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Covid-19 has permanently changed the way in which we work.  This point is dramatically underlined by the title of Fujitsu’s research study into organisations’ attitudes towards future patterns of work – ‘No Going Back’.[i]  Hybrid working – working both from the office and from home during the working week – is both the present and the future, for many organisations.

Some have already made their intentions clear.  13,000 of Nationwide’s 18,000 staff can now choose from where they wish to work. Law firm Irwin Mitchell is adopting a permanent flexible working policy and its 3000 employees will be able to choose where and when they work and are turning their 15 UK offices into hubs for collaborative working.   Consulting firm PwC has announced “The Deal”, formulated with employees and enabling them to work just 2-3 days a week from the office, with a lunchtime finish on Fridays in July and August.[ii]

On the other hand, David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has called remote working an “aberration” and says it is not “ideal” for a business like theirs with an “innovative, collaborative, apprenticeship culture.”[iii]

But could the investment bank be protesting too much and perhaps supporting clients whose model relies on earning rental income from city office blocks?  If PwC can be full of enthusiasm about a new regime focused on “the empowered day”, why can’t Goldman Sachs?  Why is it that 85% of Fujitsu’s C-Suite of leaders and managers and 71% of its employees believe their organisation will become more resilient and better equipped to survive economic issues, if it is true that hybrid working cannot foster innovation?  The clue probably lies in differing views of collaboration and how to achieve it.

Collaboration within hybrid working

Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, Lynda Gratton, has recently said that hybrid working is fundamentally about flexibility with regard to two things –  place and time – where an individual will work and who they will work with, within the same ‘time zone’.[iv]  She talks of ‘synchronous time’ and ‘asynchronous time’ – times during which you collaborate with others, or lock yourself away for focus.[v]  It is about understanding how to manage ‘new-style’ collaboration, so as not to harm productivity.

Collaboration is the major productivity measure for many organisation and Gratton concludes that organisations must understand their ‘signature process’ and what drives productivity within their individual business.  No one size will fit all and unlocking productivity by best-managing hybrid working is essential.  Productivity draws upon energy, vitality and well-being, all of which working from home can deliver.  It is depleted by the commuting and stress that can accompany office-based working.  The way forward is to find a balance and lift the barriers to cooperation, which are perceived to exist with virtual, rather than face-to-face working.

Trust is the word we need to focus on here.  As we know from Patrick Lencioni’s ‘5 Disfunctions of a Team’ model, absence of trust harms a team because it leads to members becoming unwilling to show vulnerability.[vi]  Trust is best built face to face, when we can see each other’s body language and visual cues, understand each other’s behaviours and learn about each other’s lives around the water cooler.  But does this mean it is impossible to engender such trust and build virtual teams that are just as strong and productive as ‘real teams’?

The answer is ‘no’ but it does require organisations, managers and employees to think differently.  Businesses need to quickly dismiss the notion that ‘working from home’ is a euphemism for sitting in the garden.  They have to accept that employees will undoubtedly do household chores in working hours and that there will be distractions that prevent them from being on-call without fail. It requires a new managerial mind-set.

How to Build Trust in Virtual Teams

That mindset needs to become goal oriented and outcome-focused.  The attitude needs to be, ‘as long as the team attains its goals and achieves its outcome, what does it matter when the work is done?.’   Accountability is an issue within virtual team building so by setting firm, clear, sensible but challenging and shared goals, all can work to the same ‘end’, draw strength from having shared values and be accountable, regardless of where they work.

Fostering transparency is also essential.  Team communication should be as publicly accessible as possible, not a matter of private emails between just a few chosen team members.  Team members should be open about their schedule, availability and non-availability and should deliver on deadlines and promises.  If they cannot, they should be open as to why that is.  Set and regular communication times helps, as it sets a framework of predictability, which can build trust.  All team members should come to meetings prepared, briefed, with the tools for the job and ready to contribute and collaborate; get involved and innovate.

Encouraging enhanced power-sharing across the virtual team is not a sign of weakness from a manager but one of strength.  The same vision should be put behind building social time into virtual meetings – time to chat, sessions to get to know new team members, virtual ‘play time’ and virtual mentoring too.  Leaders should be intentional about making socialising a key element of the working day and not micromanaging and examining how every last minute has been spent.

Virtual Teambuilding and Strategy Building

Here at Space2BE, we have been working successfully as a virtual team for 18 years.  This experience has helped us to successfully support our clients during the last year when they’ve asked us to provide virtual team building and run strategy workshops with global participants on Zoom.  This is best done when we take the processes we would use for standard teambuilding and provide them with new virtual contexts, methodologies and channel adaptations.  Teambuilding skills have not changed but their deployment environment has.  Managers and employees alike must develop hybrid skills for hybrid working – utilising some techniques when in the office and others when collaborating at distance.  That requires an ability to juggle different skills in different ‘arenas.’

As with every organisation, we too have been through a process of change, as evidenced in our new approaches to teambuilding and the fostering of collaboration.  Our courses have stayed relevant and timely and are ready for the new world of business – the hybrid world in which collaboration, as the driver of productivity, will continue to be the catalyst for business success, but nurtured through new skills and reskilling.

We are ready to help businesses face their new challenge, believing, in an optimistic Fujitsu sort of way, that trust can be built very effectively remotely and that organisations can become more resilient, but only if they upskill, learn the art of ‘intentionality’ and invest in the leadership skills that managing a wide cross-section of employees, all with differing views on hybrid working, requires.  Soft skills will need to be married with the ability to have a hard focus on the ‘signature process’ that drives productivity within an individual team.

This, as with the working week, will be a true balancing act but the Space2BE team cannot wait to help organisations achieve success within the ‘new normal’ business world.  To allow us to do that for you, please call 0208 720 6991.