Let your team decide its approach to hybrid working.  Here’s why and how.

Let your team decide its approach to hybrid working. Here’s why and how.

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A November 2022 survey from Gallup found that 46% of hybrid employees say they are engaged at work when their team determines their hybrid work policy for when to come into the office. In contrast, while employees are free to determine their own approach, only 41% say they are engaged. If management sets top-down policy for everyone, only 35% are engaged, and if it’s their direct supervisor, 32% are engaged.

It makes sense when you think about it. Team members know best what they need to collaborate and socialize effectively. After all, the only useful function of the office is to facilitate collaboration, socialization and mentoring: people are much more productive in their individual tasks at home. So it only makes sense for core teams to figure out what best suits their needs.

Yet the Gallup survey shows that only 13% of employees say their team determines their approach to hybrid working. This is unfortunate and undermines the engagement of hybrid workers. And it’s easy to fix.

In my experience helping 21 companies determine their hybrid and remote working arrangements, the best practice is for management to provide broad but flexible guidelines for the entire company. Then let the core employee teams figure out what works best for them.

Related: Thus, your employees no longer want to come back to the office. Here’s how to create purpose and culture in remote teams

Empower each team leader to determine, in consultation with their team members, how each team should operate. The choice should be guided by each team’s goals and collaboration capabilities rather than the team leader’s personal preferences. Senior management should encourage team leaders to allow team members who wish to work remotely, where possible.

To set the stage, start by conducting an anonymous survey of your staff about their remote working preferences. All companies are different and you want to know more about your staff. More importantly, employees want to feel like they have a say in important business decisions. This applies particularly to policies concerning working conditions. You will get much more buy-in, even from staff who may be unhappy with your final policies, if they feel consulted and heard.

As part of the survey, ask respondents to indicate who their team leader is: this helps maintain the anonymity of survey responses, but can be provided to team leaders to help them understand the wishes of their teams.

The reason it’s important to ask this question in surveys is that many lower-level supervisors feel personal discomfort with working from home. They feel a loss of control if they cannot see their staff and are eager to return to their old mode of supervision.

This is why there is a low level of commitment when team leaders have discretionary power to make decisions. You need to make team leaders understand what their team members’ real preferences are without any team member feeling inhibited by giving their team leader unwanted information.

Although you can choose to ask a variety of questions, be sure to ask about their desire for frequency of work in the office. Here’s a good way to put it:

Which of these would be your preferred working style in the future?

  • A) Fully remote, coming once a quarter for a team building retreat
  • B) 1 day a week at the office, the rest at home
  • C) 2 days a week at the office
  • D) 3 days a week in the office
  • E) 4 days a week in the office
  • F) Full time in the office

In all the companies I consulted, there was never more than a quarter who wanted to return to the office full-time. In fact, a company with over 3,000 employees saw 61% of their staff express a desire to work entirely remotely. And it wasn’t even a tech company.

In the very likely event that your results aren’t too different from the typical company, you’ll want to follow the example of the companies I’ve helped. Namely, you will institute a hybrid model first, with some flexibility for employees who want to work remotely full-time and whose roles allow it.

Next, make sure team leaders justify how much time their team needs to be in the office. This justification must derive from the type of activities carried out by the team. Team members should be free to perform their independent tasks wherever they choose. In contrast, many collaborative tasks – not all – are best done in person.

Related: 3 ways to empower everyone to lead (and how to do it)

Team leaders should assess the proportion of individual versus collaborative tasks performed by their teams. Then they should use this proportion as the basis of a discussion with the team to determine how often team members come into the office. And it should be consensus-based decision-making, informed by polls, focused on collaboration, socialization and mentorship. All team members should come to the office on the same days of the week to facilitate collaboration.

What if team members want to be fully remote and have a team leader who doesn’t want any remote team members? If this team member can demonstrate high efficiency and productivity, and if their tasks are mostly individual – 80% or more – the team leader should allow them to work remotely. This team member should only come to the office once a quarter for a team building retreat.

However, if the team member needs to collaborate intensely with their team, they may not be able to perform this aspect of their role effectively if everyone is in the office. In this case, they must either come to the office at least once a week. Alternatively, they could consider finding a new team with a more accommodating team leader. Or they may adjust their role within the team to take on largely individual tasks.

There should be a very good reason if the team leader wants more than two days in the office per week. Such reasons exist.

For example, at one company I consulted for, sales teams who were making outbound sales calls decided to do full-time office work. Team leaders have made a compelling case that sales staff benefit greatly from being around other salespeople on outbound calls. Such calls are exhausting and sap motivation. Being around other people on the sales floor making similar calls boosts motivation and energy. Additionally, hearing others make calls provides an opportunity to learn from their successful techniques, which is difficult to organize in telecommuting settings. However, such exceptions are rare.

As a general rule, no more than 5% of your staff should be required to be in the office full time. Surveys show that around 80% of workers capable of working remotely expect to do so. Employers say they will continue to offer a variety of hybrid work options. Yet many do not know how to implement this model effectively.

To maximize employee engagement, while facilitating team collaboration, the best practice is to let teams make the decisions. This team-led model will ensure that team members can collaborate more effectively. Using this technique will allow you to seize a competitive advantage when returning to the office.

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