After months of lockdown and most office work happening from home, the country is once again beginning to open up offices. But what does this mean for CEOs and founders of start-ups, who, unlike leaders in large organisations, are less likely to have the support of an established HR group to guide them? In this article, we explore what to take forward from lockdown and how to avoid the biggest problem with hybrid working, that most people haven’t considered yet.
Build on the good things about lockdown
First of all, leaders can look back to the months of lockdown. Their staff, unless furloughed, carried on working, achieving remarkable things in often cramped conditions at home, alongside potential disruptors such as children, pets and all the other temptations such as fridges and sunny gardens. While the COVID pandemic has brought trauma and heartache to families across the land, there have been silver linings as well. Let’s learn from those and carry forward the beneficial changes.
If you had asked your team last year to run a project to make everyone remote 100% of the time, with no chance of returning to the office for months, they might have asked for much longer to get it done. Instead, you accomplished it in a few days. Of course, it makes sense to scale up your infrastructure for virtual working going forward and ensuring that security is really robust now. But you achieved something incredible in just a few days. What can you learn from this and apply to the new situation?
What was it that brought out the best in your people? What kept them going while they were isolated at home? How can you replicate this as people come back? In fact, should they come back? If people have worked well remotely and productivity has remained high despite a global pandemic, then you might want to consider if it makes sense to bring them back. Instead, you could offer the option of home working seriously in the long-term, saving the cost of office space alongside the cost, hassle and climate impact of commuting for employees.
How did the leadership shift style as everyone operated from home? What things did your team no longer care about? How can you drop these going forward?
People have been learning a lot about themselves and how to work in a very different way, when they were plunged into isolated working. How can you build on this, encouraging autonomy, experimentation and creativity? This could help to shift your organisation to become even more innovative in the future!
Beware of the biggest danger of hybrid working
Hybrid working brings with it a hidden and often unanticipated danger. It is easy to overlook this in the rush to prepare for bringing some people back to the office, while making the space as COVID secure as possible. Some will still be at home. Some will come to the office. Without paying careful attention to this disparity, those who are in the office together will be at an advantage compared to those who are still working from home. They can glance over to see what others are working on and have conversations (albeit socially distanced ones!) with the advantage of being able to use body language to the full, as well as voice tone and the words spoken. They will be able to see each other and hear each other clearly, building the rapport and trust that comes naturally when people are together in the same space.
How do you overcome this difference between remote and office workers that threatens the closeness when everyone was working virtually during lockdown? The answer is to create a level playing field. This means making sure that those who are remote are not forgotten or treated as second class team members. So, when you have a team meeting, it makes sense to do this just as you did it during lockdown, with everyone on their laptops over video conference, rather than some in a room and the rest joining via video conference. Can you see how people joining in the same way gives a level playing field to everyone? In many ways, the highest level of virtual leadership is required in this hybrid situation, probably even more so that when everyone was remote!
Virtual leadership means taking on a more facilitative approach, while being aware of:
- yourself and your own preferences, strengths and weaknesses;
- others in your team, and their own preferences, strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting to create ways that your team can work together effectively, building on each other’s strengths and preferences;
- technology: able to use the technologies that help your team to work effectively;
- leading effective virtual meetings;
- working effectively in between meetings, using appropriate collaboration tools;
- dealing with complications such as differences across generations, cultures, language and time zones.
So, as leaders adapt to the new normal of hybrid remote/physical working for their teams, they will need to be really careful to ensure that everyone is involved and engaged, with a true level playing field for them to perform to their best. If leaders do this, while building on everything learned during the lockdown, they’ll be in a good place as the new ‘hybrid working’ normal starts!