Home & Office

'Have a bit of fun on the way': How companies are navigating remote work and the return to the office

Everything has changed about the workplace during the past two years – and the future's going to involve some big changes, too.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

While many professionals are returning to work in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, others are still logging in from home. For managers, the challenge is finding ways to blend office and home working effectively and create a happy and productive workforce.

From asking key questions about worker requirements to developing a proactive approach to change, five business leaders give their best-practice tips for creating an effective approach to hybrid working.

1. Think a little differently

Loïc Giraud, global head of digital platform and product delivery at Novartis, says the life sciences giant – like so many other major companies – is looking at how to make a successful transition to hybrid working. 

Giraud says this shift has already radically changed how the business operates. Last year, Novartis recruited 16,000 people. Most of those staff have never been in one of the company's offices. 

"They've been working remotely," he says. "In fact, now we call it a 'distributed workplace'. Everybody has got used to working from home."

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As people are starting to commute again, Novartis hasn't mandated a return to the office. Giraud says giving people the ability to work remotely can help companies attract talented staff who value flexible working.

However, he says the creation of a successful hybrid-working strategy will be a constant work in progress. Managers must ask some important questions.

"Ultimately, when you get into this mode, you have other things to consider: how do you engage teams, how do you create teams and how do you create products? You have to think a little differently, but our company believes that this hybrid model is going to be key for us to succeed," he says.

2. Be as transparent as possible

Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at software company Adobe, says we're still in the early days of the hybrid-working model – and for that reason, all bosses must avoid being too prescriptive about when and where people work.

"I think the bottom line is that it's essential to be flexible, and really sensitive to each team member's needs. And that's what we're doing at Adobe," she says. 

Stoddard has created an Employee Experience Group at Adobe, which is trying to figure out through experiments how to create an effective hybrid-working strategy. That work includes looking at new collaborative technologies and staying close to employees to understand what they think and what they want.

"I think it's very important for business leaders to stay close to the experiences people are having and keeping them a top priority. We're trying to be very transparent and to communicate a lot," she says.

And Stoddard says managers can't just work from home all the time and expect their staff to work a 9-5 from the corporate HQ: "I think that employees expect leadership to walk the talk when it comes to change. It's important that we reinforce what hybrid is."

3. Try and keep a light touch

Spencer Clarkson, CTO at business services specialist Verastar Group, recognises the world of work has changed fundamentally during the past two years, but that doesn't mean employers and employees should beaver away on work tasks in isolation: "Have a bit of fun on the way – I think that's important," he says.  

We've all spent less time working directly with colleagues due to the pandemic. What's more, we've all got used to seeing people less – and prioritising work, sometimes at the expense of our own wellbeing.

Whether we work from home or the office in a new hybrid-working model, it's important we all get used to communicating and collaborating again. 

While virtual sessions, such as online quizzes and catch-up conversations, have become more common due to COVID-19, Clarkson encourages professionals to get back together IRL.

"Engage in some offsite activities. We had an offsite last week where we played some games to interact as a team. We did a retrospective-type approach on our challenges and issues and ideas of how to improve processes – and then we played some mini golf at the end," says Clarkson, who adds that he didn't win.

4. Find the right approach for your business

While some organisations are giving staff the freedom to work how and where they want, other executives are implementing flexible-working policies in a more structured manner. Take the example of Lee Cowie, CTO at Merlin Entertainments, who says the nature of his company's work means close day-to-day collaboration is often essential. 

"Merlin is a location-based entertainment company. Our whole culture is about locating people together and immersing them in an experience. And so for us, being in work and physically present is really important because our culture is all about bringing people together," he says.

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Cowie says the much-hyped debate around whether people are more productive from home is irrelevant. The much more important debate that needs to take place between employers and employees is 'how do we engage people?'. 

"And I personally think that you get better engagement from people being located together, working together, and feeding off of each other. Of course, we have flexible-working policies and people can be flexible about where they choose to work," he says.

"However, I much prefer the buzz and the feeling that comes from being engaged in a problem closely together. Where we do have hybrid working, we've got Microsoft Teams and some really good collaborative collaboration tools that allow us to seamlessly transition from remote locations into office locations. But I'm keen on people being together."

5. Don't make assumptions 

Eduardo Plastino, director of the Centre for the Future of Work at Cognizant, also recognises that the ability of a company to implement hybrid-working strategies is dependent on the industry and the nature of the business. 

Effective managers will find a balance between the demands of the job and the requirements of the employee. "It's all about flexibility and listening to people," he says. 

"If you're too strict about these things, you'll miss some opportunities without making any gains – that's a very bad trade-off for the business. But I don't think there's a sort of universal blueprint that can be applied across industries and companies."

Plastino says managers who are a trying to find a route through the hybrid-working maze must ensure they avoid making any assumptions today about how staff will want to work in the future. There's a lot of hype right now about people not wanting to go back to the office ever again, but some people will want to get back behind a desk.

"You might think that nobody likes to commute and nobody wants to go to the office. Well, some people do want to go to the office for the social aspects of work. Young workers want to go to the office because they want to learn from other people – perhaps not all the time, but some of the time. So think: 'What do my workers want? What do they need?'" 

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