In the middle of May, Microsoft held its UK Envision conference on the outskirts of London’s Canary Wharf.
“It’s happening because of a complete realignment in the way people work” as a result of COVID-19, but also Brexit. “I talk to 40 CEOs every week, and [they talk] about labor shortages even more than inflation”.
Danker was clear. “There’s not much the government can do to make these things go away”, businesses need to step up. Although they are suffering, they are incredibly resilient, and CEOs are telling Danker: “We’ve got this”.
The challenge of hybrid work
One area that employers need to prioritize and focus on as they tackle the current economic situation, and particularly the talent war dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’, is getting hybrid work right.
Hybrid is going to be the future of work. Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index found that 38% of the 31,000 workers surveyed are working in a hybrid model – and 53% are planning to implement this type of model in the next 12 months.
In addition, a lack of flexible working options is a major cause of the ‘Great Resignation’. Most employees want to choose where they work and they want to fit work around their lives (rather than the other way round).
It is very easy to talk about the theory of hybrid work, but actually figuring out the right model for their organization, and implementing it, is a huge challenge for employers.
At Envision, UNLEASH sat down with Microsoft UK’s modern business group’s senior director Nick Hedderman to get his top tips.
Hedderman shared that we’ve moved from “the work life conflict era” of pre-2000, to a period of technological development that allowed “work life balance [to] come to life” – in this situation, you were able to send an email on your phone or take your laptop home with you, which “back in 2000 was a very progressive thought”.
And now we are living in the era of “integrating your working life” as a result of COVID-19.
“Whilst there have been many negatives of the pandemic, there have definitely been some pros” – he shares his own personal example of having three children under the age of four.
With the eldest, “I missed a lot of his early years” because of commuting to and from the office every day, “whereas the two babies, I’ve seen every single morning, evening, lunchtime”, so “as a father, I feel like my work and my life is very well integrated”.
The first thing, therefore, that employers need to do with their hybrid models is to “empower your people to work, how, when, and where [they] like”.
This has direct positives for the business; Hedderman shares: “This is one of those rare circumstances where employee engagement, experience and wellbeing has a direct correlation to company success”.
Employees still want in-person connection
While remote work has its positives for individuals and businesses, a successful hybrid model must also retain a significant role in the office and in-person connection.
73% of those surveyed in the Work Trends Index want flexible working to remain, but 63% desire some in-person connection.
“We’re all human beings; we connect better when we’re physically together [and] certain tasks are done better together” – for instance, “knowledge transfer happens in a really lovely way”, Hedderman shares.
But how you bring people together is the critical thing.
Many organizations are saying “you must be at the office” x number of days a week, but “that sounds very draconian”, and “it will probably turn people off” (as is proven by the ‘Great Resignation’ trend), according to Hedderman.
Instead, companies need to “make it worth [their] commute”. This could be with social activities, or by offering free food or drink.
In addition, Hedderman talks about the need to redesign the office space.
Rather than having rows and rows of desks, if people are coming in to collaborate, then the space needs to echo that. Comfortable sofas and whiteboards might be the solution to helping teams get creative and innovate with each other.
But Hedderman also notes that it is important to remember that people come into the office for different reasons.
While some may come in to collaborate and socialize with their teams, others might want to use the office to do focus work because they struggle to concentrate at home, maybe because they are living in a house share.
Remember, “one size does not fit all”. Hedderman shares that Microsoft’s internal employee survey data showed that while 58% said doing focus work was the least likely reason they would come into the office, the same figure also said focus work is the main reason why they would go to the office.
Therefore, there is a need to think about designing the office to have focus areas, that are almost like library and are deadly silent.
“There needs to be cultural rules around that fact that when you go and sit there, you don’t chat to the person next to you, [but] that’s the palace you can go to focus” – Hedderman shares that Microsoft is actually trialing this in their Dutch office.
He also suggests that for those without a proper, dedicated home setup, managers could have a conversation at an individual way and agree “a different way of being able to equip them to work in a coffee shop with the right headphones and the right laptop”.
Serial tech entrepreneur Phil Libin told UNLEASH back in August 2021 that he was giving all his employees at All Turtles $800 a month to create “healthy and productive work environment”- by, for example, investing in a membership to a co-working space, library, museum or club.
For Hedderman, it is all about personalizing and tailoring a package to employee needs “that allows them to be productive and get focused work done” while also benefiting from in-person connection.
Stamping out proximity bias and presenteeism
While discussing hybrid working, the conversation turned to proximity bias and ensuring that remote workers aren’t out of sight and out of managers’ minds when they are thinking about pay rises or promotions.
Hedderman notes that proximity bias is a “genuine, real risk”. The solution comes from shifting leadership mindsets away from presenteeism; it is about “measuring people on the impact that they create, not the number of hours they sit there”.
Technology can be a real help here. Hedderman notes that “every meeting room [in the office] needs to be equipped to be able to digitize the conversation”.
The layout is inclusive, it relies on spatial audio and it zeroes on who is speaking if they are remote – this ensures everyone can be seen and heard no matter if they are working from home or in the office.
The next stage of this will be Microsoft Mesh, which is the tech giant’s foray into the metaverse. In this model, employees’ avatars will gather on a Teams call in a 3D office space and have access to all the same apps – Microsoft is already experimenting with this with IBM.
Hedderman adds that he always has a meeting moderator (who isn’t him). This means that they can keep an eye on the chat and whether people are putting their hands up virtually.
This brings everyone into the conversation and ensures the person hosting the meeting is “not just prioritizing those in the room”.
Another way to tackle presenteeism is by embracing asynchronous work. “One of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the past year is people watching recorded meetings”; asynchronous work is on the rise, flexible working is not just about where you work, but also when you work.
“Creating a culture that balances synchronous and asynchronous work is a nicer way of getting over some of that presenteeism,” notes Hedderman.
This is because “it pivots you to thinking about how am I going to best use my time to solve problems, as opposed to being the last person to say goodbye”.
Creating boundaries and work-life balance
Despite the positives of asynchronous work, it can cause people to overwork as they feel like they need to reply to emails and messages whenever they are sent (even if it is outside their contracted working hours).
Hedderman acknowledges that this is a concern, but says the answer is creating boundaries.
Microsoft data is showing that employees are self-policing and are being stricter with their working hours. The data shows that fewer meetings are being created over lunch hours and fewer interactions are happening on Microsoft Teams and Outlook over the weekend.
But self-policing isn’t enough. Leaders need to role model, and “create some acceptable norms [about] the way that the team and the business operates”.
“If I send emails at night time, that starts to create a culture of that being acceptable. If people reply to me at night time, and I reply back [immediately], then that’s validating it even more,” shares Hedderman.“So I am a very, very cautious leader of not doing things like that”.
Whenever he does do work late at night, for instance on a train journey home from an event, and he wants to get through his backlog of emails, “I’ll put at the top ‘I am sending this now because I am traveling, but I do not expect your response until you dem it acceptable to reply’”.
Of course, sometimes it can be hard for leaders to keep an eye on distributed, hybrid teams and check that they are not overworking and burning out. How can tech help here?
Hedderman shares that Microsoft Viva, the tech giant’s employee experience platform, is a real help for him and his team, as well as the clients he talks to.
“It gives your own personal insights at the end of each week, [and] it is encouraging and nudging you to think differently” – maybe do more mindfulness, take more breaks between meetings, and block out focus time in your diary.
But managers also see anonymized insights from their team, including encouraging more one-to-one sessions and spotting trends such as working on the weekends. This nudges managers to have conversations and guide them through managing that balance of asynchronous and synchronous work.
“I’ve sat down with some of the most senior leaders in this country [with a Microsoft Viva report on their workers], and they’ve said ‘Oh, I had no idea that was happening’ or ‘That was not what I was expecting.”
Ultimately, knowledge is power. It is the organizations that use data to get hybrid working right who will thrive in the ‘Great Resignation’.
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