If you’re a manager with a team to look after, keeping up with workplace changes over the last 18 months hasn’t been easy.
For much of the pandemic, reactionary, short-term work solutions were met with a level of forgiveness and understanding. But now that remote working is becoming the norm, the margins of error for business leaders have narrowed, especially when it comes to carving out the right work set-ups for their employees.
How do small businesses transform remote work from a pandemic-response survival tactic into a competitive advantage that will help them thrive the future? Dropbox set out to answer that in our Choice Economy report, a survey of over 2,000 small business leaders and employees across eight countries. We wanted to see how 18 months of flexibility has fundamentally changed employee attitudes to how, where and when they work. We found nearly two-thirds of businesses have made notable or significant improvements to their business structure, tools, and practices to enable collaboration during the pandemic. That’s a great start.
But while it’s been proven new technology can help teams get work done remotely, how do we maintain the same level of flexibility now that people are starting to return to the office?
After all, building high performing teams, no matter where they are in the world, is the number one priority for any businesses looking to survive the next few years. So, backed by our research, we’ve secured insights from leading figures in the field of remote work to find out how to do it. Here are four tips to help you enable a flexible working environment.
1. Ask employees what they want
While the need to facilitate remote work was total and immediate, now that the dust has settled and everyone has adjusted, you need to understand what your teams really want. And that means giving them a choice, rather than blanket solutions or ways of working.
Employees are actually pretty good at deciding what environment is best for them at a given time. ‘They might prefer to work from home for focus work, or in the office for brainstorming sessions and collaboration, but they can make this decision independently. And, if you allow them to do this, you’ll see improved productivity as a result,’ says Kate Lister, President at Global Workplace Analytics.
So the answer is to not make rash decisions on behalf of your employees, but simply to ask them and lead with what they actually want, even if it surprises you. ‘We did a survey recently and asked employees: When you go back to the office, will you want to have a virtual meeting or an in person meeting if the person is in the same building on the same campus as you? About 70% said that they would prefer to have all of those meetings as a virtual meeting, even if they're in the same building,’ says Lister.
2. Keep building culture – even while apart
The pandemic has effectively put many of us in a two-year-long state of emergency. Culture has, in many cases, fallen by the wayside.
‘[Over the past couple of years], no one has had access to any of that ‘true’ culture of the workplace. The ‘true’ culture has lived in how much the leaders really care about the wellbeing of their employees,’ says Britt Andreatta, PhD, chief executive officer at 7th Mind Inc.
As the world starts to open up again, there are new opportunities to bring back all the trappings of work culture many employees enjoyed. But with many of us continuing to work from home on a regular basis, we need to ensure that this culture isn’t entirely office based. This doesn’t need to be difficult – it just requires a bit more planning. When you think about it, ad-hoc coffee and drinks after work were never particularly easy, flexible or inclusive for many employees to join, anyway.
So what’s the alternative?
Getting culture right doesn’t mean spending a lot of money on fancy new tools. We’re all familiar with video calls, and it’s important to remember we can use them for things other than work. Companies can keep the coffee break alive by encouraging remote workers to schedule calls with colleagues and friends at work during business hours just to catch up.
That being said, culture goes deeper than beers and coffee. We need to match the fun and games with some of the more personal elements of culture that many have really valued during the pandemic. That direction starts at the top, says Andreatta: ‘Managers make the experience of workplace culture for 90% of workers. And yet so many companies have never really invested in manager training.’
Management training is so important because, at the end of the day, a lot of culture is really just getting the basics right: how easy is it to ask for help, get time off, discuss issues you might be having and so on. Companies who want to succeed in a world of flexible work will need to get both sides of the coin right.
3. Share the right collaboration tools
Communication and collaboration are fundamental to any project, workflow or business. If you try to have one without the other, everything falls apart.
This is borne out by our research: Over a third of businesses (36%) saw a lack of the right collaboration tools as a significant barrier to working remotely and 48% said a failure to collaborate had a negative impact on employee productivity. 87% of businesses also agreed that improving team collaboration will be critical to the future of their organisation.
For businesses, it’s a clear imperative to find a platform that brings teams together simply, allows them to integrate the tools they already use elsewhere and that, fundamentally, makes project management simple. This doesn’t mean just tinkering around at a surface level. Businesses need to use technology to make significant, long-lasting changes to workplace processes to really harvest the maximum benefit.
‘There's a lot of information sharing that happens in meetings that could be done through asynchronous tools. We really just need to change how we define work, how it’s measured, how we do it and where we do it,’ says Andreatta.
4. Innovate, innovate, innovate
Finally, it’s important not to see innovation as a one-off process. Whatever you do to create a flexible working environment, don’t stop improving it.
What that means is simple – beyond securing regular feedback, audit your business processes frequently, and, if in doubt, hire an external professional to do so. If you invest in new technology, work with your chosen suppliers to maximise the investment you’ve made, and set up a cross-functional team to oversee its deployment and broader use throughout the business.
Finally, make sure all stakeholders are included in every step of the journey. Senior leadership plays a critical role in driving business change, but so too does adoption among all the employees in your business. If you can’t make workers see the value in the tools and processes you’re giving them, or haven’t consulted them on how and if they’ll use them, they’ll probably leave them sitting on the shelf – and your flexible work strategy is unlikely to succeed.