Flexibility and Remote Working
Many practices are at the crossroads of the hybrid working model, but how do we adapt to the new way of working? Fiona Martin reflects on the best way forward for practices big and small.
We’re taught to measure our success by salary and job title. A year on, living and working with a global pandemic and heading into a new decade, employees have re-evaluated the notion of work/life balance and reward. A better measure now includes mental health, physical health, liking what you do, working flexibly and more free quality time.
COVID has brought worklife to the intrinsic human level – having to look after both physical and psychological safety.
COVID has been a leveller – proving overnight that work can be done anywhere.
Architects, as service providers, aided by intelligent CAD software, are at an advantage to be able to complete the majority of documentation tasks digitally, flexibly and/or remotely. Before lockdown we were all one team created by location in the office. In lockdown we scattered and worked in a new way. This succeeded because we were all in it for the greater good of humanity. We did our bit to stop the spread of a rampant deadly disease.
Then, as restrictions eased, we came back into the office as needed and now stand at the crossroads of the hybrid working model – part local, part remote.
How do we adapt to this new way of working?
First, we can remove labels around the different locations of work, because essentially it’s still about the work, the outputs.
Traditionally, home conjures sanctuary, respite and family – not a 9-5 working environment. There is a need to shift the language of working from ‘home’ for which we already have the ‘WFH’ acronym, which has crept into the vernacular.
For some practice owners, ‘working from home’ still holds a connotation of a laissez faire approach to tasks and working environment, despite rapid deployment of high tech and ergonomic workstation setups during COVID, which are now more greatly optimised and scrutinised under WHS.
When working remotely, the challenge will be switching off to gain full satisfaction of being ‘home’.
We can drop ‘working from home’ and substitute ‘working remotely’ or ‘REM working’. The home office could be the ‘REM office’ or ‘REM-O’. “We’ll have to Zoom; he’s working ‘REM-O’ today”. Some practices are dropping all WFH references in policies and communications to normalise and equalise not working in the office.
Remember the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of full-timers and part-timers? Part-timers were usually primary carers (aka women) and not really dedicated to work and couldn’t be given responsibility because “they only work part time”.
We don’t want to see the same segregation and isolation for the ‘remote force’. We know working remotely is just as productive, sometimes more productive, for certain tasks.
The fundamental shift, however, is to measure output, not hours and to treat everyone equally despite location. The key is to know how the work is progressing, the % complete. This requires transparency and communication.
The term ‘whereabouts’ now has new meaning in a virtual and remote world.
Being innovative with technology on this front will set practices up to best manage a fragmented workforce and to normalise it.
Time can be saved if you can share employee movements at a glance – location, contactability, who’s on leave, who’s REM-O. Some practices have developed inhouse apps for this.
Essentially, practice owners have been working flexibly and remotely forever. They can. They’re the boss. The shift to adopting full flexibility and remote working is now asking they afford the same trust to all employees, as they have in themselves, to get the job done.
The key is for the leaders of the practice to model the behaviour. For them to be transparent that they’re at their kid’s sports carnival. To normalise it. Then employees can confidently ask for the same balance and impart the confidence they’ll complete tasks within the project program – and meet the timeline – with a half day at their own kid’s carnival.
Bias emerging towards non-remote team members
Most practice owners in Sydney are back in the office and are keen to get all teams back.
However, an emerging management issue is the bias towards those who are at hand, in the office and able to communicate and respond quickly to demands and requests in real time. The human bias is for those we’re physically close to. As a team member it just makes sense to involve someone in a critical problem-solving exercise over a quick sketch when sitting close to them or jumping into a team huddle at the adjacent meeting table.
It’s these immediate and unpredictable human interactions that are missed when REM-O.
A study undertaken 12 years ago surveyed IT employees of a global company. Local teams, remote teams and hybrid teams were assessed on communication frequency, cognitive and affect-based trust, perceived skills and job satisfaction.
Surprisingly, there was no significant difference between the feelings that local workers had for one another and the feelings remote workers had for one another. That is, a team that works entirely in the office together had a similar level of ‘group identity’ as those who worked entirely remotely.
The type of team that was much less likely to have cohesion was the hybrid variety. In fact, in the entire study the team members who had the highest levels of trust and group identity were the in-office members of hybrid teams. Those who had the lowest were the remote members of hybrid teams.
For those individuals with an absolute preference for working in person, the disengaging effects upon remote workers can be serious.
Distance itself doesn’t create in-groups and out-groups; it’s being close to some and distant to others that causes an issue.
With more opportunity and camaraderie with close proximity, we can see where this is headed.
Being visible when invisible
Despite some employees being happier and more productive working REM-O, some fear that being out of sight and out of mind may impact career progression, salary and bonuses.
Employees need to identify new opportunities that stretch and develop skills as well as seeking continuous feedback and advice from peers and team leaders. This will be invaluable in identifying how they are progressing and areas they need to focus on.
A recent survey by the Large Practice HR Group in Sydney (with 20 respondents) identified what concerns practice owners most:
The majority of practices surveyed offer all staff one day a week working from home. Any more days is by agreement and subject to project phase, team structure etc. Generally, a minimum of three to four days is preferred to be in-office.
Popular working days in-office and remote are yet to be established, but Mondays are generally all in-office and Fridays are popular working remotely. Whilst not an issue so far, traditional Friday Night Drinks, a culture driver in many architectural practices, may be impacted.
Culture can be defined as ‘how we do things here’. Right now the ‘how’ is changing with remote working.
Define the drivers that create your culture and protect these to ensure a continued sense of belonging. Your culture is your values, beliefs, traditions, unwritten rules, behaviours and the repeated moments.
What are they in your practice? Weekly pinups? Lunchtime design crits? Lessons learnt sessions? Mentoring moments? Group training? Celebrating the wins? Supplier visits? Friday Night Drinks? Lunchtime yoga? Tim Tams? Team sports?
What’s the glue? How will these continue if a number of staff are working remotely?
Define the central elements of your employee experiences that create your culture. Only then can you be intentional when translating culture to a hybrid model.
How to formalise flex/remote working
Many large practices incorporate Every Day Flex and Formal Flex policies, and there are many lessons we can learn from those who already have flexibility and remote working embedded in their workplace culture.
Start by removing the uncertainty. Make it clear what can be self-managed and what must be approved. Extend the working day window (say 7am to 7pm).
Every Day Flex is self-managed flex – staggered start/finish times (eg. start early/leave early) and making up time (say, to attend ad hoc appointments) and working extended hours one day and shorter the next. All with the courtesy of advising team leaders in advance.
Where Every Day Flex is irregular and self-managed, Formal Flex is regular and negotiated in advance. Formal Flex can cover reduced hours, transition hours (eg, back from parental leave), remote hours, part-time hours, etc. Considerations determining Formal Flex are the current role, project, phase of project, learning level, and face to face time needed.
Submission of a Flex/Remote Working Proposal is required demonstrating suitability for arrangements requested, stating current role and impact minimisation on projects. Any agreed formal arrangement can be approved on say a three-month trial basis.
Readiness for remote working
Recent results of an Atlassian study, which examined how working remotely has impacted workers, found an employee’s readiness for remote work was based on three key factors.
These could form your own simple remote working checklist when approving remote work.
- Household Complexity – the level of care duties a person has responsibility for and the density of the household
- Role Complexity – the complexity of an employee’s workflow and the level of social interaction required to perform the role successfully
- Connectivity – access to personal and workplace networks contributing to a person’s sense of belonging and support
When developing remote working guidelines, practice owners should consider:
- Freely giving permission to ask for individual flexibility and remote working.
- Focusing on competence and outputs within timelines – not being present.
- Being flexible, but asking employees to be flexible in their own flexibility.
- Asking the team the best times to schedule meetings.
- Inviting team input on how to maintain informal ‘corridor conversations’.
- Remembering you’re one team, just in different locations. When problem solving or requiring input, actively seeking out views from everyone.
- Being alert to biases that lead us to gravitate to those in proximity.
- Treating both groups equally.
- Meeting regularly and scheduling frequent meetings and how those meetings will take place.
The key driver for the majority of respondents to return to work in the Sydney HR Group Survey was collaboration.
The workplace will always remain a place to collaborate, share and exchange information, creatively solve problems, build a community and identity. It’s not under threat just yet.
However, 56% of respondents of the survey are planning physical changes to the studio to reflect hybrid working. These include desk sharing and roaming IT login profiles, quiet zones for Zoom meetings, phone booths, curtained areas, private meeting rooms, subletting desks and even downsizing.
In the same survey, respondents indicated the majority of architects wanted to get back to the studio, with most practices approximately 80% returned. Respondents reported the biggest complaints of remote working were staying motivated, isolation, collaboration/communication, unreliable wifi and not unplugging after work. Interestingly, all remote working locations were home – not cafes, libraries, co-working spaces or out of the metro area.
So, home is the preference for working when not in the office.
To make it work
Leadership and modelling is crucial in the success of flexibility and remote working. So too is employees’ understanding the human nature of the group dynamic (ie. to keep to the tribe).
It will take local workers to be consciously inclusive of remote team members. It will also take those working remotely to remain visible and cognisant of extending themselves beyond the confines of their REM-O.
J. Webster & W.K.P. Wong (2008) “Comparing traditional and virtual group forms: identity, communication and trust in naturally occurring project teams”, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 19:1, 41–62, DOI: 10.1080/09585190701763883. As reported on the news site of Australian HR Institute.
Reworking Work: Understanding The Rise of Work Anywhere. Global research into the impacts of COVID-19 on the nature of work and collaboration (Atlassian Corporation Plc. 2020). As reported on the Australian news site of Dynamic Business.
Fiona Martin is an architectural practice management and HR consultant with over 20 years’ experience in large practice. She helps designers to balance creativity and profitability, build culture and deliver best practice. Fiona understands the challenges business owners face and provides practical and simple solutions to build and manage strategic operations and develop people + culture. Fiona provides consulting services to architectural practices, from emerging practices with business establishment, planning and compliance to small and medium practices with operations, practice and people management. Fiona also chairs the NSW Large Practice HR Group comprising Practice, HR and Operations Managers of over 25 large practices in Australia, and is the inaugural affiliate member of the ACA.