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Remote and hybrid work options create more opportunities for businesses to attract and retain talented people. But hybrid work, often referred to as the “messy middle,” requires an entirely new playbook to work well

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That’s why I co-wrote How the Future Works, with Slack’s Brian Elliott and Sheela Subramanian. In the book, we leverage not only what we’ve learned from two years of research and a survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers conducted by Slack consortium Future Forum, but also what we’ve seen implemented at companies like IBM, Royal Bank of Canada, and Genentech. Our goal is to give leaders the why and how of building hybrid teams. Here are some of the book’s best parts and key lessons:

Know the Difference Between Guardrails and Principles 

Executives are used to command and control, and many right now think that making flexible work models successful means mandating employees spend a certain amount of days in the office. But our research shows that 79 percent of people want flexibility and a voice in how that flexibility takes shape. 

So how can leaders balance the needs of the company with those of their employees?

Start by establishing principles and guardrails to help define what flexible work means to your organization. Principles ground an approach in core company values, while guardrails are the agreed-upon guidelines for behavior that keep a company’s principles in place. This approach helps give people the framework to get started, but also leaves room for teams to test and learn.

But beware of falling into the trap of faux flexibility. Leaders need to lead by example instead of handing out broad mandates. At Slack, product leadership has a “one dials in, all dial in” guardrail policy for meetings. Leaders should also consider setting “speed limits,” another guardrail, on the number of days per week that executives spend in the office. Define your principles and guardrails, and then stick to them. 

Time Matters More Than Place

We can often get too focused on “days in the office” when thinking about flexibility. But while the majority of people want location flexibility, almost everyone we surveyed–94 percent–want schedule flexibility. It’s more valuable in unlocking productivity, reducing stress, and creating work-life balance. But how can teams coordinate and collaborate when working on different schedules?

To make schedule flexibility work let employees set team-level agreements around how they’ll work together. For example, our team members at Future Forum agree to a set of “core collaboration hours” from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. PST in which we’re all available for live conversations and meetings. Then the rest of the day is reserved for heads-down focused work.

Documenting decisions and sharing discussions in virtual spaces is crucial to keeping teams on the same page. Teams should use digital channels for status updates, and brainstorm in real time using a shared cloud doc.

Onsites Are the New Offsites

Creating a flexible and digital-first approach allows leaders to access a broader, more diverse talent pool but requires more intentional relationship building on- and offline. And that can be difficult without serendipitous lunchroom encounters.

Navigating this paradigm means, once again, being intentional about time. Leaders should use in-person gatherings more deliberately for connection. We’ve seen teams come together in the office for a few days or weeks at a time to plan, reconnect, and socialize. Onsites are the new offsites. Encourage teams to find the rhythm that works best for them, whether that means gathering monthly for more frequent product sprints or gathering quarterly for long-term strategy planning sessions. 

It’s also important to create programmatic ways for people to build networks, like employee resource groups and mentorship programs. It’s also vital to leverage digital tools like Donut and Gatheround to connect with people outside your team.

The Takeaway

Attracting, retaining, and getting the most out of talented people in a hybrid work environment requires executives to consult a new playbook. At companies that have experimented with new, more flexible ways of working, employees are reporting improved work-life balance, greater productivity, and even a better sense of belonging than those working full time in the office. Workers don’t want to give that up, and leaders who want to attract and retain top talent must be intentional about the transformation of their work models.

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