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Hybrid working – are we in the messy middle?

What we're going through right now is this once in a generation experience where every organisation has been handed this golden opportunity,” - Jared Spataro, Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Office 365

As more economies – although far from all – begin to re-open, more people are talking about getting back to the office. But others are saying it's not about the office, it's about working in lots of different places. I recently spoke with Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Office 365, Jared Spataro and ANZ’s Group Executive, Talent and Culture Kathryn van der Merwe about what this diversity of views and strategies means to different organisations around the globe.


Gerard: Jared, Microsoft has been solving amazing problems with technology for a long, long time. How are you thinking about the future of work in your organisation?


Jared: One of the things we recently published is the Work Trends Index. We surveyed more than 30,000 people in 31 countries to get a longitudinal view of how managers and employees were feeling about work.


We found that more than 80 per cent of managers were planning to have more flexible work/home policies even as they went back to the workplace.


Even as the pandemic eased, we found more than 70 per cent of employees said they would plan on taking advantage of those more flexible work from home policies. So, there is a sense people appreciated the flexibility.


Anecdotally, across the world, I've heard people say things like “I've never been able to have breakfast with my kids before”. There's real value in this flexibility.


To round out the picture, 67 per cent of those surveyed at the employee level said they wanted more in-person face time with their colleagues as well. So, there's also a sense that employees want to combine those things.


Source: Microsoft


At Microsoft we’ve put a policy in place that enables employees to work up to 50 per cent of the time from home. We think that sends an important signal that being in person with your colleagues is very valuable while at the same time, flexibility has real value.


Now, we're just going to have to engage in the experiment to see how it all works out for us. There is lots of angst and lots of fear about this messy middle, as I call it, as things are coming together.


Gerard: Kath, it’s been just over a year since we asked our (ANZ) employees to start working from home. Could you take us through a little bit of that journey from those first few weeks to where we find ourselves today?


Kathryn: It's fair to say we've learnt a lot over the past 12 months. In March last year we were scrambling furiously to provide connectivity and appropriate tools to enable our people to work effectively from home. We've come leaps and bounds in terms of the collaboration tools available to our people, and in how we've been learning to use these tools to work effectively to stay connected to one another.


I think what's important to reflect on too is we are a global organisation with a presence in 33 different markets. What's been challenging through these last 12 months is the different situation our people have been in, in each of those different places across the globe. We've needed to ensure whatever it is that we've been doing, it is respectful and has a high degree of empathy.


In some of our locations we are fortunate enough to be able to be thinking about return to the office but this is not the case everywhere.


We started by debating and landed on some core beliefs which have acted as a strong grounding for the decisions we’ve made about what work looks like (or will look like) at ANZ. These beliefs are based on what matters to us and what we believe as an organisation.


We brought together a cross-functional team across Technology, Risk, Talent and Culture and Property to work together to think about what work at ANZ will look like in the future... We knew there would be lots of different points of view on this topic. So, talking to our people and asking how they would like to work was important for us. It was then about getting that balance right.


The best of both worlds - the hybrid working model


We've now landed on our hybrid model of working where the vast majority of our people will spend two or three days in the office and two or three days working from home.


Moving to a model like this is a significant change. And that's where we're at now - helping our people adapt to that more blended way of working, which brings its own level of complexity.


In some ways, it was easier when we were all at home working remotely. Now teams are learning to make it work all over again. We're needing to lean into that now to make sure we're helping our people adapt as best they can and in a productive and fulfilling way.



Navigating the messy middle


Gerard: What are some of the wrinkles you're seeing teams having to work through?


Jared: I would say that it's easy when I was in the office because we have decades of history for what that looks like…


After the initial 60 to 90 days of working from home, most organisations settled into a bit of an equilibrium about how they were using the tools. The interesting outcome of that is we were all pretty much on a level playing field.


Whether you were the CEO or a member in a smaller team, you had the same experience and the opportunity to contribute. There were also new ways to express yourself. Microsoft Teams Chat exploded for us as an example, as a way for people to communicate and collaborate.


Source: Microsoft


The difficulty now is we find different markets going back to work in locations like Taiwan and Korea and all of a sudden, if you're not set up right with the tech, you end up on a video call looking at a whole bunch of people you can't see very well. And here you are back in your own room, once again finding it difficult to connect and contribute.


That's where the messy middle hits us. We've been working really hard on technology, but also on implementing some simple best practice tips which are making a huge difference. For instance, if you’re joining a Teams call from a meeting room with a few people together, join the meeting using your own device with the sound and mic off, and your video on. That way, people can see you clearly and hear you via the in-room audio.


Kathryn: I agree, one of the trickiest things to navigate is big team meetings where part of the team are in-person and part of the team are online.


Something we've experimented that’s worked quite well is the concept of having an advocate in the room. Often, if you're the person at home, you feel like you're whinging if you're constantly saying, ‘hey, I can’t hear you!’ But to have somebody in the room checking in constantly and making sure those that aren't in the room can hear is much more inclusive. It's been a powerful tool for us.


And I do think once we get through the messy middle, it will be a really positive outcome and leave us in better shape than we were coming into this pandemic.


Gerard: So if you do have four or five people in the room, how do they raise their hand? Because what I have noticed already is when there are groups in a room we've quickly established the protocol of raising your hand virtually in Teams, then suddenly when you're in a room, with people who don't have a device in front of them, they don't raise their hands and they just jump in and ask the question. We have to then stop and remind them we have a protocol. All these new norms are fragile, they are just building and we need to constantly reinforce them.


How we work is in our culture


Jared: It really is about cultural reprogramming. What we're going through right now is l this once in a generation experience where every organisation has been handed this golden opportunity.


I think of this as a huge opportunity. What we were seeing in workplaces before the pandemic is that technological advances had outpaced culture. We’ve had the technology to work remotely for decades but our culture was still back in the 70s or 60s maybe, in terms of how we worked almost exclusively in the office. Right now, we're in this moment, when we're trying to bring that together, this is an opportunity for leadership. When we pop out at the end of this, life should be better for all of us. We should all get to do the things that we want to. With more flexibility than we've had in the past. And as you say, it's the little norms that are going to make all the difference and we need to establish these as we go.


Gerard: Kathryn, what are you are hopeful and optimistic about as a result of this change in the way we're working and what are some of the big areas that you're going to be really looking at to make sure we continue to make progress on?


Kathryn: I believe that if we stay intentional and thoughtful about this, we really do have an opportunity to come out the other side with so many positive changes. We're coming at it with a much higher degree of empathy than I think we've ever had before and a much higher awareness of things like wellbeing and the way we support each other.


I think our leaders play an incredibly important role through all of this to create a strong learning culture. We said right back at the beginning of the pandemic that one of our core beliefs was that we need to stay flexible and continue adapting and learning as we go.


So, that means helping our leaders to create a culture where it's OK to give things that go and to speak up if things aren’t working. I’m optimistic we’ll discover and share many more of those new norms along the way.


The future will be data-driven


Gerard: Jared I'd be interested in your perspective on the positive role you think analytics are going to play both at a personal level and at the workplace level as part of that future?


Jared: I wanted to share a little bit about the talent market, because this is one of the big surprises we’ve found in the data which I think is really important for leaders to understand. The data clearly indicates the pandemic has had as big an impact in how people think as other major world events like the world wars back in the 20th century.


What we're finding is people are rethinking the key decisions in their lives. So essentially, where they live, what they do for a living and other decisions related to family and friends, in ways I wouldn't have predicted. For instance, almost 50 per cent of people surveyed, and this was a broad swath of people across 31 countries, say they are seriously considering a physical move because they can now work remotely or work more remotely in some cases.


When we drill into the data, for some that just simply indicates they're going to move another 30 minutes away from the city where they work because they can get a cheaper house or they feel like it'll be closer to something that they care about. In other cases, they're planning to actually move across the country or to a different country.


And 41 per cent said they were seriously considering leaving their employer within the next 12 months. That's a huge shift and we have not seen an upheaval like that for decades. I think it's really important to understand that the talent landscape has changed in major ways. And I don't think most leaders are prepared. I have not been prepared for that.


Source: Microsoft


I think if there's anything I could share with leaders and managers, it would be you're not going back to the place you left, especially when it comes to the talent market.


Now, when it comes how we can use analytics this is something we're really excited about. We believe that managing and leading people in the coming years is going to move from pure art to much more science based, using analytics. For instance, now we're all on digital tools, we can give you a sense for when your team is getting closer to burnout, we can give you a sense for how work patterns have changed. We can let you know when you've stopped collaborating with other groups you used to collaborate with.


Source: Microsoft


There are so many trends and insights that can help a manager to optimise both individual and overall team performance. So the future is definitely going to be more data driven, it’s going to be an exciting new era.


Gerard: Thank you both for your time today.


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