The seven Cs of work: how to shape a hybrid home/office working model post-pandemic

The seven Cs of work: how to shape a hybrid home/office working model post-pandemic

The dramatic intrusion of COVID-19 on our working lives last year put remote working – previously a little used (outside of the call centre) way of working – front and centre for those office-based businesses and roles where working from home could still be effective.

With no more than 24 hours’ notice in many cases, amidst a national lockdown, employees took to their home offices, bedrooms, garden sheds and heroically got on with the job.

In many ways, that was the easy bit; there was no choice. But as we start the easing of lockdown and experience the exciting prospect of liberties being restored, those same businesses that turned their working models upside down in just a few days, now need to work out how they’re going to adjust those models for the long-term to reflect the very different needs and wants of those in work, as well as harness the efficiencies gained post-COVID.

To help answer the question, The Alexander Partnership recently brought together a virtual forum of 18 of the most senior HR leaders from major UK and multi-national businesses to share the different philosophies and approaches being developed and evolved as organisations decide how and where their employees will work after the pandemic.

One size doesn’t fit all
There was widespread recognition that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be unworkable for businesses operating in multiple locations and geographies, with employees having different needs and preferences. Single young people, for example, appear to be the most desperate to get back to the office while others, perhaps those with families and more space, have enjoyed the break from the tyranny of the commute and the 9 to 5.

Most businesses on our forum appeared to be favouring a principles-based approach to the return to the office. “We strive to match the nature of the work to the location of the work,” said the chief human resources officer for an international insurer. A focus on the customer should be the driver, added an HR leader from an ecommerce platform: “The guiding principle is that we build our teams and deliver our work to get the best for our customer. That helps the argument in terms of what employees want and what businesses can deliver.”

This approach inevitably means adopting a hybrid working model – or ‘hub and home’ as one organisation on the forum calls it – with guidelines as to how many days need to be spent in the office and how many can be worked remotely.

To mandate or not to mandate
How far though do these requirements need to be mandated? “I would never use the word mandate,” said one HR leader, keen to frame it as more a choice for employees, but with a requirement for a certain number of days in the office. The preference on the forum was to leave it to management discretion where possible for what works best for their teams.

Of course, there must be some structure to make the best use of the reduced office space that most HR leaders on the forum reported their organisation had implemented, which means not everyone can go in on the same day. “We’re organised around ‘intact days’ where whole teams come in physically on a nominated day. You don’t want some people in the office having a meeting with others in their team dialling in.” said one HR leader, who added that his firm would also be making use of space planning tools to help facilitate their approach.

Another major retailer reported evidence of the management challenge in getting some workers back in the office. “Given frontline and distribution colleagues have been working throughout there is an expectation people should be able to come back, but we’ve started to see that our office people working from home have almost developed an entitlement mentality; [believing] that they can now choose what they do. Some of these behavioural shifts are habits that have been formed over the last year; how do you unpick them?”

The seven Cs
Given these challenges to the development of a hybrid or blended workplace model, some helpful areas raised by the forum for leaders to think about when planning any organisation’s return to the office, can be encapsulated under the ‘seven Cs’ of:

  • Connectivity
  • Collaboration
  • Culture
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Coaching
  • Compassion

Time to connect
Let’s start with connectivity. One of the problems of remote working has been a loss of connectivity between employees, particularly outside an employee’s own team and network. “We’ve lost our ability to understand what is going on with people,” said the HR leader from a major Telco. “We haven’t had the opportunity to be in touch in person…and have hardly seen anyone outside of our own networks.”

To help address the problem, some organisations have turned to technology: “We’ve built a digital tool which has stories and anecdotes of what people have been through over the past year,” said the HR director from an airline. Rediscovering that sense of connection will be crucial as part of re-building and evolving an organisation’s culture said another who had also developed a digital solution to share experiences. “It’s part of honouring the journey over the last year and looking forward to the next phase. It’s something that is particularly important for our younger employees who have suffered being at home for long periods.”

Developing culture via remote working is very difficult and re-establishing connection will help organisations evolve their culture for the new working environment. One HR leader reported using crowdsourcing techniques to both connect employees and generate ‘energy’ around creating ideas around the new work approach.

Time to collaborate
The ability to collaborate will also be key. More than one HR leader on our forum emphasised that the office will no longer be a place to simply sit and answer emails and attend Zoom calls. The office space must now be a place that facilitates and encourages collaboration. Being more thoughtful about where you work was also discussed particularly for those in consulting organisations. “The default in consulting,” said the HR Director from a management consulting firm, “was always I should be near the client. This choice requires a sophistication of decision making that people are not yet equipped for.” But building that sophistication should be a priority. Again, that’s a cultural development that will need to be addressed.

Being creative in how businesses look at the challenge is important both in making use of any tech tools that are out there, for example, and in how guiding principles are applied. There is little room for a fixed mindset in the new ways of working; leaders, managers and employees will need to be creative and flexible to make it work.

Coaching can play a role here both to give managers the tools they’ll need to effectively look after their teams and help them make the transition to a hybrid working model, as well as assisting the younger employees who require the day-to-day support and mentorship that they can’t get as effectively from working remotely.

Of course, good communication is the activity that glues all this together. As one HR director on the forum put it: “We have to be sensitive to employees’ needs; a sensitivity founded on good communication – that means small group conversations, one on ones and lots of information on the practicalities. We need a lot of patience, dialogue and agility to course correct.”

Plenty of optimism
Fundamentally redesigning employee working models in a matter of months would have been unthinkable little more than a year ago. But as our HR leaders’ forum revealed, businesses are embracing the challenge and there was a sense of optimism that there is an opportunity to distil the positives from the experience of remote working over the last 12 months.

But it’s not going to be easy and there is no predefined route map to follow; with different regions at different stages of the pandemic and their recovery. Every business will take some wrong turns, which is why the final ‘C’ I’d like to focus on is compassion. It’s a muscle that many leaders have had to exercise more during the pandemic than perhaps they have ever done so before, and I know will be a critical leadership skill in this new environment.