lingering concerns about community building and culture building, but employee demand for some kind of hybrid working model is forcing leaders to consider their options.

But there is no single right approach: creating an effective hybrid model is an evolutionary process. Leaders in all departments, including FDs and CFOs, need to get comfortable with a ‘test and learn’ approach. Businesses aren’t without individual hybrid models to learn from – international teams, for example – but companies need to work out how to do it at scale. 

“What most companies are doing is setting some broad guidelines and then letting teams work it out for themselves,” says Hall. “I think that's probably the only way to get started.”

Becoming hybrid needs to be an iterative process

The process of shifting towards remote or hybrid working needs a careful balance between autonomy and management. There’s a risk that people could set their own schedules and office time without thinking about the wider business. For example, if a business tells employees it expects them to come in three days a week and gives them full choice over which days they come in, you’re likely to have a very quiet office on Fridays and Mondays. If you’ve downsized your office as part of this change, the office will feel very crowded on the other three days. It’s why the process of becoming hybrid needs to be iterative. 

“It's a complicated conversation,” adds Hall. “How do we move to more asynchronous working to make remote working easy? There's clearly a skills element to it; hybrid meetings are new for most managers and there's a lot of implications for leadership. With hybrid management, things like proximity bias are an issue. In the past, it was always the case that the people who stayed physically closer to the centre of power got promoted quicker because they were more visible. You can't have that in a hybrid environment. How are we going to improve visibility? How are we going to change our succession planning, opportunity planning, the way we make decisions so that people feel included?”

Some leaders are wary of embracing hybrid working and some prominent senior leaders and organisations have stated they want remote working to end. It’s a loss of control that is making some managers and leaders feel nervous, says Hall, but he points out that similar to every new process, there’s a certain amount of figuring things out as we go.

“A lot of organisations have been in emergency response mode for the last year and a half. Some of them are still seeing this hybrid return to work as the finish line. Actually, it's the start of a real major transformation in how people work. It’ll take a while for all the implications of this to work out.”

How we view change and how we manage it

One of the big mindset shifts that needs to happen as part of this process is how we view change and how we manage it. The perceived wisdom is that people are naturally resistant to change, but change is constantly happening and accepted by the majority. The issue is more about the delivery of the change, rather than the change itself. 

People are set up to resist a change-management programme most of the time, says Hall. “If you're changing to a hybrid or a matrix model, let's build the skills. Let's give people a positive mindset. Let's show them how things will work. There's a lot of comms in change: sending people emails or a 92-page PowerPoint deck, telling them what they should be doing. The 'what' isn’t usually the problem, it's the 'how’.”

It’s also important, if you work in a business with location-dependent staff, such as factory workers or caterers, you need to make sure they’re not left out, says Hall. They might not be able to work from home, but you can bring flexibility into their lives in other ways, such as through flexible hours, job sharing and shift changes. “Not location flexibility, but time flexibility.”

Office layout a key component for hybrid success

One often-overlooked aspect of such changes is office layout, which needs to be set up for hybrid working to allow the best chance of success. If you have people working on virtual meetings regularly, an open plan office will not work – there’s just too much environmental noise. 

Hall cites Fujitsu as a good example of how to rethink office space. The company is developing a network of hubs, where staff can come together and collaborate. Alongside that, it will have smaller satellite offices where people can go in to use the facilities.

Running a hybrid meeting also requires new management skills. You need to be able to assess when a meeting is actually necessary and manage these meetings effectively so that no one is left out. The solutions can be very simple. Hall, for example, keeps a checklist of who has spoken in a meeting and identifies who hasn’t had a chance to contribute. Another option is to have everyone, remote and office workers, use the raise hands or chat function on their video conferencing platform, (whether they are in the room or joining remotely), which equalises input. 

Finance teams technically have it slightly easier than other teams as the function is so process-driven. It might require a tech upgrade, but the core activities can continue. The area that could be overlooked, however, is the community aspect of work. 

“There's a massive demand for just catching up and socialising, and also being recognised for the experience that you've gone through. I wouldn't be trying to stuff the agenda of my first meeting back with worthy topics.”

Hall is meeting with his European team for the first time in a while and hasn’t bothered with an agenda. It’s all about having fun and catching up. “That's stuff that we can't do remotely. We've got a year and a half of mucking about and goofing off to do. You can do all the other stuff remotely, but the community stuff that reinforces your relationships, that requires time together.”

Above all, think of the journey towards hybrid as an experiment. “I don't think there is a fully functional template that will work for everybody. It will define your corporate culture, so if senior leaders aren't paying attention to it, they really should be.”

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.

Insights special: Hybrid working and the future of work

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