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Three steps to setting up a great hybrid working relationship

Anna Wildman, Founder of Oil in the Engine and author

We can’t turn back the tide. Just ask King Canute. Hybrid working has swept into office culture, crashing through once-watertight barriers and bringing with it both challenges and opportunities. A simple conversation can help managers and team members get the best out of this new world, often more than when they were sitting in the same room.

Employees who had never previously worked remotely are now masters of balancing remote working with the domestic arts.  You yourself may even be reading this at work… with your slippers on under the desk. Many of us have also become accustomed to the benefits this brings. Not having to catch the early train has saved both time and money. Greater autonomy in scheduling work tasks around private or family commitments has made life more manageable and less stressful.  This is so welcome that Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey reports that 87% of American workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would prefer to continue this at least one day a week, and nearly half of current remote workers say they will be looking to move jobs if this opportunity is taken away from them.

This new working world presents a challenge for many managers. Those used to relying on “bums in seats” to measure whether people are focused and productive – and that’s probably most of us – need to have more effective methods. It’s also harder for a manager to pick up on the atmosphere, to sense whether all is well with the team, and to know when frustrations or challenges have crept in.

That said, the workplace revolution could prove to have far more upsides than down for managers as well as team members. The new arrangements present a superb opportunity to overhaul tired and out-of-date practices and look afresh at what makes a truly great working relationship. Most changes aren’t ground-breaking, but they can make the difference between success and failure. The good news is they should take no more than an hour to talk through.

To guide the conversation, there are three key questions to explore:

Question 1: What day-to-day approach will work best?
As well as discussing practicalities, such as which days to come into the office and why, open the conversation out to cover wider and often less obvious implications. For example, it will be important for employees working off-site to take much greater responsibility in both keeping you in the communication loop and in meeting their own needs. These include:

  • Asking for help or extra clarity when they need it.
  • Flagging up risk early.
  • Collecting their own feedback, instead of waiting for you to give it.
  • Collaborating with colleagues in a more structured way, perhaps by being online at certain times in the day.

On the other hand, for you as the manager, it’s now more important than ever to set clear goals, and to make sure that each person has the skills, decision-making power, and resources they need. It also means providing closer communication than you might think, even though people are back. One of the simplest ways to do this is to schedule regular catch-ups with your team member. Prescient Healthcare Group, for example, uses the lessons learned from the fitness world, where high-intensity interval training or “HIIT” sessions have been shown to be super-efficient in building strength. Mirroring this approach, Prescient performance leaders are encouraged to hold “high intensity touchpoint” conversations of 15 minutes a week, 30 minutes a month, and 60 minutes each quarter with each team member. These not only give their people a chance to confirm priorities and ask for support where needed, they’re also an important way to track productivity in this new environment.  Whatever schedule works for you and your team member, the litmus test is whether it’s often enough to help each person do their best work.

Question 2. What impact do our personal values have at work?
Managers and team members alike time have had plenty of time over the last eighteen months to re-examine what makes them tick. Many are emerging with wholly different views about what they are looking for from their work, how they like to work, and what motivates them day to day. For example, if you had to pick two values from the list below, which ones jump out? More importantly, how do these affect your approach at work?

Examples of values
The same applies to your team member. For example, there’s a powerful upsurge among employees in wanting to be trusted to get work completed, not least because so many have proved themselves able to do so over the last eighteen months. For anyone regularly working offsite, feeling part of the team can be a strong need. An IT services legal counsel, for example, pays special attention to passing on helpful water-cooler information which can so easily be missed. Elsewhere, a marketing executive touches base with each of his team whenever they’re away. Whatever those drivers are for each member, each can have a very different implication for the best action to take.

Question 3. What important boundaries are there?
Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, commented: “No astronaut launches into space with their fingers crossed.”  It’s a principle that applies just as much when moving to a hybrid working relationship, or any venture into the unknown. Saying farewell to the familiar creates uncertainty, but the risks can be reduced significantly by being clear-eyed about what’s OK and what’s not OK, and then communicating this to your team member.

If discussing boundaries seems heavy-handed just when you’re trying to enthuse your people, keep in mind that, counter-intuitively, the problem cuts the other way. Without boundaries, team members can be left feeling anxious about making mistakes especially when they can’t easily drop by at your desk and check issues with you. Understanding where they can operate safely and where to go no further will create a much greater sense of freedom. There are significant advantages for you, too, including fewer sleepless nights just for starters. Typical boundary areas that are useful to discuss, for example, may be specific deadlines, decision-making limits, or budget constraints. Even simple non-negotiables such as being available at certain times of the day or dropping you an email when a key task has been completed can be helpful.

Your team member is also likely to have one or two boundaries you’ll need to know about. Two of the more common requests are whether they can (continue to) set their own working hours, and whether there is any budget available to help with remote working costs. You may have a budget you can use here, and in some cases, there may be a company-wide approach you can tap into.  In a global professional services firm, for example, it’s recognised that, when working from home, it can sometimes be challenging for people to maintain their work-life balance. Team members are trusted and encouraged to fit in needs such as exercise breaks during the day. Other initiatives have included gifting employees IT equipment to supplement their home set-up and more recently, a monthly teleworking budget.

One final thought It takes a bit of extra time to have this re-energising conversation, but it’s more than just a re-set. By jointly exploring needs, it’s an opportunity to make permanent improvements to the way you work together. Better still, it sets the tone and approach for every discussion you’ll have together from now on, one that acknowledges that both sides have a responsibility to make it the best working relationship possible. Great for your team member, and great for you, too.

Anna Wildman is author of Now You’re Talking!  The managers complete handbook to leading great conversations at work – even the tough ones

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