On Feb 23 2022 / by Wyoming Paul

Be flexible with your flexibility: David Shirley on creating a successful hybrid working model

WP: Hi David, thank you for sharing your expertise with us today! To dive right in: lockdowns and working from home have created huge change for businesses and employees, including a widespread lean toward flexible or hybrid working. What is your stance on this change?

DS: Absolutely - life has completely changed, the way we work has changed, and we need tools to match that new way of working. You have to reimagine the office, because it’s not the same as it was before.

I think the hybrid solution with flexibility woven into it is by far the best solution, and we’ve always said that, pre-pandemic as well. Embedding and normalising flexible work arrangements increases productivity, improves health and wellness, and reduces operating costs. The CEO, CFO and CHRO are all happy. There’s a big opportunity for everyone to win here, including society, families and the environment.

WP: It’s great to hear a positive outlook, as many people are a bit concerned about how to deal with this transition. What advice do you give clients who are beginning to make that change toward a flexible workforce?

DS: It needs a lot of in-person conversation and negotiation to find the sweet spot, because it’s got to be a collective agreement with your team. Definitely talk to your employees, include them in the process and understand what their desires are.

I find the teams with high trust levels get through this much better than the ones with low trust levels, so you’ve got to talk to your employees first and build that level of trust so they feel like they’re part of the solution.

Give everyone the opportunity to say what they would like or what would work for them. Even if you have two people in the same team who do the same role, their lives and needs will be different.

I would suggest giving people some information to think about beforehand, and then bring people together in small think-tank groups to talk it out, with some core people present to collect all the ideas.

Start to understand what people are doing, when they are doing it, how they are doing it, which pieces make sense to do at the office, and what the office should look like to do that. Ultimately, you want to create an environment that makes sense for people to want to come to do certain parts of their work.

Prior to Covid, we used to say there were five stakeholders that had to be included. The flexible work arrangement had to work for the individual, their boss, their team, the organisation and the client. An additional stakeholder that’s come in now is the family, or whoever you live with at home. Your home environment needs to be included, because those spaces are shared in how we work now as well. Unless you hear from everyone, it doesn’t work. It’s about finding the synergy rather than the compromise.

And remember, none of it is written in stone. You’ve got to be flexible with your flexibility.

WP: Flexibility all the way. How does this translate into how businesses use their office space?

DS: We’ve worked with many clients over the years about reconfiguring their spaces to be more collaborative and support flexible working. So with any hybrid model, it’s important to make sure that we go to the office for the right reasons – for those collaborative or rapport-building ideas – and to then build offices that support those types of interactions.

If I’m coming into the office to collaborate for example, then I want a shared space for that. On the other hand, if people are having important online meetings in the office, you could also create a mini sound-proof studio at your office with a curated background and great lighting that people can use.

Depending on your organisation and how you work and collaborate, you might need more meeting rooms, or you might need more open plan areas. Each company has to decide what the office is for, for the type of work they do in that space.

Try not to bite off too much at once though. It’s like a New Year’s resolution, if you try to do everything at once, you’ll fail at all of them. So take small steps, do little pieces at a time.

WP: Do you think business leaders should be considering perks and incentives as part of their plan?

DS: For me, these can seem like bribes to stay at work and to stay working, and I’m not a fan of that. I don’t think we should be looking to bribe our employees to come back to the office.

If you know what your job and goals are, you can then ask yourself where and when is best to achieve that, and the office might be the best place for you to achieve some pieces of your work because of the environment that is provided.

Create an office environment and space that lends itself to people wanting to do pieces of their role in that space. That’s the best way to encourage people back, not to bribe them.

WP: When it comes to the return to the office, do you think an all or nothing approach can ever be a good idea?

DS: No, I don’t. We recently had a newspaper article about two big, publicly well-known organisations in Australia. One was getting everyone back to the office and being the cheerleaders of getting the CBDs humming again. The other wasn’t going back at all, staying remote with satellite offices.

I don’t think either of those are good examples of how to do this well. Some people love working at home, while other people can’t wait to go back to the office, so you can’t tell me that everyone from one business wants to go back permanently, and everyone at another business doesn’t want to go back at all.

Those organisations taking an all or nothing approach are going to be at the forefront of the 40% of employees who are looking to move jobs when this all stabilises. They’re going to be the organisations that are going to suffer and lose a lot of talent, while the companies that do really well at this are going to have a smorgasbord of talent to hire.

WP: That sounds like a very timely warning! Next, could you tell me more about the tools and offerings businesses could provide staff to improve their flexible working experience?

DS: Going forward, most meetings will have at least one person online. Because of that, we need to change how meetings occur so that everyone is an active participant, and no one is just a witness.

This means you should be thinking about what tools and technology people need to have great virtual meetings, such as better laptops, headphones, cameras or microphones, and better equipment and connectivity in office meeting rooms.

For example, if I was trying to explain some complex models or ideas in a meeting, I would have an iPad with a pen and I would share that screen with the whole team, drawing as I was talking. You could do the same thing with an iPad if you were taking people through a report and marking up any notes or changes.

Another tip is, similar to how everyone has a beautifully designed corporate email signature, you can also create corporate meeting backgrounds for online meetings. These can either be personalised with things like name, title and contact number, or if you have a nice office, take some professional pictures of your reception and encourage people to use that as their background.

WP: How does employee wellbeing play into all of this?

DS: If building rapport and socialising is important for your organisation and culture, that’s another time you come together. If you aren’t going back to the office and are saving money by shrinking your corporate footprint, use some of that money for some fun off-site get-togethers.

We’ve also been talking so much about how we can make it easier to work, but the flip side of it is that we’ve also got to make it easier to stop working. We fought for the right to be able to do anything from anywhere, but in giving people the tools to do so, people are now working all the time.

Just because we can work anywhere and anytime doesn’t mean we should. So we also need to implement boundaries and be quite proactive about it when we develop hybrid working models, because the creep of work into our personal lives has been more so than the other way around. Working all hours of the day and not getting enough sleep is not successful flexible working. We want people to be happy and healthy.