As we move into the late and post-pandemic “new normal” of hybrid working, it’s timely to reflect on whether your current approach to working in a hybrid environment will enable your team to thrive and drive productivity as well as effective collaboration and team cohesion.
The triple challenge
After years of the pandemic, we have become so accustomed to working from home and its differences and challenges, that our minds tend to focus on the remote working component of hybrid working. However, hybrid working is NOT just remote working, and presents its own unique challenges, being:
- The challenges of remote working; plus
- The challenges posed by the combination of remote and in-office working; plus
- The usual challenges faced by teams, which are accentuated and need to be approached differently in a hybrid environment.
In addition, we tend to think about hybrid working as being about people working in different locations. However, hybrid working is just as much about different working hours, different schedules, different mindsets and behaviours, different leadership and working in a different culture.
Most organisations have already begun to implement their initial hybrid working approach. There is no one right approach, as your approach needs to be tailored to the unique needs of your organisation. Navigating this challenge is not always easy and will require some trial and error and ongoing experimentation to get the appropriate balance right across the needs of the business, the needs of customers and the expectations of employees.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
Although hybrid working presents challenges, it also presents an exciting opportunity. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rethink our working patterns. We are reinventing the future of work every day and it’s the perfect time to be more thoughtful and intentional about it.
What’s clear is that the genie is out of the bottle. As much as some individuals, and some organisations might wish, pre-pandemic working patterns for many may never return. There has been a seismic shift in employee psychology. Employees have recognised and come to value the many advantages of working from anywhere. At the same time, many also appreciate that the benefits of the office – being together – can be lost. Consequently, most are looking for a middle ground.
Getting hybrid working right is a business imperative because it drives the creation of value. Done right, hybrid working holds the promise of boosting productivity, fuelling collaboration, innovation and enhancing your culture. Hybrid working is also central to your employee value proposition, driving your ability to retain and attract talent. On the other hand, not adopting an effective hybrid approach will likely put your business at a competitive disadvantage to those that do.
Reinventing how you work – the six drivers of working effectively the hybrid way
As a guide to better understand and craft an approach to hybrid working, G+T Innovate has developed our “Reinvented ways of working” model (shown below). The model is based on extensive research across multiple expert sources, our own experience working with in-house legal teams, and our own experience as a firm at Gilbert + Tobin (G+T).
We’ll explore the six drivers of effective hybrid working in turn.
Driver 1: REDEFINE your optimal workplace
First, let’s look at hybrid working from a strategic perspective.
A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that a proper consideration of strategy is often missing from current approaches and that hybrid working approaches should do more than just solve logistical challenges, and instead focus on the purpose of work. (What’s the optimal workplace for your organisation? Maria Roche and Andy Wu, Harvard Business Review, 9 February 2022).
We have a rare opportunity to differentiate work according to the comparative advantage of the location. Remote working increases individual productivity; on the other hand, the office is where people come to work together for meaningful interactions.
If fostering collaboration, innovation, learning and information exchange is paramount to your business, you need to bring knowledge together by bringing people together, ideally in person.
If execution is your primary objective, your business needs to make sure that individual contributors are as efficient as possible in their own work; being around others too much can distract from the job that needs to be done and impede efficiency. As lawyers well know, “asynchronous work” has the advantage of minimising the “time famine” caused by endless interruptions.
Of course, most legal teams will need both, which leads to some form of hybrid arrangement. In deciding on your hybrid approach, note that that there is a tendency amongst many lawyers to want to work alone, away from distractions, where they know they can be more productive. But there is a potential risk here of undervaluing the importance of collaboration, knowledge exchange, innovation and learning.
Your top resource is your people: your lawyers are the fountain of knowledge that drive the effectiveness and efficiency you need. Your workplace needs to facilitate knowledge sharing; this is the process by which innovation and improvement arises. This works best when you bring people physically together. Why? Because knowledge transfer is easiest face-to-face and aided by other non-verbal cues. Immediate feedback and updating are crucial for well-functioning discussions, brainstorming and learning.
Hybrid working means it’s easier to miss out on the small moments that build the team and relationships, drive learning and spark innovation. We all know that often the most important conversations happen when next to each other in line for lunch, getting a cup of coffee or passing in a corridor. In an office, these types of interactions happen naturally; in a remote or hybrid setting, they can easily fall by the wayside, and, over time, this is highly detrimental.
Driver 2: RETHINK your understanding of employee expectations
According to recent research from McKinsey and Co, many organisations are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. But many employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most organisations believe, and there is a risk of a spike in attrition and disengagement. (It’s time for leaders to get real about hybrid, Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Mihir Mysore, Angelika Reich, 9 July 2021, McKinsey Quarterly).
Organisations need to understand that there appears to have been a psychological seismic shift in what employees expect. A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that flexibility means different things to different people. For some, it means “the ability to connect and get work done from anywhere,” while to others it means “we’ll let you work from home a couple times a week.” As we’re beginning to find out, however, neither of these definitions is exactly what employees mean when they say they want flexibility. What it seems they really want is autonomy. Within the context of hybrid work, this means having the ability to be the primary decision-maker of where they work and their daily work schedule (“Forget Flexibility: Your employees want autonomy”, Holger Reisinger and Dane Fetterer, Harvard Business Review, October 29, 2021). In one of their studies, the authors asked over 5,000 knowledge workers around the world what they wanted from the future of their work arrangement. They found:
- 59% of respondents said that “flexibility” is more important to them than salary or other benefits;
- 61% of employees said that they would prefer if management allowed team members to come into the office when they need to and work from home when they need to;
- 59% of workers say they would not work for a company that required them to come into a physical office five days per week.
The flexibility employees want is conditional upon their ability to exercise it in a way that best fits them. In other words, it’s conditional upon autonomy.
Why give employees autonomy? Other than because they simply want it, there are good reasons to give employees autonomy. Much research has shown that autonomy is a key driver of employee engagement. This is why employees perceive the ability to work flexibly as more important than salary and other benefits.
Reisinger and Fetterer note that a “medium autonomy, medium flexibility” arrangement has gained the most traction within organisations. Working from home and the office, but with a mandated number of days per week in the office, is slowly becoming the most common version adopted by many large global organisations. Understandably, many organisations will mandate certain elements of their hybrid working approach. Whilst providing guidance is important, mandates need to be approached carefully, as they can feel like a violation of autonomy.
In one notable case, Apple, famous for its forward-thinking culture, told employees that they were expected back into the office at least three days a week, a move which led to multiple resignations. Feeling “not just unheard, but at times actively ignored,” employees responded with an open letter to management, laying out their vision for the future of work at the company and requesting that remote and location-flexible work decisions be made at a team level.
Driver 3: RELEASE employee performance through freedom in a framework
Research shows that 86% of employees think that careful work guidelines are needed for an equitable hybrid workplace. Accordingly, organisations need to create a common understanding for how to approach hybrid working. To do this, most experts support establishing principles instead of policies. That is, providing guidance is important, but to the extent possible, whatever is put in place should have a degree of flex (Reisinger and Fetterer).
However, when doing this, it’s also important to provide clarity and be more decisive than might feel comfortable. While you should offer your people autonomy, you also shouldn’t shy away from putting a stake in the ground. When it comes to company direction, policies, and values, being clear is the best thing you can do - even if your decision is unpopular. When people know what’s happening, they can make the best choices for themselves. Ambiguity is worse.
Many organisations have found it helpful to reduce the uncertainty around this new way of working by encouraging teams to decide on "ground rules" or a “social contract” on how they will work together in a hybrid environment. The guidelines must be customised by each team for their own use and updated periodically via team discussions. The team dialogue around ground rules helps the team feel more invested and in control over their work (Gartner: 12 rules of the road for hybrid work team Matt Cain, VP Gartner, 6 July 2021).
Of course, to some organisations and individuals, providing this degree of freedom may be challenging. However, not providing the right degree of autonomy is likely, over time, to lead to lower levels of employee engagement and satisfaction, with flow-on negative impacts to performance and retention.
Driver 4: RESHAPE your culture, lead differently, and build capability
Remote work’s negative impact on employees’ well-being during the pandemic is a stark reminder of the importance of peer-to-peer relationships and social connection. Organisations have learnt the importance of investing in capability and connection and the necessity of being intentional to build team cohesion. Maintaining meaningful connection in a fully or partially remote work environment is no easy feat, so this needs to be a focus to maintain collective team engagement and inclusion.
Build competence and confidence
Effective collaboration and teaming are of increased importance in a hybrid environment. To support this, focus on helping your lawyers to build their personal effectiveness (illustrated in the G+T Innovate “Lawyer of the Future – and Today” model, below). Invest in skills such as communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, and, of course, leadership. This will enable your employees to be empowered and enabled to own the results of their work and thrive in a hybrid environment that requires a high level of autonomy.
Research shows that though employees overwhelmingly agree that hybrid is the way forward, many still have concerns related to communication and diminished social ties. Many employees say that they would prefer to work from home but are concerned their career will suffer long-term. To reignite that sense of togetherness, leaders need to focus on building a virtual-first (but not virtual-only) organisational culture where employees feel they are being treated fairly regardless of their physical location.
At G+T we’ve noticed that remote and hybrid working can negatively impact osmosis learning and knowledge transfer and that these impacts are often felt most keenly by more junior team members and new starters. Being in different physical locations makes it harder to form deeper relationships and to create a sense of belonging. Accordingly, it requires greater intentionality from everyone (particularly leaders) to put in place behaviours, routines and practices to address these impacts.
Leading in a hybrid world is different
In a hybrid environment, leaders need to lead differently, with a strong emphasis on enabling connectedness. Remembering that lawyers often like to work solo to minimise distractions and perfect things before sharing, there is a need to be really deliberate to actively encourage and facilitate connection.
Team members get their primary work cues from leader behaviour, so leaders need to model productive hybrid working habits. For example, explicitly call out and illustrate the ability to time-shift (e.g. to accommodate a doctor visit or care for a sick child) to reinforce the idea that we are all in this together.
In the modern business world, everyone is a leader in some way, even if not in a formal position of leadership according to the organisation chart. Lawyers lead matters, lead their clients and lead each other in numerous ways. Accordingly, everyone needs to seize the opportunity to build a new, stronger culture and be intentional to build team cohesion and encourage and facilitate connection.
The pitfalls – watch out for these
At the heart of a hybrid team is the reality that the locals and remotes have very different work experiences.
Hybrid working can create power differentials within teams that can damage relationships, impede effective collaboration, and ultimately reduce performance. To lead effectively in a hybrid environment, leaders must recognise and actively manage this.
Hybrid working means that, due to where they’re positioned, employees have different access to resources and different levels of visibility, both key sources of power and influence. Access to resources also differs depending on whether the employee is located in the office or outside of it.
Visibility level, or being seen by those in power, is also shaped by a person’s location. When working remotely, no one sees the late nights or early mornings or how hard someone is working to deliver on their obligations.
Watch carefully for these potential pitfalls:
- Connection imbalance – us versus them (in-office versus remote, included versus non included);
- Information imbalance – less information undermines trust (in-office versus remote, included versus non-included);
- Perceived or real lack of fairness;
- Thinking biases – e.g. distance bias (things I can see have more value), similarity bias (favouring those who are like us);
- Communication disconnects;
- Productivity versus loneliness;
- Individual work styles which may struggle in hybrid environments.
Be aware that hybrid environments reward employees who think and act adaptably and flexibly, who are able to organise and coordinate across a complex and dynamic environment, and who are able to establish and provide evidence of their own trustworthiness when working in a context of low visibility. Employees who are strong at relationship building, both face-to-face and virtually, have an advantage in hybrid environments, as do those who are willing to ask for, find, and claim the resources they may not have easy access to. Many lawyers are not strong in these areas.
Loss of information can undermine trust. Hybrid working has made key trust building information harder to come by. Less face-to-face time means that we have less opportunity to observe. We also have fewer shared informal conversations that build rapport and interpersonal trust, and we lack situational cues. This makes it difficult to establish trust in others because we don’t have the data we need to know what they’ll do. It also eliminates the steady stream of reinforcing information that helps us maintain existing trust.
In virtual work misunderstandings and miscommunications abound. We therefore face a perfect storm of less information on which to establish trust, less reinforcing information to maintain it, and more “trust infractions” to break it. Once trust is lost, it’s very hard to regain.
Driver 5: REEQUIP your lawyers with the right tools and guidance
Research from The Economist in October 2021 on the state of hybrid work, including its challenges and opportunities, found that while 71% of the global workforce now sees the physical office space simply as a social amenity rather than a mandatory way of working, 85% feel that being confident in their technology allows them to excel at work (Economist Impact to complete a global survey (October 2021) on the state of hybrid work, including its challenges and opportunities).
The research found that the top technology concerns of respondents include:
- Unreliable internet access;
- Reliance on slow or outdated tools;
- Accessing and maintaining files in multiple places;
- Relying on too many applications in order to get work done.
Hybrid work doesn’t need more applications and collaboration surfaces. It needs deeper, more meaningful connections to the tools and surfaces we already have. It means truly effective digital enablement.
In a hybrid world your technology experience defines your employee experience. Give employees the tools they need to work autonomously from anywhere. Organisations should consider whether they can shape the behaviours they want from hybrid employees (e.g., real-time collaboration, ease of information sharing) with the tools they have in place. Or are the limits of the technology determining hybrid employee behaviour?
Organisations need to ensure minimal levels of proficiency with collaboration tools to ensure effective virtual collaboration and invest in the digital literacy of their people. The idea that employees need to take ownership of their digital dexterity is an essential ingredient in making hybrid work effective. Often employees simply don’t have the requisite level of competence in using technology that they need to be able to thrive in a hybrid world.
Many organisations have multiple platforms and means of communication, which can lead to confusion and inefficiency. Provide clear guidance on what technology and tools are available, how and when to use them and for what. Understand and embrace guidelines regarding which collaboration tool is most appropriate for the business task at hand but allow teams to discuss and agree on the best practices and protocols for them.
Driver 6: REIMAGINE the purpose of your office
The office as we knew it is a thing of the past, but it still has an important role to play as a place to connect and collaborate with a common purpose.
Bringing people together supports collaboration, learning, innovation and a sense of belonging. It is not that it can’t and won’t be done virtually, but it is amplified when done in-person. The comparative advantage of the office is informal connections with colleagues, unstructured work, in-person collaboration and workplace learning that nourishes learning and creates culture.
Reimagine why, when and how you bring people together. What is the role of the office? Does your current office need to be reconfigured? Design the right space – if necessary, optimise space around activities for the meaningful interaction of people.
Make sure that when people are in the office the focus is on connection. Program meaningful human interactions in the new office – establish new routines and activities that repurpose the office. The new office should be a compelling destination for human interaction. Make the office worthy of the commute.
Getting hybrid working right is a business imperative that will drive competitive advantage for your organisation and have a profound impact on your ability to drive performance and attract, engage and retain your lawyers. Seize the opportunity to thoughtfully reinvent how you work to set your organisation up for sustainable success.
The best organisations understand that how work gets done really matters and impacts the client and employee experience and outcomes for the client, employees and the organisation. Consequently, it is important that in-house legal teams pay close attention to how the team works, not only in terms of systems and processes, but also mindsets, behaviours and work practices and routines. As outlined above, getting hybrid working right is a big part of this challenge and will require ongoing attention and adjustment to balance the needs of all stakeholders.
G+T Innovate is passionate about “new ways of working” in an ever-changing legal world and has helped many in-house legal teams to better understand and improve how they work. We’re excited to help our clients on their transformation projects.
You can find out more about us at https://innovate.gtlaw.com.au/.
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