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Personalising our how, when and where of working – beyond hybrid working.

The how, when and where of work has rapidly changed over the past year. New ways of working and doing our jobs in different ways, in different locations and at different times have started to develop and establish themselves.

This is the third in a series of blogs by Rob Baker and Julia Smith themed around the need to bring a personal touch to our work to lift wellbeing, performance and engagement.

From the new to the normal
The how, when and where of work has rapidly changed over the past year. New ways of working and doing our jobs in different ways, in different locations and at different times have started to develop and establish themselves.

Zoom calls and Slack channels are now the norm rather than the new and it is unlikely that people and organisations will want or will be able to neatly return to the ways of working that were commonplace pre March 2020.

We can be optimistic during this year – in the UK at least – that we will move away from a position where our working environment has been forced upon us by COVID-19 related restrictions. Organisations will then be free to determine how, when and, where their colleagues work.

Many companies are now in a position to plan what their work environment will look like. For many their focus is the next 12 months, whilst others may be prospecting about what it will look like in 2022 and beyond.

Why office working might not lead to greater collaboration and connection
Whilst it might be tempting to think that a return to office working might mean more engagement and connection this might not necessarily be the case.  For example, working in open plan offices has been found to reduce connection and collaboration compared with working in more closed offices. A research study that tracked interactions at the headquarters of two firms before and after their transition from cubicles to open office, found that face-to-face interactions dropped by around 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate [1].

Perhaps the biggest opportunity missed from office working are opportunities to work and speak together as teams and to benefit from casual or unexpected connections or collisions with others.

A hybrid approach – the best of all worlds?
A common theme – and a bet that many are placing – is a move to hybrid working. Where people spend some time together (often in the office) and some time working virtually (often at home).

Hybrid work in principle balances the needs of face-to-face connection and collaboration and opportunities for deeper, individual and virtual work. Research from WorkAfterLockdown found that 7 in 10 employees wanted to adopt a hybrid working agreement, wishing to retain the flexibility and control they gained in the first lockdown to continue into their normal working life [2].

Whilst in principle a move to hybrid working may be appealing to many, it is critical that organisations take the time to explore the practicalities of this approach and that it genuinely meets the needs both of their business and their people.

We’ve found through our workshops that it’s far from clear what people want when it comes to how, when and where they work. There is most certainly not one, uniform approach that will cater to the preferences of everyone

Some people are loving the lack of commute, more time at home and reduced physical disturbances and general social interaction. Others are sorely missing the elements we associate with working in an office – in person face-to-face interaction, the thinking time that the commute provides, team meetings and the opportunity for informal connection.

And whilst hybrid working might seem to balance and blend the needs of those wanting to work from a home and an office, it will need careful planning to ensure that right people are working in the right locations on the right days to maximise opportunities for face-to-face connection and collaboration.

Seizing an opportunity to move towards a more personalised approach
The current environment provides an ideal opportunity for office-orientated organisations to tap into the power of personalisation when it comes to exploring when, where and how their colleagues are going to work in the future.

Whilst it might be tempting to make these types of decisions on behalf of employees, organisations that make unilateral decisions in this way will be missing a tremendous opportunity.

Now is the time to involve people in the decisions of when, where and how we work. We need to move beyond flexible working to smart working. Smart working optimises how we work for the individual, but also their colleagues and ultimately the people they support and serve.

Although you might say, it’s dangerous to open a ‘can of worms’ by discussing working preferences and needs this, the reality is that by keeping a lid on these issues doesn’t make them go away. It just leaves issues and opinions unsaid and unacted upon which can later cause conflict and consternation.

How to have conversations about the when and where of work? – asking the right questions
The simplest way to start to tap into what people in your organisation want in terms of their working hours and locations is just to ask them. Start with a simple conversation, workshop or survey.

Below are some questions adapted from sessions we often run which encourage people to explore how they can shape their work experiences through a concept called job crafting which encourages people to shape their work in a way that plays to their strengths and preferences.

These questions can be considered individually, in groups or with a line manager and of course they should be adapted.

The relevance and resonance of the questions will depend on the individual and their role, but I have learnt not to make assumptions about what areas and themes are relevant. For example in the past, I (and many others) made the assumption that contact centre employees had to work in fixed office locations at fixed times. However, as many have found in the last 12 months this does not need to be the case.

When we work
Many, but certainly not all, jobs give people some flexibility in relation to when certain tasks or activities are done. Our mental sharpness and motivational levels don’t remain static – they fluctuate during the day. The rhythm and times at which our abilities peak and trough vary from person to person.

Some questions to explore when it comes to the timing of work are:

  1. When during the day / week do you have the most energy at work?
  2. When during the day / week do you have the least energy at work?
  3. When do you feel most refreshed during the week?
  4. When do you get your best ideas?
  5. If you could create your dream working hours what would they be and why?
  6. Are there certain times during the week that would be easier and better to work virtually or in an office?

Answers to these types of questions might help with planning when teams should come together in an office and the days when people might be better served to work virtually.

Where we work
Covid-19 meant that many people have found themselves working from home. But it’s important to recognise that working from home under lockdown does not give a true reflection of what working from home or virtually might look and feel like in a future where it’s an active choice rather than an obligation.

Some questions to explore when it comes to the location of work:

  1. Where do you do your best thinking?
  2. Where do you feel most energised?
  3. Where do you do your most focused work?
  4. Where do you have your best conversations and ideas with colleagues?
  5. What different locations could you work from?
  6. What tools do you use to connect with colleagues in ways that are not person to person?
  7. If you needed to work with full concentration and no distraction what would your dream location and work environment be? Who else would you have around?
  8. Are there certain tasks or meetings that would benefit from being physically with your collaborators or that require you to have quiet focus time?

The power and purpose of these questions is to enable and encourage people to think deeply and deliberately and potentially differently about their work.

Avoid big bang and big
A temptation when it comes to new ways of working is to demonstrate leadership by making a commitment or big bet one way or the other when it comes to ways of working. This may bring clarity but doesn’t provide opportunities to learn and adapt.

Often in HR (with the best of intentions) we feel compelled to make decisions or recommendations which are organisational wide. Instead we should be more agile, iterative and experimental with our approach. Why not collect data and test different working patterns and strategies with different teams and if possible collect feedback on performance and satisfaction to help you make more informed decisions.

Rob Baker, Founder of Tailored Thinking and author of Personalisation at Work

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