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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Sep 2, 2022


The workplace has changed forever. This is how teams and organisations can work out how to work.



Welcome to episode 153 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore working out how to work with your team.

Chances are your team and organisation are struggling to figure out how best to work. Are we in the office? If so, how many days a week? Who gets to decide which days? Can’t I just work from home all the time? Leaders are thoroughly confused about the best way forward. 

So often this conversation happens in exactly the wrong order - we start with the location first, rather than focusing on the work that’s being completed. This leads to seemingly arbitrary decisions, such as forcing people into the office three days a week, or allowing people to never come in to the office, or not allowing people to work from home on Mondays and Fridays. Those forcing people in often focus on the importance of things like water cooler conversations, ad hoc innovation, or the need to bring energy back in to the office. Those encouraging completely remote argue that we did just fine working from home during the pandemic. With such a diverse range of opinions, it feels like there’s no way to avoid letting people down.

The first thing to accept is that you can’t figure this out alone - this is not a challenge that can be solved while locked away in a boardroom. And you can’t figure it out for all time - even if you do come up with an approach that works for now, you will probably need to change it again in the future. 

Some key principles here are that we need to work with the team to figure this out and to increase acceptance. We also need to bring an experimental mindset where we can try new approaches out and measure their effectiveness. If you can’t measure productivity and performance, then you need to figure out how to really quickly.

The central challenge here is trying to decide whether work should be conducted centrally or remote. When I use the term “central”, I’m really talking about a location where people can come together. That might be your office or it may be an off-site venue.

There is a core principle that I think helps to clarify this discussion - that we need to focus on what’s best to achieve organisational objectives while offering maximum autonomy. We need to start with organisational objectives first. Jobs don’t exist to give people autonomy - jobs exist to achieve organisational objectives. But we also need to accept that autonomy is incredibly important to engagement and results - people thrive when they have freedom and autonomy. However it has to start with the organisational objectives first. Delivering results increases engagement and wellbeing. Great places to work balance challenge and support - they focus on achieving results through people.

When working out how to work, we therefore need to start with the work itself, rather than where that work is completed. Here are three key questions we need to work with our team to answer.

Question One: Interdependent or Independent.

If the work being conducted is interdependent, it suggests I need others to complete this work - I can’t do it by myself. We can then head on to the next two questions. 

However, if the work is independent then we should allow that work to be completed remotely, unless some central resource is needed, or being available centrally is important for some other function. There are very few situations where a truly independent task or responsibility needs to be completed in a central location, but we force this to happen all the time. For example, providing an update to a group of people is effectively independent - the people attending the meeting aren’t required to respond. Bringing people together centrally for a one-way communication just doesn’t make sense.

Question Two: Synchronous or Asynchronous

Asynchronous work, where we don’t have to be working on something at the same time, should be remote. If something is truly asynchronous, completing it in a central location adds no value. Again, there may be an exception where that central location houses equipment or resources that are required for the task. As more and more work becomes asynchronous, it has implications for the systems we use. For example, people are likely to need the ability to edit documents simultaneously. Also, we shouldn’t be relying on email to get things done asynchronously - there are many other systems that work much more effectively when managing asynchronous work than email. The key here, again, is to experiment. Try new systems and approaches out and measure productivity and performance. Importantly, even synchronous work can often be remote. For me the key tests are the extent to which emotion, body language, gestures and shared resources are important. If these things are important, that suggests bringing people together centrally for that task or activity.

Question Three: Central or Remote

Our choice of central or remote is largely driven by our answers to the first two questions. If the work is interdependent and synchronous, assess the level of emotion, body language, gestures and shared resources required. If the task or activity is something you undertake regularly, you might want to try both centrally and remote and gather feedback about the effectiveness of each.

In a previous episode I unpacked five reasons to bring people together that aren’t just about the work - focusing on community, collaboration, culture, climate, capability. You might want to go back and review that episode. Also, I’ve recently recorded a webinar on Working Out How to Work where we go into more detail. You can find that at Leadership Today On-Demand.

Best wishes, and have a great week.