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How to thrive in a hybrid and digital world

Published on 03 August 2022

How to thrive in a hybrid and digital world

Our monthly Leadership Forums have provided a way of drawing together insight on these topics over the last two years. Out of this we have been able to build a forward-thinking framework, with four key factors to address. These will help you to navigate in a changing digital and hybrid world, with different mixes of home, office, and blended working. This sits alongside a further four factors around Wellbeing and Operational Culture, which we address in a following article.

Social connection and engagement

Feelings of connection to people, and purpose, are key components of personal wellbeing: “we are in this together”, “this is the part we play”, “this matters”, “I really care”. This is fundamental to any healthy workplace, hybrid or not, but requires more deliberate transition planning where home and hybrid working is new to your people. Consider the five steps to wellbeing advised by Mind, the mental health charity (see page 74). We need to connect (first) and then be active, learn, give, and take notice (or be ‘present’ as the NHS guide rephrases it). Working in customer operations means some sense of connection to the public, but for many a great workplace is made by social connection with your team and other colleagues. This is often a key reason why people stay in the same role or workplace. People can share stories, problems, and anecdotes outside of work, building rapport and strengthening relationships. Purpose and people shape a workplace; leadership and culture need to embed habits that enable connection.

The huge numbers of people locked down and working at home, with little prior preparation, has clearly had mental health consequences, despite great efforts by many. If you feel isolated working at home, it’s very easy to feel less ‘present’ or committed. So, operating models that include homeworkers absolutely need to integrate some of the new, proven approaches to remote socialisation. Team leaders, managers and others will need training and support, so that they become confident with these principles and new habits. For instance

  • Where are the opportunities for sharing personal matters and mixing socially?
  • What would work best for supporting colleagues with work when we are no longer side by side? Which ideas seem most practical?
  • How do we assess or track mental health and wellbeing in a hybrid world?

How can you build new habits?

Let me bring this to life with two conversations from the pandemic. One team manager talked about coming in each day and feeling as if his team (working at home) were actually with him. They weren’t even on web cams, but they did all ‘chat’ as they came and went. They asked each other about how the evening had been or the previous day. You don’t have to be together or on the phone to do that. This is the digital shift. Contrast that with another team manager elsewhere, used to a really strong team feeling when all sat together, but felt bereft of that in working from home. Habits and attitudes need to match your operating model. So, now go on to think about hybrid working. How will home-based teams interact with those who purely work in the office? If you’ve learned in lockdown to communicate with multi-site calls or live chat forums or on-demand videos, perhaps tracking responses and creating auditable information, are we just going to let that go? We will need technology solutions that make for a truly integrated digital workspace.

In the post pandemic world, these issues are changing again, but coming in to the office a few days a week (or month) is not itself an adequate answer to social connection. If that is all you are saying, you are not doing enough! This is an area where if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Be warned and spend some time to think about the issues involved!

  • Can you identify difference in behaviour and connection between teams or individuals? Are there some role models? How do we learn from them?
  • How can you build engagement around the habits that you want to see in your future working culture? Who are the people you need to be making this happen?

Work spaces and technology

Once you have established some of the key principles of social connection and knowledge sharing, you can then apply these to the way you organise the physical spaces for work (at home or in the office) and the technologies that underpin this. You will certainly need to take a fresh look at this and replace the many temporary fixes that have evolved over the last two years. Do we really want to be like the schools which kept using post-war portacabins for decades, because the problems were no longer so pressing that they had to be addressed? You can probably imagine examples at home too, of living with temporary fixes that you never have time to go back and sort out properly.

A clear future policy will create confidence and certainty, without which people are likely to leave for certainty elsewhere. Furthermore, think how to make the office fresh and welcoming (it will be different from before the pandemic) and how space will be used. Is it for teams to sit together? For collaboration? For just getting on with your work? Many offices are being re-configured to support hot desking, freeing up space for other purposes, but will they be allocated in ways that support those purposes? For instance, one member suggests one day in the office as a team and others at your personal choice. Some members are finding new energy from being in the office together, but which aspects are actually driving this?

Consider how space and technology can help, not hinder.

  • What equipment is needed for people who work both at home and in the office?
  • Do those working full time in the office or at home have different specifications?
  • Are people coming in to collaborate? To sit alongside their team? How do the technology and physical layouts support this? How do you book space?
  • Is the internet in the office fit for purpose if more meetings become virtual?
  • What kit may need to be doubled up, both at home and in the office, and for whom?

Do you bring out the best in people?

Take time to truly understand how their physical working environment and technology actually works for your people. It may be different at home from the office and will probably be different for people in different roles and home-work situations. Productivity needs clear review as well, and IT for homeworkers a key area of focus for many members. Here, good quality actionable data is often a game changer as the team at AXA found when rolling out desktop analytics.

  • What metrics track engagement well and how do you analyse this for different groups to identify issues and trends that you can act on?
  • Do you have the capability to drill down into systems performance data so that progress can be tracked, and priorities are not set on anecdotal reports?
  • When updating technology, do you consider supply chain issues as you plan timelines and priorities?

As important as what you do, is how you do it. A habit of top-down decision-making is a pitfall to avoid, especially if you mandate options for people by role or team and don’t appreciate individual needs. Try to bring out the best of both worlds (home and office). Then offer choice to demonstrate your trust in people. Keep reviewing the impact of these decisions on recruitment and retention, among different groups of people (see page 77). Data is key to make possible useful diagnostic measures and well-founded planning assumptions. Some operations are looking at local hubs in the back of branches or stores. Some make coaching/121s mainly virtual, with less need for small meeting pods, while others do the opposite, bringing people in for these.

Knowledge sharing and support

Through the pandemic many organisations have had to induct virtually (wholly or in part) and, even when people work on site, they may be seated far from people with experience and knowledge to share, so lack the traditional side-by-side mentoring. Furthermore some places no longer have dedicated canteen or break rooms. On the plus side, there is now a huge growing body of good practice to learn from. Some members even actively choose virtual induction, to use bite sized knowledge videos or if recruitment requires small induction groups, for instance.

Build yourself a wish list of the tools and approaches that could help you. For instance, virtual messaging boards can be great, and MS Teams has many features you can use at no extra cost. We find many members using Teams but are we even scratching the surface of what this can do for us? There are plenty of alternatives too, if Microsoft isn’t your provider, with Slack, Yammer etc used powerfully by some. We see people bring live calls into a training environment, with shared chat between mentor/inductee and time to talk after the end of the call. One member holds a ‘Bridge Week’ for each induction group, when experienced advisors phone inductees to role play customers. As well as creating a safe space for practice, this gives time afterwards for both structured feedback and informal chat, so that new recruits gradually get to know the wider team. Never overlook the importance of this.

So, however you do this, be deliberate about informal mentoring and knowledge sharing and take time to train your team leaders and coaches so that they are confident and committed to it.

  • How do you replicate informal chat (like around the ‘water cooler’ or ‘smoke shed’) virtually?
  • How do you identify development opportunities you would previously have picked up on in informal conversations (eg good practice, performance blockers, talent, stress)?

Innovation in knowledge management

Confidence in what you are saying is vital in Customer Operations and Knowledge Management Systems (KMS) are rapidly growing in use (see article on pg 61). Implementing such technology can be a spur for creating well-documented processes and information, which are also key to digital transformation and self-service. Moreover, effective use of these systems can be brilliant for building confidence, especially where processes are complex, high risk, infrequently used or change often. When you stop to review it you will be surprised how much of your regular customer contact this covers!

If you have these systems, use them for training systems and process, from initial induction, so that recruits become skilled in searching and can apply information ‘in the moment’. Some long-service teams may need training on this. Just asking a colleague or leader on the next desk is not the only or best way to learn, but if you have always done this it’s a big shift. You need excellent search and personalisation features. Consider automated gathering of improvement ideas. You also need the right resource to keep information up to date, accurate and engaging, tracking these as measures of success. So, build a central team with the skills to lay out information well, and in different ways, using pyramid principles.

  • Do you have a dedicated knowledge management system and team?
  • How do you track information usage? Or people engaged in giving ideas for improvement?
  • Where are your skills for creating really effective written or video information?

Working patterns for the future

There is massive change brewing, as a result of the increase in home and hybrid working, and the wider impact of the pandemic on people’s lifestyle choices. We see changes both in customer habits and in the habits and expectations of our own people. For instance, a member in Field Planning found weekend home appointments were less popular than expected. Are more customer now happy to arrange work-athome days for this? Do advisors feel in control of their working day, able to mix up domestic tasks or physical/social activity? Do you track this, with new time codes for instance? Some schedule desk space alongside a schedule, others offer self-service for this and some look for all these perspectives to be integrated. For instance, at Hoist Finance, shift bidding means that agents can pick shifts within a framework and choose between home/office work, also enabling team meetings and workshops to be timetabled.

Alongside this, we need to blend different lifestyle needs, allowing for the fact that requirements are different when working at home or in the office. And how do you consider new trends? We see a growing interest in pull scheduling (popularised by gig working, where people select work themselves, up front, rather than constantly change everything the minute the schedule is published). As we’ve seen, there’s more focus on micro-scheduling (what goes on during the day not just when you start/finish). Operating models need to support multiple scenarios in our business planning, and to work through the implications of all the business and customer changes for people’s working lives. How do we assess the trade-off with their personal needs and lifestyle choices? Remember one-size doesn’t fit all, so how do we tailor working arrangements to provide choice and certainty for people, along with flexibility for change on both sides? This is a huge topic and addressed in the following article on workforce strategy and the flexibility toolkit.

Don’t be ambiguous or indecisive

There is much to consider as we face the digital shift and navigate the hybrid world post-pandemic, with different mixes of home, office, and blended working. Yet we need to move on from the ‘temporary’ solutions that were acceptable in the pandemic. We are already two years on, and people expect us to be clear and decisive about the choices and policies for hybrid working. They otherwise look to leave, or don’t see us an employer of choice. At the same time, it is important not to be top-down in all decision making but offer choice. How can we keep a continuous improvement mindset for everything that we do, by tracking the data and learning from experience all the time? Really, hybrid working is not rocket science and it can be hugely popular. Let’s just keep learning how to be better and also better at how we do it.

Author: Paul Smedley

This article was first published in the 2022 Best Practice Guide - You Moment of Truth: Confident to Succeed

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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