Guardrails that support a productive distributed workforce

Published 5/30/2023

The more flexible and geographically distributed a workplace gets, the more certainty there should be around exactly what is expected by all parties in a working relationship: we need to make the implicit explicit. To ensure the success of hybrid ways of working, we recommend organisations establish mutually understood agreements that support both individuals, and the collective, in doing their best work.

Outcomes over hours

Flexible work means you have to trust your team. They are no longer turning up to the office and staying there until an arbitrary time set by industrial-age factories. They are blending their lives and their work. This blurs the line between work hours and personal hours.

Focus on outcomes over outputs. Approaches like agile support you in achieving outcomes, or goals, by collectively working up the tasks that are required to get there. And ceremonies like stand ups and planning sessions align individuals in a team and create accountability that you're holding up your end of the bargain.

Create transparency, ownership, accountability and open lines of communication and you will see trust flourish. (Here’s more on our approach to building trust within your organisation.)

Availability within flexibility

We know that employees want flexibility in both time and location, but flexibility can still come with boundaries and expectations. This could include outlining the time periods that employees are expected to work, as well as their availability during those periods. For example, if an employee is working from a different time zone, it is important to make sure that their availability aligns with the rest of the team. Or, while organisations recognise that ‘life’ happens within work hours too, you may want to outline how employees need to communicate with their team if they need to head away from their desk during the day.

X is Y Ways of Working Principal Designer, Victoria, gives this example: “I might say I’ll be online and up for collaborating between 10am and 2pm. That allows me to do focused work early morning, pick up my kids from school, and work asynchronously whenever it works for me. But, my team knows they have these four hours in the day where they can book me in, or just sing out and I should be available.”

Expectations on how to work together

Remove ambiguity about communication practices. There are myriad tools and platforms that support remote and hybrid teams in working together. And while their intention is to streamline communication, they can also lead to confusion. Be clear about which channel is best used in different contexts and for different tasks (eg. email, instant messaging or video call?), and what kind of response time someone can expect when engaging on these platforms.

Here’s what we recommend:

  • Email is best for formal, detailed messages that require documentation or need to be referred to in the future. It's also a good choice for teams that operate in multiple time zones, and for when you’re engaging with someone external to your organisation.

  • Text message is best for quick, informal conversations that don't require much detail, as well as urgent or time-sensitive messages that require a quick response.

  • Slack (or Teams) messages are best for team communication and collaboration, mainly when working on a project or task. It helps discuss ideas and get real-time feedback. Use open channels to streamline conversations, and avoid DMs so that all discussions are out in the open and easy to find.

  • Phone calls are best for urgent or complex issues requiring a personal touch. When things get out of hand, there’s a misunderstanding, or email threads become too long, have a phone call. Video calls are a great tool for debriefing or in place of a phone call.

Be clear about collaborative time

Set time aside for collaborative discussions, activity-based work and reflection sessions. Aim for no surprises by co-creating and documenting expectations around attendance and contribution, whether they will be held in-person or virtually, and how to accommodate remote employees. We’ve talked more about how to make hybrid meetings engaging and equitable for all. Standups, retrospectives and check-ins all create transparency and accountability around contribution and goals - these are short, structured sessions that are optimised to get the most value out of people’s time.

Leveraging the physical workspace

While many organisations are embracing hybrid working models, the physical office space still holds relevance - when it’s used with intention. This means being clear about when employees are expected to come into the office, and why (e.g for a specific purpose on a particular day of the week). Sharedspace should be for team time first, prioritising depth over breadth. We’ve gone into more detail about the evolving role of the physical workspace, and how it can support company goals, here.

Out-in-the-open agreements

Rather than making these guardrails top-down directives, co-design agreements with your co-workers. Importantly, write them down. When we’re geographically distributed, it’s harder to pick up on processes and expected practice. Remote or hybrid teams need the implicit to be explicit, and putting agreements into words is incredibly important to ensure everyone is on the same page. GitLab has an open source Handbook that is a central repository for how they run their business. While theirs is comprehensive, you could start by focusing on the things that are universal to your team or company and will therefore have the most impact on how people can do their best work.

Flexible work models require leaders to balance the needs of the organisation, the team, and the individual. By setting clear expectations (we call these “agreements” around availability, how to work together, aligning on tasks and meetings, and using a physical workplace, companies can ensure that flexibility doesn’t get in the way of efficiency and cohesion within teams.

These team-level agreements help to:

  • Clarify expectations and avoid misunderstandings

  • Improve performance and accountability

  • Adapt to changing circumstances and feedback

If you’ve been noticing a disconnect in the way your people work together in a hybrid workplace, it doesn’t have to be that way. Reach out, and we can tell you more about ways to support new ways of working in your organisation.

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