Engaging remote, virtual and hybrid workers | S2 E22

First published: 3 August, 2021

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Engaging Internal Comms Series 2
Engaging remote, virtual and hybrid workers | S2 E22

Engaging remote, virtual and hybrid workers

Our interviewee this week is Kevan Hall who helps organisations and individuals to engage remote, virtual and hybrid workers through his company, Global Integration. As well as being a speaker, consultant and trainer, Kevan is the author of books such as ‘Leading Remote and Virtual Teams’, ‘Making the Matrix Work’, ‘Speed Lead’, and ‘Kill Bad Meetings’. Kevan manages his own team at Global Integration with people in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Global Integration has 400 clients in over 50 countries and has trained over 150,000 people.

Kevan has a background in large multinationals covering International HR, Operations Management, Strategic Planning and People Development. Prior to the pandemic Kevan was often at Heathrow Airport as he travelled a lot, but he is currently based at home 40 miles west of London.

Why and how Global Integration came about

Kevan describes how he started the business, as is often the case, when he had a problem that he couldn’t find a solution to. About 30 years ago while he was working for Mars, everyone was working across cultures, working virtually, in a matrix structure and there wasn’t any training that reflected this apart from some cross-cultural training. After discovering he couldn’t buy any training in this area, he left Mars and 27 years ago set up the world’s first remote and virtual teams training programme which also included working across cultures. As you work on virtual teams someone will always say ‘by the way I have two bosses who hate each other, and they’re not aligned’ and this is how Kevan got drawn into matrix working solutions. What connects Kevan’s work is ways of working, and more recently, agile and digital ways of working have come onto the agenda.

“It’s all about helping people to succeed, we’re not about reporting lines and structure and technology, we’re about leadership and collaboration in large complex organisations.”

The pace of change to remote working

In early 2020 if you had said to someone in a large multinational you wanted them to put together a project to get 40% of their people working from home, they would’ve said it would take at least two years and yet it turns out you can do it over a weekend! When you really have to do it, the level of change you can enact can be startling. In 27 years Kevan has found the number one objection to remote working is consistently managerial attitudes to control – managers not wanting to have their people out of sight. Kevan thinks the pandemic has caused an unprecedented global experiment which has shown that people are incredibly adaptive, trustworthy and productive when they work from home. Hopefully, this will have killed the historical objection to home or hybrid working.

The future of home working and hybrid workers

When we look back at the last 18 months, we have to separate out what’s been about working from home and what’s about the pandemic. Working from home used to be a perk but recently it’s been about the experience of surviving the pandemic, looking after your family, home schooling and working which is very different to the previous experience of home working. It is therefore important to separate out the two.

Outputs are a useful measurement of success in the remote working environment, but outcomes are even more important. People have targets and generally hate to be micro-managed so giving empowerment and flexibility is the way forward. The ’problem’ then can be that people overdeliver and forget to take their holidays rather than underdeliver.

Kevan suggests that working from home now has an element of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ as companies look to bring employees back to the office. The companies that have always struggled with home working have a culture of presenteeism, for example investment banking and the trading floor. Senior managers are keen to get everyone back to the office as they firmly believe (as it’s been their experience) that that’s how you build culture. If you’re a great investment bank there will always be enough people in the world who will want to work on your trading floor, you will find enough talent as you pay fantastic money. But when you go further down the organisation you will need to recruit IT people to support that. Kevan is already hearing from clients around the world that in the global talent market flexible working is now baked in and being able to work in somewhere like Vienna or Silicon Valley is no longer the great attraction it used to be. It is going to be really interesting to see how this plays out.

Kevan has people in his team who 18 months ago wouldn’t have wanted to work from home but now they’re doing it they’ve got used to it and this does lead to inertia. There will probably be resistance initially to coming back into the office, then there might be enthusiasm as everyone has a lovely time catching up and going out for lunch and then it will settle back. Kevan wouldn’t be surprised if people were coming into the office 2-3 days a week as a preference over time as office working is re-established. This would then provide enough variety and community for people. It could be that Monday and Friday become the usual working from home days, creating this blended approach to work and therefore hybrid workers.

Kevan thinks that:

“The humanisation of leadership, the focus on wellbeing, the sense that all of us are in the same boat and the levelling up that has happened by communicating through video has been very welcome.”

He hopes that these things remain on the leadership agenda.

The main comms and engagement challenges organisations need to face

We are moving from a situation where we’ve given our people emergency toolkits to cope to saying this is now a sustainable long-term way of operating. It would almost be a tragedy to have gone through this experience to just return to the old ‘normal’, we need to reflect on what’s been good. In the area of comms and engagement, as far as Kevan can see from his clients, this has improved and people like the flexibility and autonomy of working from home. They’ve appreciated access to their senior leaders and have felt closer to them due to communication via video. Maybe there’s something to seeing a full-size face on a screen rather than sitting at the back of a town hall of 200 people, it’s almost more face-to-face.

Craig and Kevan discuss the fact that the pandemic has almost taken away the pressure for everything to be perfect from a communications perspective, it’s now okay to be in your living room with your t-shirt on and the dog in the background! It’s much more authentic and sustainable. It also helps you find out things about your team which you might not have known beforehand, which is healthy.

Kevan is talking to clients a lot about hybrid meetings and asking what was better about virtual meetings? People often say they like the discipline – they start on time, people raise hands and don’t interrupt. The introverts like to use chat so everyone gets a chance to ask questions and if they don’t get answered during the meeting, they could come back to them later.

Moving to hybrid working

We really need to get our heads around hybrid working and therefore hybrid workers. How many days people come into the office is taking up about 90% of the conversation but really we should be asking ‘what is the office good for?’ and ‘when would I use that resource?’. Surveys are showing that the office wins out over remote working in only a small number of areas such as use of speciality equipment, socialising, culture building and informal learning. These are the things we need to organise for when we are in the office. How do you organise the communities, networks and informal connections to make sure vital information travels better than chance when people bump into each other?

We need to bring people together with some structure about what we want to talk about and how to make best use of that time.

We can learn from other people too; China is six months into hybrid working and Kevan has asked his clients about what is working and what isn’t. He says people are spontaneously saying things like ‘we’re having a company Thursday’ and everyone comes in one Thursday a month. In the afternoon there are no meetings so they are all in the same place and can get together.

There are so many moving parts for hybrid working that the danger is that teams are putting their blinkers on and only looking at their own way of working and not more broadly across the whole organisation. There is a need for this reconnection and there will be a certain element of trial and error and the new way of working will need to evolve.

While a certain amount of planning is needed, the last 18 months have taught us that we don’t have to plan to the nth degree, we won’t be gambling the business through experimentation and failing fast. We just need to amplify what works and hopefully this will carry us forward into finding a way of hybrid working that suits the majority of people.

How do you recognise the different groups of workers and the contributions they make?

The people who haven’t been able to work from home definitely need to be on the agenda and Kevan says he has picked up some tension around them particularly during lockdown in the UK. For one of his clients the HR people weren’t allowed to go on site where the people they were supporting were working. They rightly asked why it was okay for them to be on site but too risky for HR.

Naturally everyone thinks they have had the toughest time – if you continued to work you felt like you held the company together, people working from home put in long hours and had all the distractions, people on furlough literally had nothing to do. Kevan thinks some repair is needed with all of these different messages and feelings going around.

When we can get together there is maybe a desire to acknowledge and process what happened and to allow people to talk about their experience.

Leaders will also have left a leadership legacy during this period. Some won’t have done it very well at all and they will have a lot of ground to catch up. It will be important to get out of the silos and mix but as ever there will be a trade-off between coordination and flexibility. People are talking a lot about flexibility and giving people choice, but you are trying to run a business so at some point the manager may say they need you to come to a certain meeting. People may have different views about that so there will be a reset necessary in these situations.

Making hybrid working work for everyone

There are certain objections, because of proximity bias, that if you don’t come into the office you have less opportunities and career progression and this was certainly well established before the pandemic. People at headquarters tended to get promoted because they’re in people’s minds and are visible. We can either accept this as a problem or we need to change our processes. We need to make sure that things like succession development and visibility are handled equally for people who are physically present and those who aren’t. This is a bigger challenge but if we want to make a hybrid culture work we have to solve this issue. Also, in all of this we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that being able to work remotely is a skill and also requires development.

The challenges of integrating teams into a hybrid way of working

As the pandemic has shown people are very adaptable so there are a number of issues. Firstly, people take things for granted very quickly, they may have got a dog, taken on caring responsibilities or even moved country so there may be some tough conversations about re-establishing what being at work means. People may have used furlough or flexible working in a different way to what we thought. If you’ve been working from home and you’ve had more autonomy naturally you going to be a bit more resistant to control that you don’t think is adding value. A senior Danish client of Kevan’s went to his first meeting in a while and was outraged when he returned, he’d driven for an hour and a half to get there for a completely pointless and badly run meeting and then drove back again. He decided he wasn’t going to do that anymore! People aren’t prepared to put up with some of the stuff that used to happen in corporations. Kevan says he’s looking forward to the revolution and how this may be a positive thing.

There is also an anxiety about coming back to work, using public transport and being in an office again. Governments have been guilty of pushing up anxiety as a way of getting people to follow the guidelines on social distancing etc so there could be some work on re-socialising some people. There may always be a level of risk, maybe similar to flu, but we have to live with it and it will take a while for people to come to terms with this.

When we’re back in the office it’s going to be about getting into that culture of consideration and tolerance for other people. Kevan’s heard comments about people talking very loudly on calls and other people not being able to concentrate, so noise levels have been an issue. A lot of people are concentrating on the individual work patterns they want for themselves and their teams without necessarily considering their other colleagues. Teams will have to sit down and make some trade-offs of their flexibility in order to support others. People will have to find a middle way which we might have fallen out of the habit of doing over the last year.

It may only be once we’re fully out of lockdown that we ask ourselves ‘what have we just been through?’ and realise the adaptations we’ve had to make to our working life. It’s important that employers now have a more genuine and acute interest in mental health and wellbeing and that it continues into the future.

Kevan says he is aware himself that even though he’s done face-to-face training for the last 30 years and has been running webinars through the pandemic, the first time he stands up in front of a group he’s going to have to relearn some things. You have to give yourself permission to be human and not expect to be on your A game right from the start, it will take time and some people may adapt more quickly than others.

Final thoughts

What we’re seeing is a roadmap of skills that are needed for this hybrid environment. Firstly, some people are saying they know how to manage remote working and they know how to manage face-to-face so put it together and it will be easy but managing both modes is harder than managing one or the other. We need to focus on the details of this so right now the priority for organisations is equipping leaders to manage a conversation around flexibility with their people. A lot of leaders are uncomfortable about this as it’s a new type of conversation.

The second point is hybrid meetings and Kevan thinks this is where the rubber’s going to hit the road. How do we run a meeting when eight people are in the room and four are joining remotely? A lot of international teams have worked this way and usually the meetings were terrible, the people joining remotely didn’t feel included. So, we have to find a way of doing this successfully and making sure it’s sustainable.

Thirdly, we need to get into the leadership side and there’s a really good chance that every team containing managerial and professional people will be a team of hybrid workers so every soft skill you have will be exercised in a hybrid environment – the way you present, the way you facilitate a meeting, the way you lead people, team building.

So, there’s quite a lot that will be different, it’s not 100% different but it will be 10-15% different. We will have to adjust all of our leadership and collaboration practise and Kevan thinks people are underestimating what a large piece of work that will be, but all of these are important considerations when engaging virtual, remote and hybrid workers.

Useful links

Podcasts, videos and articles at www.global-integration.com

LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevanhall/

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