By Elliot • 1 year ago • 9 min read
We find ourselves in a new world where teams work a new mix of remotely and on site. Businesses and politics are torn between the "best" way, some fully embracing it and others creating mandatory office policies. So how can we our best work in this environment?
First off, I really don't think there's a "best way". One-size rarely fits a few, never mind all. Joining the debate about which side of the coin is better is flawed - for the coin has many sides - and we'll be exhausted and angry, having got nowhere.
What's more, as contemporary as the debate may be, hybrid and remote working is not a new idea. Some companies have been successfully doing it for decades, and many more established it well before the internet came along. There's plenty of stories of people faxing their work, or having it couriered before that, and meeting by phone.
So I find that an effective policy reflects the nuances of my work, my teams and my clients - as well as their changing needs over time.
Focussing on the work
Before I get into the detailed considerations, I start by thinking about my and my team's work. I assess it, and its requirements, and think about the best way that it might be delivered. I have found that doing so makes it more satisfying for me, my team and my client.
For example, in attending a series of brainstorming workshops, I found that on-site work was best - greased by the agility that offers, sticky notes, and cake. Brainstorming requires people to be able to contribute new ideas without criticism, which first means being on the same page and building a bond. Whilst this might be possible remotely, I find it a lot harder, unless I've already built some rapport with the others. Brainstorming also requires full engagement - which means no e-mails nor background tasks!
By contrast, I find drafting and reviewing documentation (or blog posts!) much easier wherever I'm most creative and able to focus. For me this means the office that I've been carefully refining over the years, but I also love to work with the background noise of a coffee shop, in my garden, or in the Victorian State Library. It really comes down to the individual of course - but for sure, creativity and ideas come from firing new neurons, having new stimuli - and this rarely comes from a stale office environment.
I also have a monthly reminder in my calendar so that check in with myself and make sure that I'm working optimally.
Drivers to consider
Political constraints and motives
Whilst they may not always be aligned to my other outcomes, they are often hard to avoid. Changing them requires campaigning and building buy-in, which needs me to play the long game. They often come as announcements and rhetoric, sometimes without obvious rationale, and they undermine team morale as a result. I dig deeper, and ask around to identify the sources, before trying to address the issue - success depending on the intent of the source, and the influence they have over others.
Expectations & needs of others
Often related to the political drivers is the need to consider and manage the expectations of others. I keep tabs on who is going to be influential on my team's success, who depends on our work and our presence, and who might have hidden expectations of us. At the beginning of a new project, I will have a quick brainstorming session to think about those around me and how I tailor my approach to balance their expectations and needs, or to reset them accordingly.
Here, there's a huge array. An example of mine:
- My family needs, and obligations between me and my partner, and my team and theirs.
- Client's expectations. Following contractual needs, I find the mood and preferences of my client really shape things. I do my best to earn and build trust between my team and the client, understanding how they feel, how they prefer working, and what drives them. I'll always adapt to their preferences on face-face conversations, vs asynchronous messages, to give them flexibility? It's often as easy as a two-minute chat with them to find out.
- I'm lucky enough (now) to have a boss who's exceptionally flexible, and values outcomes and quality over raw attendance. But I've worked for those that have been stuck to a preferred way of working, perhaps burnt by previous experiences or keen to reuse a performant method. It wasn't a barrier though, I just created open dialogue with them, remained sensitive to their preferences, and open to their ideas. Building an effective relationship took time, but paid dividends in the long run, and gave me the ability to deliver, and to give my team the flexibility they needed.
- I always place special prioritisation on my team and peers - as we have to work as a unit! It doesn't take much to ask how do they want to work with me, how that works in the context of what we're doing together, and then tailoring (sometimes jointly compromising) to adapt.
- Of course, I try to remain impervious to office gossip, but it can't be ignored. I find it's most often disarmed by just presenting straightforward and reasonable methods as normal - gossip is fuelled by what's perceived as unusual.
Finally, I make conscious choices to work within these constraints or otherwise, and remain clear about what I and my team will be doing and why. It makes it easier to work with us, as it creates predictability and trust.
Company and client policies
We've no choice but to adhere to company policies, right? Ideally, the company is open to debate on what appropriate policies look like, and are how they might change over time, as policies should be in support of corporate health and productivity - thus more aligned to real outcomes rather than opinions (but not necessarily). I often find that there are competing policies that work in my favour e.g. flexible working policies where I can agree alternative hours in lieu of working locations.
I have, on more than one occasion, moved from an employer with poor policies and decision making to work for better teams. They exist, sometimes the grass is greener!
Best for team, and sustainability
My main focus is always what's best for the team, and sustainable. Seeking to create shared experiences, and continually grow the team bond. It's very hard to do forming/storming except face-face, so I create as much space to do that as I can; ensuring the team knows that days in the office are productive because that's what we've done, rather than using our computers.
The main thing is that I try to focus on purpose, and create purpose, for being together. For example, ensuring graduates get enough osmosis time, mentoring and learning by example; that we do training as a group in the room, and use the time in the office to host lunch & events together.
I've not often found them, but have seen contracts require me or my team to be on site. If the client has reasons for this, I'll find team members who prefer to work in those conditions; and if it's boilerplate I may try to negotiate reasonable patterns. But by and large I try to avoid contractual situations that value presence over the work we're doing together (unless it really, genuinely matters).
Security / Confidentiality
Of course, some work has commercial, regulatory or legal requirements regarding security and/or confidentiality (like defence work) that means there's just no choice. I try to select this work only when we need it or when it matches our preferences.
Access to resources
The final thing that drives my decision making is the resources my team and I need.
-- Shared expertise and colleagues If I want real-time access to my colleagues, especially to build those first bonds, or to share knowledge in a dynamic way, then working alongside each other is often my preferred option. As I said, I'll always create purpose and other values around this - lunch together, mentoring over coffee, or to slip in a client visit on that day.
- Hardware and tools Updating my computer means being on the wired network. What else can I do? Plug it in, set it off, and pull the team into a room to agree a strategy for smashing our work out, that's what.
- Software I don't find this often gets in the way. Some work needs bespoke software, or local network access, but I've seen that mainly disappear in the last 10 years.
- Time On a personal level, time can drive me in both directions - e.g. to study or focus, or to share it with others, especially if it is constrained and precious. Just like pre-Covid, going offline for the day to get something done can be a make or break decision for my output.
I find that building trust is everything to enabling flexible working - not just for me and my team, but for me too. Just like in the office, being consistently unavailable, especially when it mattered, was a fast way to erode trust and destroy options otherwise open to me and my team.
This doesn't mean being beholden to others, it means I have to be clear and accountable. I'd as simple as footnotes in my email or (reliable) markers in my calendar, and sometimes just sticking to the same pattern each week.
The final word on flexible working, I promise. Like everything else, I find creating a fair and equitable experience is the most effective - good IT, great microphones, high quality cameras and screens all add up, allowing a first class experience for those working in the room and remotely.
I also ban the phrase "back to work" in place of "working from the office".
In conclusion - I try to create an environment for performance
Like everything, I weigh up the pros and cons of all options, weighting them if necessary, and then quickly finding something that works well for me, my team and our client.
It doesn't take long to work out, after a few discussions, listening intently, and collecting of a bit of evidence, I can weigh it up and move forwards - always being clear with my team and others. I also try things out, do a few experiments, and see what works; the environment doesn't need to be static, it should be adaptable, and it should be updated as the context changes. That's much more fun for everyone - and a reason to turn up engaged.