As we move to a different phase of Covid many organisations are moving back to working in the office.
But this is proving challenging. Many individuals are not keen to go back full time and many leaders are not sure if hybrid working can work!
In this episode Jean explores ways to help hybrid working to be successful.
She talks about how we need to overcome 'Operational Distance' and 'Affinity Distance' and how we can build a case for creating the working patterns that work best for us.
Information relating to Karen Sobel-Lojeski
The Power of Virtual Distance
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Hi, everyone. Welcome to making sense of work. The topic that's on so many people's minds and lips at the moment is about hybrid working. In many countries, organizations are back to semi-normal some in fact, really requiring people to go back to the office completely. But there's a really complicated story that I'm hearing in many of the conversations I've had with people in the past few weeks, I've come across so many different opinions about what is best and what people want. And so in this episode, I'm going to explore this from both an individual's perspective and from a leadership perspective, to look at how can we make hybrid work. How can we make it work both for the organization and for individuals. And then see if we can bring these two closer to each other. For the purpose of this podcast, I'm thinking mostly about hybrid. So that's some working from home, some working in the office. However, we could also be talking about pure location, independent working, where people are mostly, always working from home. Cool. We could even begin to talk about the time of day people are working. Do people have to work the same hours as everybody else, but really for the purpose of this, I'm focusing on a hybrid model where sometimes we're working from home and sometimes we're in the office. While I was preparing for this episode, I ran a quick poll on LinkedIn asking people what their preferred way of working was. And 49 people responded with an 9% preference for hybrid one. Some home some office. Now there's obviously isn't a scientific study, but there were people from a range of sectors from a range of types of roles, nearly all saying, actually I want the choice to be able to work in the office sometimes and at home. So. But what we're hearing and what I'm hearing is that many, many people are struggling with how to make it work. And I think we need to be both intentional and patient about this. Intentional, because we've worked in one way for over a hundred years, nearly 200 years expecting people to come to work. And now we're changing this and it's a big change and we need to find ways to make it work. And I think we have an opportunity to be intentional about that, to be intentional about how we design it and to be thoughtful about. And I think we need to be patient because this is about human change, organizational change system change. And it's going to involve a lot of trial and error. It's going to involve individual challenges and organizational challenges. And if we're committed to get it working, I believe we can do that, but it's not going to happen overnight. And so we need to be kind and patient with each other as we try to work it out. And I believe for organizations, there's a massive imperative to work it out. I saw a study this week that suggests that one in three people are job hunting at the moment. And so if I work for an organization, when I don't get the flexibility that I'm seeking. I'm going to look for a job elsewhere. I think getting this right is critical for organizational stability. We're in a talent shortage in many places, and employees really feel that they want to have more say and more choice about how they work and how they live and work in the, in a connected way. And so I think we have to deal with this. I don't think it's a choice. One of the things that is stopping us from having open conversation about hybrid working is that there are challenges with it. It's not all really straightforward. The challenges are real. And even someone like me, who's a fan can't sweep those challenges under the carpet. We need to look at them and find ways around them. Some of the obvious ones that people talk about. Uh, lack of communication and lack of connection. A big one is lower collaboration. And another big one is the loss of teamwork. And in fact research prior to COVID showed just that, that when there was some sort of virtual distance innovation dropped trust, dropped cooperation. And from that weekend, read collaboration, dropped role clarity, dropped, and so on. So we can. But these problems are real, they're not imagined. And so we need to think about how do we create a hybrid model, a hybrid way of working that also addresses those challenges. There's also quite a lot of talk that I hear about, um, connected to trust really about how do I know if someone's not working? At when they're not in the office, how do I know they're working when they're at home? And I actually have a big challenge about this one, because I don't believe that when someone's in the office, we really know that they're working either. Unless we're actually standing over their shoulder and looking at their work, they could be present, but not working. They might be on calls, but again, we don't know how effective they're being on those calls or even who they're talking to. Unless we're monitoring that we've heard for years and years, the stories of someone leaving a jacket on the back of their chair and the whole idea of presenteeism prior to hybrid working. And I think this is the same thing. It's something that. Us feeling a security if people are in the office because we can see them, but I'm not convinced that security is real. I think it's false because we are not really sure what anybody's doing. And so for me, this is much more about effective teamworking and leadership and individual responsibility and accountability. It's about us learning to lead and manage a work together through output based conversations. There is one challenge that I hear that I think is probably the biggest one. And that is the informal collaboration and conversation. One example I've heard is that when we've got people on a sales floor, Taking sales calls. They learn from each other. They overhear the core and they think, oh, I could use that example with a client, or I didn't think to suggest that product to another client. So they might be learning from that informal listening and hearing. We also see that collaboration drops because we've lost. First of all, the informal collaboration of bumping into each other in a corridor. But also because we're not coming together physically to think about things, to work on things. And so I think both of these things, to me suggest that really, for most people in most organizations, a hybrid model is going to be better. That we're going to look for opportunities to come together, to be purposeful in the office so that we can collaborate. Before I go on and look at what we can do about it and how can we build effective hybrid working? I want to just take it from an individual lens and a leadership lens. For each of us as individuals, it's a different story. I have worked from home for over 20 years and actually COVID sort of ruined that a bit for me because I was at home all the time. I wanted to be out more, but for others, COVID has given them an opportunity to do something different, to see something different. But there's also many other factors for individuals. There's the commute time and the cost of commute. That's might suggest that actually I would prefer to be at home more often, but for others I might live in a very small apartment or I live with a large group of people or a large family, and I want to be in the office. And so every individual's story is do. I may be introverted and work better in a quiet environment. I may be extroverted and need the stimulation of the office. So there's something about this that does lead us to needing, to find individual solutions, to help people to work at their best. Working from home has also brought a particular challenge for some people related to fear and guilt. This comes up for people who are. Worried that if they're not seem to be working, it's the opposite of leaders needing to be in the office for individuals that can present a fear of sort of digital presenteeism. I need to be on my instant message. Constant AI need everybody to know that I'm actually working. I need to prove I working because they can see I'm online. Now, this is a bit false too, because when we're in the office, we go for lunch. We have coffee, we go to meetings. And so we're not actually available online all the time, but working remotely, this can create a sense of fear and guilt and tension. Will someone think I'm slacking? If I go and make it. Coffee. There's another piece that's really critical. And that's for people who are concerned about not being in the in-group at work and a worried about exclusion people in minority groups and organizations are worried about being further left out. Less opportunities to be included. And we know that this is true because there's an unconscious bias called distance bias. That means we don't think about people when they're as close to us. And if there's also an affinity bias, if we see them as being different to us, actually that fear might be real. There is a chance that unless as leaders we're very intentional about it, we might be less included. But also for individuals, there's this whole piece about deep work. We are so distracted in the office that often there's very little opportunity to sink into a report that needs to be returned or some data that needs to be analyzed and having some form of hybrid working where I can choose to work at home or somewhere else where I know I could concentrate and really sink into a piece of work. And not feel guilty about not being available online, I think is a real opportunity. So for individuals, it is going to be a trial and error as well, because you know, I'm new to it. We're all new to it. And we need to be open, I think, to trying something and seeing if it works best for us, and we may discover that we'd prefer to be in the office a bit more, or we really would like to be at home. And also acknowledging that our life situations will change. We may have very small children at home and it makes it very difficult to work. Or we may be at a point in our life where being at home a bit more often enables us to just keep an eye on somebody or just be available for somebody who might need us Acadia. If I'm in a steep learning curve, I may choose to go into the office, but all of this can happen. I think if we create a conversational environment where I can talk about it with my leader and where we agree what's best for the moment for now. So, what about for you as leaders? The challenge for leaders is that every leader I've spoken to has a different approach, a different view on what they think is best and are working in an organizational setting. And all of those organizational settings are different. And many leaders are actually feeling quite challenged and not sure what to do and how to make it work. And some are saying. And so the simplest thing is for me just to get everybody back in the office and then somehow we'll find a way forward and. For some of you, there will also be a real tension because there may be a global mandate to come into the office or a global mandate for hybrid, and you don't know how to work. And then you've got a challenge of there being local situations that are challenging. So as I'm recording this, you know, Shanghai is still in lockdown. And so for many people, there's no choice. Actually people are working for. That's the only option. And I think it's important for us to acknowledge that this is also a tension. It's actually a bit, um, it's uncertain. It's raising things about how do I create trust when I'm not sure what's happening and when there might be some change I wanted to draw on some research that I read actually before the pandemic can, I think holds some keys to how we make this work. Karen Sobel Lojeski has been studying virtual and remote distance working for a long time. Her definition of virtual distance is that it's a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow. Little by little and unconsciously when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens or smart devices. So her research was actually looking at what was happening to us when we were working as individuals at a desk at our computer and not so much working together in a collaborative environment. And of course this is been exaggerated a whole lot more now because we. Working hybrid hyperbole, have you, is that every time we're talking to a screen, we're actually working virtually. So this is similar to my point that when someone's working at a computer in the office, we're still working in a bubble and we don't really know what they're doing and that working from home, didn't start the distance actually talking to screens. She identifies three kinds of distance that she thinks affect us when we're working virtually there's physical distance. That's the practical thing about where are we sitting, but also things about time zone actually, which we don't talk about enough. There's operational distance and that's things like the team size. Do we have a shared context, but also how do we communicate on a day-to-day basis? And then there's affinity distance, and this is the lack of human connection or the presence of human connection. It's the part of us forming deep lasting relationships. And how do we go about doing. And being an effective leader in a hybrid world and being a competent and effective employee in a hybrid world, I believe requires us to embody behaviors on all three of these to be very intentional about. Are we thinking about the physical distance? Are we working out how we work together across operational distance and are we building affinity? And so that's how I want to think about how do we do hybrid working reasonably well, how can we think about making it work more effective? Keith Ferrazzi is somebody who's written a lot about virtual teams. And he says that virtual teams that are successful have several things in common. None of these will be a surprise to you. Good communication skills, high emotional, intense. Ability to work independently resilience and in global groups, awareness of, and sensitivity to other cultures. And these of course read like a list of good management and any environment. This is not a new list of things that we as leaders or we as colleagues couldn't should be learning to do. These are part of being an effective. Worker and effective leader, but in order for us to get to this place it's going to involve some upfront intentional work, as, as I've mentioned, because we've been doing this for over a hundred years, it's not going to be an overnight fix. We can look at how we set out a plan and work well together and use this as an opportunity to think about being different. We can use this period to deepen our good management practice, to look at how effective our one to ones are to. Reflect on our team meetings and how effective they are and the collaboration space we can think about mutual accountability as well as servant leadership. It's an opportunity for us to embody a coaching approach to think about. Am I listening and being curious enough with people? Am I open to new ideas? Am I demonstrating enough compassion and empathy, both as a leader and as an individual for me, for my colleagues, for the people around me. And we can do this by taking Sobel Lojeski's model and looking at operational distance and affinity distance and thinking about how do we build that? How do we make this work? And I'm going to start with affinity distance because, uh, relationships in affinity of the thing I'm most curious about at work, and I've got to start with trust. Because trust is right at the heart of this. It's a lack of trust. That's causing people to revert and to pull back I believe. And if we can think about focusing on building trust and maintaining trust, then it will be much easier to come up with a plan for us to think about how we move forward. And trust is actually built quite practically. We do some work on trust in our coaching program. And the thing that comes up the most is that I will trust you. If you do what you say you're going to do, or you keep me informed. If you can't do it. If I feel that there's open communication and we're transparent with each other, it's much easier for me to trust you. If I think. I was expected to do something and I let you know I've done. It you'll know that I'm on it, that I'm capable of doing it. And so actually building trust is a practical thing. It's about being reliable, both ways. It's about us having that open camp communication. And building trust helps to build the psychological contract that we build with each other. And this comes through open communication, but also challenge and question where appropriate it comes out of creating the structures that we need. To work with each other and it comes out of a sense of belonging and a sense of belonging comes from knowing you and you knowing me and us being able to talk together in a meaningful way. We create a sense of belonging and we create a sense of trust. When we check in on each other. When we ask people at the beginning of the meeting, how are you, whether we're in the office or whether we're online. Another way also to build trust is to express gratitude. I saw a study this week that suggests that when we're not physically co-located, we don't say thank you as much. And this is really simple. We can reach out to people and say, thanks for doing that piece of work. Thanks for dealing with that client. Thanks for looking after that new joiner are supporting them in their onboarding Any little piece of thank you is a meaningful piece. So that's looking at how do we build affinity? My encouragement is use empathy and trust and curiosity to help build affinity with people to help build that connection and to overcome the distance and the challenges of hybrid. Let's look at operational distance. This is the how of how we work together as a team and how we communicate, collaborate, those kinds of things. And I'm going to start here actually by talking about managing or demonstrating performance, because this is the thing that comes up. Next to collaboration as being people's biggest concerns. And the starting point here for me is about focusing on outputs and not inputs. It's not how many hours I spend at my desk or how much time I'm available online. But it's actually about how much work am I delivering? What have we agreed that I need to be delivering? And when am I delivering that? And does it happen? So many studies are pointing that are actual working hours, their little relationship to our productivity and our output. Studies showing that the shorter hours we work, the more productive we are so requiring people to travel to work because we believe that their inputs and outputs will be better, may really be a problem. So we need to think carefully about how can I work out what it is that's expected of you? How can we clearly communicate that? And then how can we share whether you're on track? Or not on track with that. And that involves really clear expectations, but also clear processes for reporting and saying what's happening and updating each other. There are great tools for this. You all have some in your organization. I use a Assana for this. I know lots of people use slack, but anything that we can do that says, okay, this is what's expected. And here's how I'm doing again. As individuals, I think we have a responsibility to just keep updating, keep your leader informed all the time of what's happening. Just paying them and say, okay, that's finished, got a problem on this. Uh, many people use the Friday afternoon email to update on what's happened in the week. What's gone. Well, what were the challenges? And all of this helps to keep the communication channels open. And that comes back to building trust. And figure as leaders, there's an opportunity to build in accountability, practices it coaching. We have, um, an agreement at the end of the coaching session that we work with people about how they hold themselves accountable for what they're going to do between coaching sessions. And there's an open discussion about and how we'll follow up in the next session. As a leader, you could also do this. You could ask your colleagues and team members, how will they. Make sure they get it done. How will they hold themselves accountable for doing their work? And rather than them looking to you for that accountability, they're holding themselves and feeling responsible. And in fact, autonomous for. There's a whole massive piece we could do on communication and communication patterns. And I'm not going to talk much about that because I think a lot is being written, but I would again say focus here on outputs rather than inputs, and also be very aware. Of drawing and quieter team members into conversations, particularly virtual ones. And also include those people who have the potential to be outsiders. And now collaboration. This is the thing that perhaps is the hardest in the virtual environment. And this might be where you decide actually, you're going to bring everybody into the office for some collaboration time. And that may be how you use your office time, maybe once or twice a week. Some people or all people, some days come into the office and you're very intentionally set that time as collaboration. If this is happening, it's more than to have a plan around it, to help people to understand the why of the compulsory office stays, what are we going to be doing? And if people are coming into the office to make sure that their time in the office as well used, and that there's lots of opportunities for collaboration. And you can do this by getting really clear about what needs collaboration, what do we need to be informally talking about and what doesn't, and then let's plan for those collaboration, things to happen on that one or two day a week. And the other things that don't necessarily need collaboration or a bilateral collaboration that can happen virtually can happen somewhere else, either at home or in the office or something. The other piece about this is building an informal collaboration as well as formal collaboration. So more formal collaboration would be coming together. Meetings problem solving, but informal is the piece about bumping into each other at the water cooler. And so on these days, when people are together, allowing enough space, plan, a team lunch, uh, create opportunities for people to have informal conversations, team performance and culture is often created through conversation. And so it's important that we allow that space, that we allow that time for people to chat to. So as you can see, one way of thinking about how hybrid working can work is to take these two lenses. Are we doing enough on affinity distance and overcoming the affinity distance that getting to know each other, the working well together, the trust, the building empathy. And have we talked enough, we've got enough of a plan about the operational distance, the piece of how we work together as a team, the practical things, how do we make this work in a hybrid world? But there's one other thing. Some of you will be listening to this and thinking, yeah, it's never going to happen. I'm not in my ideal situation either with my immediate boss or I'm in an organization, that's decided for whatever reason. That they want everybody back in the office. And I'm feeling frustrated about that either with my leader or my organization, and I wish it could be different. And I think this is an opportunity before you pick up your bags and move somewhere else to really think about building a. Create a business case, which talks about some of the things that I've talked about today, thinking about demonstrating how you'll be accountable. If you're the individual, how will you keep everybody informed? What days will you be in the office? What will you commit to doing in the office? How are you? Uh, demonstrate your own performance as for trial period, build in measures of success during that trial period and stay in regular communication with your leader. So the worst case scenario is that your leader will say no, but actually, unless you build the case and have a very structured conversation, then you won't. And as a manager, if you're in an organization where you would like your team to have more hybrid opportunities, but the organizational prevailing culture is saying no same thing, create a plan, create a business plan or a business case around it. And look at the way it'll work. Maybe ask for trial periods and look at ways that you can bring it about so that you can make it happen. Hybrid working isn't going away. And so there's an opportunity to be very intentional about how we create. Hybrid working environments that work both for the organization, for leaders and for individuals to take the opportunity, to be very, very intentional about how we build that, to keep reviewing it and evaluating it and seeing how it's going to be prepared to try things and for them to fail. But not to take that as hybrid doesn't work, but to move back into trying another way as hybrid working. And I encourage you to go on an exploration and to see how you can find a way to get hybrid working well.