Why we need to re-learn the art of collective working
One of the enduring legacies of the pandemic has been an increase in control for employees in how, when and where they work especially in terms of hybrid working.
As a long-term campaigner for flexible working, I see this as a good thing.
But my recent research with Scottish employers, who together employ 56,000 people, suggests there is one particularly challenging issue that many companies are still grappling with – how to help employees think collectively again, and not just about their own needs and preferences.
Collective vs individual working
Before Covid, work was something we typically did together most of the time, usually in the same place.
The needs of the collective - our work and colleagues - came first and our individual needs second. Lockdown - for those whose jobs could be done from home - turned this on its head.
Today, many workers have become accustomed to working at least part of the week from home, giving them more time for life outside work, be that the school run, keeping fit or the weekly shop.
Some researchers value this additional personal time at up to 8% of salary. Certainly, it is something that will not be given up lightly by many workers.
But there can be negative effects for the organisation arising from what I term ‘me-ism’. If individuals always put their needs first, without considering the impact on their team and wider organisation, this creates a cultural and management challenge.
Managers, and those they manage, can generally measure and agree on an individual’s outputs, whether a piece of work has been completed on time, its quality, whether it has met a specific deliverable target.
What is less easy to articulate is someone’s contribution to the team and to company culture, such as their role in supporting new and junior members of the team, in asking about colleagues lives to understand them better and by participating in team events online or in-person to foster team spirit that will drive productivity.
We read about managers in big name companies attempting to deal with this challenge by turning back the clock on flexibility, insisting that staff return to onsite working.
That comes with huge risk around being able to attract and retain the people you most want, especially if you cannot offer Goldman Sachs-like salaries. Many of the employers I spoke to were thinking of effective ways to support their managers to help staff relearn how to work collectively.
Re-learning how to work collectively
Solutions among Scottish employers are pragmatic and straightforward. Managers are being trained to build their confidence and capability in managing flexible and hybrid teams.
This includes introducing team protocols, to establish a shared understanding of how hybrid working operates for the individual, the team and the wider business. It is also important to learn to be direct about why and when in-person time is needed.
Managers are learning to clearly explain the commercial purpose, be that a project sprint, or more effective sales calls. Reminding staff that flexibility has to be a two-way deal also builds greater shared responsibility.
The social side of work is also being explored again. Many managers are successfully building in-person team time into the work calendar, for example for training, social events, and intentional time together.
The right space
Improving the office set-up, making sure there is space for good collaboration, enough meeting rooms, desks where staff can simply ‘plug in and go’ makes it easier and more attractive for workers to come to the office.
Acknowledging that not everyone will want to, or be able to, work hybrid-ly, and making sure that full time in the office remains an option for new recruits and for current staff, has the added benefit of building buzz and warmth into the office, making it more attractive for those who attend less frequently.
Greater autonomy drives engagement and performance
What struck me most was how the experience of the employers in my study confirmed other recent surveys of hybrid working in Scotland.
The less prescriptive that employers felt able to be about the time they expected their staff to spend in the office, the more likely staff were to be there more than required.
Choice and control over where and when you work has long been understood to contribute to engagement and performance.
Here in Scotland, we see that benefit being played out as managers and teams normalise hybrid working, countering the negatives of both the pandemic’s ‘me-ism’ and the presenteeism of the traditional workplace.
Sarah Jackson OBE is a visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management and a senior associate for Scottish social business Flexibility Works