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Negotiating hybrid working is fraught with challenges but the outcomes can revolutionise buy-in, engagement and efficiency.

When we enter these negotiations, we don’t just need to consider the practical implications albeit they are important.  We are having conversations with people about the detail of our and their lives like never before.  We are not just talking about how they and we want to work but how we want to live which goes to the very nature of who we are and who we want ourselves and our organisations to be.

These conversations demand employees to be vulnerable – to put on the table what is important to them and to what degree. It also requires us to take risks both from the perspective of the individual and the organisation.  For this to work we need to enable engagement and safety in a conversation which by its very nature doesn’t feel safe.  We are jumping off the precipice into a negotiation where no-one is entirely sure what the best outcome will is because it has never been done before.

The potential of these conversations is enormous.  The possible output is undoubtedly increased creativity, collaboration and resilience even before arriving at the practical solutions.  However, for them to work, those involved need a framework that is going to ensure that neither the organisation nor the individual is at risk of being compromised and that the relationship stays intact or, ideally, is strengthened.  For this to happen, the following needs to be in place.

Acknowledge the background conversation

One of the challenges in having actual or potentially difficult conversations is the “background noise”.  This is the things that aren’t necessarily given voice to but that we are imagining or making up that the other person is saying about us such as:

  • “You don’t care about me, you just care about bottom line”
  • “you aren’t fully invested in your career”
  • “I don’t trust you”
  • “I don’t care about you”
  • “You think you won’t make as much money out of me if I am working from home”
  • “Your childcare is not my problem”

Even if these assumptions aren’t correct, and let’s face it often they are, they immediately create resentments.  More importantly, they miss the point. Yes, people’s first instinct may be to mistrust or to avoid change but, firstly, that is very normal, secondly it is only the start of the conversation and lastly, it gives us some very useful clues that we can build on.

The background conversation or the “unsaid” comments or remarks floating in the ether, generally amount to one thing and that is fear: fear that things wont work, that we will be let down, that we will be taken advantage of or taken for granted.  In order to negotiate effectively, we need to acknowledge others’ fears and perceptions, understand them and address them.  When we do this, we enable a much less defensive conversation that accepts the realities and challenges, recognises the blocks and therefore provides and opportunity to navigate them to pick our way through to options and opportunities.

Focus on common goals, interests and needs

We need to be aware that when talking about changing working practices, we are in a negotiation and that how we negotiate the issue will have a lasting effect on how any agreement is implemented and, crucially, any relationship is sustained.  Acknowledging we are in a negotiation as opposed to putting in / accepting a request that will be accepted or rejected opens up the options and changes the dynamic.

A negotiation may include various iterations of a conversation, it may have a timeline and, whilst the aim is generally that some people will get what they want, it will also involve concessions.  When viewed in this way, we are more able to work from a perspective of collective problem solving as opposed to a mentality of “them and us”.

We can negotiate from three different perspectives: Positions, Interests and Needs.  The perspective we choose will determine the direction as well as the spirit of the negotiation.

When we take Positions, we concentrate on who is right and who is wrong whether it is legally morally or otherwise.  We may focus on the fact that we are entitled to flexibility in working, that it worked in the pandemic why shouldn’t it work now for example.  On the other side of the argument we may reference business viability.  All these arguments are true and have their place. We can get advice on them and sure up our defence.  However, they also risk polarisation before we even get to the opportunities.  And, if we don’t approach them correctly they eliminate the opportunities to build trust.

The better starting point is focussing on the respective interests and needs of, say, the employee, the manager and the organisation.  It is crucial to fully understand what each of the parties want – to ask the questions “what do you want?”, “what would you like to achieve” and to dig into these questions. We also need to think about and be clear on what we want for ourselves, for the other party and for the organisation.  As we build this understanding for ourselves and other people, we create our starting point for opening up the options and collaborating.

Think beyond the agreement

Changing how we work means changing the way we interact and engage with each other.  Put simply, a performance meeting on zoom is going to be different to a performance meeting in person. And, when we think about it, working relationships aren’t about 6 monthly or yearly performance meetings it is how we interact on a daily, weekly, monthly or sometimes even hourly basis.

Crucial to negotiations about new working practices will be questions of engagement and building the relationship.  This will include informal conversations about how often people speak to each other to more structured regular conversations and check ins.  Part of this will be thinking about how to develop the working relationship and getting to know colleagues when we don’t see them on a daily basis for example.

Talking through whether it will work and how it will work in and of itself will develop the working relationship.  Key to those conversations will be enabling a good balance of openness and vulnerability with boundaries that ensure that we can continue to draw a healthy line between work and personal life.

Simple, “check-in” agendas can help this process particularly if they can be used equally face to face and remotely.  An agenda might be as simple as:

  • Appreciations: what we recognise and appreciate in each other / what the other person has done or achieved
  • Puzzles: moving problems to an exercise in collaborative problem solving
  • New information: ensuring that we keep colleagues updated on the practical and, where appropriate, the personal
  • Complaints and recommendations: keeping these on the agenda recognises that these will always be there and we can address them without heightening them
  • Wishes hopes and dreams: enabling people to open up to each others’ big pictures and talk to personal aspirations

Putting in place ways of working and understandings to develop the relationship are key to navigating the negotiations that are key to that change.  On top of this “scaffolding” is always the way we talk and listen to each other.  The deeper we listen, the more options to negotiate we will uncover and the easier it will be to develop the blended relationship knowing that the constant in negotiating will always be change and the tensions that come with it.

When we become comfortable with conflict: accepting the “background conversation, embracing the negotiation and preparing well for it, being prepared to re-negotiate and keeping complaints and recommendations firmly on the table, where we work will give way to how we work.

    Louisa Weinstein is dedicated to supporting organisations and individuals to make difficult conversations easier and lead with influence. She is an extremely experienced mediator and trainer with a background in Corporate and Private Equity Law, Public Sector, and Social Enterprise. Louisa is the Founder and Managing Director of The Conflict Resolution Centre and is a regular contributor to Radio 4's Across the Red Line.

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