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  • Jackie Nagtegaal

Leading at the Edge: Designing Hybrid Workplaces

We've had a lot to grapple with, and there is no COVID-19 compendium to see us through. Economic uncertainties, operational overhauls and the flurry of survival plans that keep us up at night test us on every front. Our facile slogans of resilience and agility faced by a real crisis. How did we hold up? And where do we go from here?

Every aspect of work-life has fundamentally shifted. As we move into Spring, many offices are resuming 'normal' work, and I am watching this "great return" with curiosity. Many managers and leaders, tired of uncertainty, have opted to find their way back to life before.  

During the harsher parts of the lockdown, most companies ventured bravely into remote working for the first time. Workers quickly adjusted to a "new normal" while, perhaps surprisingly, remaining engaged and productive. Remote working has long been touted as the way of the future. So why are we getting back to the office?

Adapting to the lockdown: Fast-tracking our future-forward practices. 

I've never seen the "workplace" as necessarily meaning the office space, especially for lawyers. Over the years, I've worked closely with my team to try and foster a performance-orientated culture, based on openness, trust, responsibility and accountability. This discipline allowed us more flexible working hours than most. Although, when I think about our pre-lockdown notion of flexibility, it smells of bureaucracy and mould. 

It hasn't been easy, even for a company that prides itself on innovation. The office-paradigm is so engrained in most of us, always wanting to revert to some form of control, stuck in an old equation where employees at desks equal good work. 

The disparities of our country also challenge us. It's crucial to remain conscious that our teams come from different backgrounds of varying degrees of privilege or means. These realities include a lack of transport, data limitations, network coverage in certain areas, home-offices; critical and constraining factors when designing suitable hybrid solutions. 

The tech privilege is real; not just for teams but for organisations. Those who have made technology core to their operations, measuring strategies against tech capability and agility have fared better. Just as we have had to test our portentous company values of resilience, in reality, our techy-ness was tried hard and fast. As a company, I always thought we were miles ahead. We boast custom case management software built by a talented team of developers; our legal cases are in the cloud; our HR processes are mostly automated through a user-friendly app … But even so, there were cracks, and they showed quickly. Our telephone system needed a complete overhaul, and we needed better ticketing management. POPIA hit simultaneously, and we've had to consider how all this remoteness and all this cloudness would influence compliance?

Reimagining the "office space".

Change often meets resistance, but staff soon established personal work-from-home routines. Internal surveys highlighted that many employees felt more valued and self-motivated as a result of having less traditional management structures in place. As a company, we have collectively become a lot more conscious about how our personal lives integrate with our work-life and have been exploring ways to make remote work practical and comfortable. 

As workers in many industries returned to their workplaces, I have tried to steer away from seeing binary solutions; or trying to resist the uncertainty. We are not focussed on regaining the sense of "normality" that we had lost as a result of the lockdown. Instead, we are trying to find a new way of being. Pioneering new territories, while figuring out service constraints, social interaction and the death of certainty. We are engaging and challenging leadership and different departments, even the most taciturn teams, to help mine the solutions as we go. 

It's not a one-size-fits-all solution: Embracing hybrid teams.

I recently participated in a panel discussion facilitated by the International Legal Technology Association, where we talked about the challenge of leading hybrid teams. The conversations got me thinking about edge cases and "average" employees, based on a book I read a while ago. Todd Rose, who previously headed up the Mind, Brain and Education programme at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, denounced the concept of applying the law of averages to people. In his book, The End of Average, Rose cites Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels, an American air force researcher in the 1950s, who was tasked with redesigning the cockpits for the US Air Force. The reason? Well, a decade earlier multiple pilots struggled to control their planes, which resulted in many crashes that were initially written off as "pilot errors". Of course, further investigation revealed that the plane's cockpit proved to be the problem and that it didn't cater to all the body types of the pilots. So, Daniels then decided that the solution would be to build a cockpit based on the average dimension of roughly 4000 pilots. Unfortunately, this was an unsuccessful endeavour, and instead of accommodating all pilots, it had fit none of them. The idea of an average being a logical solution for many was debunked. Ultimately, the air force found that designing for the extremities of the pilots (for both the biggest and smallest person) was the best solution. They were designing for the edge.  

When it comes to getting the most out of teams, leaders should embrace the extremes of how employees like to work. Whether from home, in an office or both! When we apply the "new" and "next" outlook, it should also apply to workforce demographics. In the not too distant future, the global workforce will be made up of millennials, with Gen-Z following closely. Not only do both of these generations value workplace "perks", like flexible hours and remote working, they're also very accustomed to having technology integrated into their lives. If you had to map their wants on a spectrum; how do you create a solution that answers to those on edges of the range? 

Leading hybrid teams after the COVID-19 pandemic

Adopting and leading hybrid teams is an exciting and rewarding challenge for leaders. Of course, when it comes implementing or refining any new process, it must come from a solid foundation and with clear guidelines. It is crucial to discourage any disconnect that will likely occur if a "them" and "us" mentality is fostered. Teams, while physically separate, need to be united with common goals. It's also necessary for managers to have the same quality standards for all team members, whether they work in-office or remotely. 

Similarly, if the standards are equal, the rewards and perks must be fair, too. When you run a hybrid team, you can't subject the in-office team to lunch hours and tea-breaks, while the home-team remain in PJs. Both teams need to adult; focussing on performance, while retaining the freedom of movement and mind. 

We are rethinking our office space to be an inviting space focussed more on social interaction, with activations that lure groups in to connect. Some ideas put forward include motivational mornings, community meet-ups (like book clubs) and fun moot courts. Bearing in mind how we can intermittently connect in a way that isn't just a hit-and-run meeting, how the office can become a reprieve from the home. And ultimately, how we can foster a more fluid approach to learning and mentoring.

An exercise in resilience: the positive disruption we needed.

The uncertainty and fear that came with lockdown have been difficult. The more we try to manage or fight the tension, the more challenging it feels. We need to see this as a new wave that we are learning to surf. Take the opportunity to rearrange your ideas. Are they genuinely agile this time around? And for those of us who are tasked with leading and inspiring teams, let us not waste the valuable lessons we learnt. As we build on that foundation and redesign what life looks like in flux, let's throw "averages" out of the window too and lead at the edge. 

Tech we live by: (Some of the tools that make it all work for us)

  • Microsoft Teams in Microsoft 365 for meetings and connecting 

  • Yammer for communities (one of various handy tools in the MS 360 bouquet)

  • Lawyerly, our own legal case manager

  • BambooHR to manage all things people

  • Bonusly for micro-recognition

  • Freshdesk to keep sane with incoming client contacts 

  • Freshchat to talk to our clients on all platforms

  • Telviva to host our telephones in the cloud, allowing staff to answer wherever they are

  • Teachably, to train our teams formally

  • Microsoft Power BI to keep track of the above and to monitor it all.

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