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Get those fingers off the screen (Getty Images).
Get those fingers off the screen (Getty Images).

PartnersJune 17, 2020

We don’t have to go back to the rigid old ways of working

Get those fingers off the screen (Getty Images).
Get those fingers off the screen (Getty Images).

After the great working from home experiment, Flick Electric Co. is now trying to find the best of both worlds as staff return to the office. People and capability advisor Claire Blood examines how to achieve flexibility and productivity at the same time. 

On the afternoon of 23rd March, as I stood in The Warehouse in Whitianga in the early stages of a long-awaited roadie, I noticed a change in the atmosphere – a sudden flurry of energy as people around me started to chatter in concerned tones and intently scroll their phones. It soon became clear why: we’d been given 48-hours notice of a nationwide lockdown. I headed back to my accommodation, packed up my things and began the 650km dash home. 

I knew when I set off on holiday that there was a risk I wouldn’t finish my trip – I’d spent the last week working with the leadership team at Flick on scenarios for how we would operate if we were confined to our homes. On my arrival back in Wellington I swung by the office to collect a desk chair, a computer monitor and the pile of paperwork on my desk. My flatmate had done the same from her office and we set up a coworking space on the dining table at home. 

Our new norm began to reveal itself over the next weeks: at-home workouts from a tablet in the front yard, daily walks around the neighborhood and taking calls from our bedrooms. We enjoyed being able to get through our laundry during the workday, used our saved commuting time to cook more than usual – recreating favourite fakeaways – and pub-quizzed from home.

Nearly eight weeks later and thanks to New Zealand’s decision to “go hard and go early”, we are both back at work. My housemate works in a large public sector organisation and, initially, was one of just a few in the office. Here at Flick people have drifted back as they felt comfortable, with a few of us transitioning back to the office as soon as we could. Now that we’re at level one the desks have filled up even more. But the most common question landing on my desk since we first moved to alert level three – and now, at level one – has been “can I continue to work from home a bit?”. Despite the team adapting well to working remotely (65% of our Flick staff responded 4 or 5 when asked how they’d adapted in a mid-lockdown survey, with 5 being ‘adapted very well’), the answer’s not clear-cut.

Although we have a few permanent remote workers, our Wellington HQ is woven into the fabric of Flick life. Colourful Post-its adorn physical kanban boards, sofas around the office host people working or catching up, and the sound of waiata practice or Friday afternoon drinks fills the office from the lunch room. There’s nothing quite like workplace banter and the camaraderie of our workmates, and they’re all things we’ve been keen to get back to. 

We know that our Flick staff are not just colleagues, but friends (and in a few cases family!), too. Our gradual return to the office has meant some strange boundaries: two of our staff are sisters, and they were asked to respect physical distance in the office but able to hug at family get-togethers during level two. 

Personally, I found it difficult to carry out aspects of my own role at home. Having a coaching conversation through a computer screen is difficult: I felt myself filling the silences which should have been opportunities for reflection because there’s something reactive and over-stimulating about a video call. While at first it was a novelty to experience each others’ homes and meet colleagues’ pets and children, we began ditching the camera. Research suggests that humans are actually better at reading emotional cues over the phone, rather than on screen. And we also know that spending all day on screen without the breaks offered by popping into a meeting room or out for coffee offer have caused eye strain and headaches for some of our staff.

Empty chairs at empty tables – the Flick lockdown lunchroom (image: supplied).

But there are a few lockdown learnings we’ll definitely hold onto as we head back to a more normal way of working. Our company-wide meeting, which we hold every six weeks, has been run via Google Hangouts for the past two months. Attendees can see each other in the gallery view, and everyone can engage via chat without interrupting the presenters. We’ve embraced the benefits rather than the drawbacks of technology, and it’s proven to deliver our best meetings yet: they’re collaborative, engaging and more inclusive to those of us who don’t like speaking to big crowds. It’s also meant that our two permanent remote workers were finally able to experience a meeting designed for their needs. It’s been so successful we’ve decided to continue our meetings in this format, dialling in from our desks.

While we were all working remotely we tried hard to keep up regular communications between our people. We introduced new statuses to our Slack workspace, including “out for a walk” and “parenting” which have shown us the physical and mental wellbeing gains of having more flexibility in our workdays. Our Mental Health First Aiders created easy ways for people to flag if they’re having a rough day, and our daily quiz and weekly waiata were adapted to run throughout lockdown. The Flick band produced an incredible music video rendition of “Flick together” – a Beatles’ cover about overcoming life in lockdown. All of these were fuelled by missing the social and productivity gains of spending time together, building trust and connections.

So how do we find the best of both worlds? We’re working towards not only flexible but truly smart ways of working. Flexibility is often seen as having the benefits weighted towards the employee, and a compromise on work quality or productivity. We found that having everyone remote worked really well, but things are more challenging when some staff are remote and others together in the office, and this is the enduring challenge of embracing remote work options. However, if we shift to think about smart working, it’s good for everyone. This means aligning tasks, location and time in a more sophisticated way than “at home” or “in the office”. We think about having focus zones in the office, where people can concentrate on tasks uninterrupted, and collaboration zones, where talking across desks and sharing ideas is welcomed. Or we think about mapping our energy levels during our day and aligning the most complex tasks to when we’re in our peak flow.

Collaboration in action (image: supplied).

We’re not all the way there, but we’ve thought about how we design our spaces to maximise the modes of work it supports. We’re encouraging our staff to ask themselves a few simple questions and talk them through to understand each others’ flexibility needs. Some key questions include “How does my flexibility affect others in my team?”, “What do I need to achieve, and where and when will I best do this?”, “What can I do to make this meeting remote-accessible?’ and “Which interactions are best when everyone is together?”

Here in Aotearoa, we’re yet to see the final impact the great working-from-home effort of 2020 will have on workplaces. For some of our Flick staff, we know that working from home was a blurring of boundaries, and the inability to make a physical shift from work to home meant an undesirable “always-on” mode. For others, it made things flow a little better and opened up more space in the day to do the things that benefit them mentally, physically and emotionally.  

While I would encourage more flexibility in general, I don’t think we’ll see too many organisations going the way of Twitter just yet. As with most things in life, balance seems to be key, and as a people professional, I’d like to see a shift in mindset from work-life balance to work-life blend. Work and life are not two separate and opposing things – for many of us, work is a huge part of our lives and our personal identities. But so too are our families, our sports teams or dance classes, and our individual goals and dreams. 

I’d like to see our workplaces become the same spaces where we talk about our house renovations, a new gym routine, or that new hobby in our one-to-ones with our managers, using their professional coaching skills to benefit our whole selves. It’s a win-win. For me the lasting benefit of this experience is knowing more about the people I work with, breaking down the ‘work self’ a little, and understanding what’s going on beyond our time in the office – lessons that are worth holding onto wherever we do our work.

This content was created in paid partnership with Flick Electric Co. Learn more about our partnerships here

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