Organisations are changing and adapting their working styles following the pandemic and the periods of time everyone spent working remotely. Many are embracing hybrid working, so how is this affecting the way they work, and is it affecting their culture?
Hear this first-hand account of how the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Manchester is adapting, using a pilot of new ways of working to learn what works best and how this is impacting its culture.
We also explore the power of having a working together agreement, co-created by those that will use it, and how it helps to strengthen many aspects that make teams more effective and productive – such as trust, cohesiveness and a willingness to share information and knowledge. Developing a working together agreement reinforces aspects such as the trust that developed during the periods of lockdown, where people showed beyond a shadow of doubt that they could be trusted, and managers started to adapt their management style.
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00:00:01 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. As so many of us move into a hybrid world of working, there are still concerns about culture, with some organisations reacting by requiring people to come to the office for their in-person fix and to protect what they might call their culture. But doesn't that cut across the trust that's been built up over the last two years, and remove the choice that we say people now have? Is choice a blessing or a paradox? So many questions, so let's dive in.
INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:00:56 Karen Plum
Many organisations are concerned that hybrid working will be difficult to manage and will potentially put a strain on their culture. Somehow things feel easier when we're all working the same way either all in the office or all at home. When we were all in the office, we didn't think about culture, it was just what it was and we knew what it was.
When we went to work remotely, we started to worry whether the culture would be damaged and what we should do to preserve it or to embrace the changes if they were actually positive. So in this episode we're exploring how organisations are responding to the changes they're undergoing and the impact on their culture.
In this part of the episode, I'm talking to AWA’s client Margot Power, Faculty Change Manager for the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Manchester, about their culture and how it's been impacted by the pandemic and a move to hybrid working.
I started by asking Margot how people in the Faculty were working before the pandemic.
00:01:58 Margot Power
Most members of staff were coming onto campus pretty much every day, and so academics coming in to carry out research and for teaching and for student interactions. Our professional services staff generally coming into kind of an office based environment or a technical based environment depending on and whether they're part of the technical community. Most people would have pretty much a set place of work, so whether that be a shared office, whether that be a single person office or a more technical kind of laboratory space.
Generally staff would be working on a kind of a dedicated IT set up, so we would generally have a permanent desk with our own IT set up. A lot of professional services staff work on laptops, but I wouldn't say we were working in a particularly agile way at the time. There was not much of a culture of working from home. Some staff might have had built into their contract that they would work maybe one day a week from home, but not many, it wasn't common.
It veered more towards that it wasn't encouraged, it wasn't part of an established culture. I've worked in other places where it was and it was kind of embraced, but it just wasn't something I think, partly because the University itself is very large and you know, there's so many staff there that to sort of integrate that would have been a huge cultural change and it just wasn't something that really had happened.
00:03:18 Karen Plum
So I wonder what happened when the pandemic hit and everybody had to go work from home. What did you learn about how people could work during that early part of the pandemic?
00:03:29 Margot Power
Yeah, it was a really big shock for people really, honestly I was amazed at the transition. So just you know, within hours we were on Zoom carrying out the meetings that were in our diaries. The kind of agility that we saw was astounding really - how quickly people adjusted.
I think that's from a work perspective, obviously from a kind of a personal perspective, it was a bigger adjustment generally for people and we had to think very quickly about how we would help people to make that adjustment, particularly when it became apparent that it was going to go on for probably a lot longer than we had assumed.
So whilst we had always made an effort when we were on campus to ensure that we had sort of check in points and social drop ins and get togethers, we had to very quickly think about how we could manage that as well as the work. To some extent I think the adjustment within our workloads was probably a little bit easier once we had adjusted to online meetings and getting the equipment that we needed and that kind of thing to enable to enable the work.
00:04:33 Karen Plum
And was there a concern within the Faculty, when everybody was working remotely, did you worry about damage to the culture that you had?
00:04:45 Margot Power
It was a big concern, partly because our hands were tied in many ways because there were so few alternatives as to how we could tackle it, but it was a big concern. It was something that was talked about a lot, I know at Faculty level and within teams as well and a lot of effort was put in to try and maintain that culture.
00:05:04 Karen Plum
What aspects of the culture were you most concerned to protect?
00:05:09 Margot Power
I think it was the kind of camaraderie that comes about. People that are just thrown together in an office and there's not necessarily a need to make sure that everybody is friends and that everybody socializes, but I think there's a huge benefit to that. The work benefits from that and outputs benefit from that. We talked an awful lot about what's lost by just communicating via Zoom, you know those conversations at the beginnings of meetings, catching somebody for five minutes, picking up on conversations, that sort of professional curiosity that we all have sitting in an office.
We hear something about another project that might affect our project, so it's not just around morale and people - it's around the outputs around the projects and the work that we were carrying out. It definitely suffers from losing that extra layer.
00:05:54 Karen Plum
Yeah, yeah, all that stuff oils the wheels, doesn't it?
00:05:57 Margot Power
It absolutely does. Yeah, yeah, I think sometimes productivity was up, but effectiveness wasn't necessarily as high as it as it could have been. So we were all working very hard and getting a lot done, but, even through meetings, sometimes we’d pick up on something - maybe an assumption was made or piece of information just wasn't communicated that would have just happened, much more naturally in the office, when people were together.
00:06:22 Karen Plum
Right, so what's happened since that early phase 'cause obviously that's two years ago that all of this started. I mean, have you just kind of gone back to the old way of working since that's been possible, or are you continuing to evolve and adapt the way that you work?
00:06:39 Margot Power
Absolutely yeah. I don't think we could ever have gone back. It was quite clear from very early on that we were never going to go back to the exact way that we had been working. As time went on and we bedded into the patterns that we were establishing just from working from home, we quickly realized that we needed to address some of the things that had happened. We needed to harness some of the really positive things that had happened. And try to find this hybrid way of working. So we worked really closely with AWA on a program, whereby we would get a line in the sand, assess where we were up to.
We did a number of surveys with all PS staff in the Faculty to find out what had worked well, what the challenges were, what their concerns were about returning and then we've had various checkpoints. The program that we had planned didn't always go to plan, and that was
00:07:30 Karen Plum
They never do, do they?
00:07:31 Margot Power
They never do, no! And that was because of the pandemic, so just as we would think, we were all getting ready to think about what the new normal was going to be, we were back home again and encouraged not to return. So it was challenging. It was immensely helpful to know that we had a program in place that we that we could follow, and I think staff have really appreciated the fact that we're thinking more deeply about this now and we're reflecting on what's gone on.
00:08:00 Karen Plum
Did you find that being honest with them paid dividends?
00:08:05 Margot Power
It definitely helped to build trust with our staff and I think trust is something that's really run through as a huge theme throughout the pandemic in that, I think that initially the fact that we didn't have that culture of working from home, there was an assumption that it was because of trust and because people are at home do we really trust that they're working hard?
From day one, honestly, I just don't think there was ever a question of trust it you know, it was so clear that everybody was working really, really hard and probably very often even harder than they were before the pandemic. And I think that two way trust has been demonstrated throughout all of the restrictions.
If we had decided that we were going to introduce hybrid working at the University and you know it is still something that's ongoing and we are only in actually a pilot of hybrid working at the moment. But you know, it probably would have been a five year plan that we set about, you know, testing and modeling.
00:09:00 Karen Plum
Edging towards it, yeah yeah.
00:09:02 Margot Power
The swiftness with which we all adjusted was really astounding, and I think that's going to be a precursor for other sort of transformational programs at the University as well, and that we can see that we - it's not ideal to make changes that quickly, and I don't think we would choose it to do it that quickly but, we can we can move fast if we need to.
00:09:22 Karen Plum
Which is another tremendous positive, isn't it? Because it shows you the art of the possible and the ability to adapt to significant change, which is something that a lot of organisations certainly before the pandemic, just couldn't do, or thought they couldn't do.
00:09:36 Margot Power
00:09:38 Karen Plum
So you mentioned a pilot, can you tell us a little bit about what you're piloting?
00:09:43 Margot Power
It's testing hybrid working so the University put some principles in place last summer, so it wasn't a policy, it didn't have any hard and fast rules. It had some suggestions and some recommendations around how teams and individuals might approach hybrid working. There were obviously some kind of boundaries put in place, but really it was to test.
And I think that was partly in return for the flexibility and adaptability that staff have shown, so it was OK, over to you now, let's see what works, let's test it and that really is testing the hybrid working, which allows people to work from home some days of the week, to be on campus some days of the week and to really test what works depending on the role and the requirements.
So there's always been a thread running through, which means that we have to think about business needs, so it's not all about what suits individuals, it's about what suits the business. But if your role doesn't require you to be on campus five days a week, then what is the most beneficial way to approach that.
00:10:44 Karen Plum
Right, so is everybody involved in piloting or just a proportion of the Faculty?
00:10:50 Margot Power
So it's just Professional Services (PS) staff and that includes the technical staff as well. However, they have much less of an opportunity to do hybrid working, so in some ways I guess our technical community, they've been involved in the pilot, but they haven't been able to do a huge amount of hybrid working.
The Central University has rolled out the pilot, but in the Faculty of Science and engineering, we've introduced a number of additional pieces of work as well, so we've developed a working together agreement within all teams, which looks at how we would best and do hybrid working and we've run a series of additional surveys as well, which has kind of checked in with staff as the pilot has gone on to assess what's working well, and then we did a baseline survey as well too so that we had some comparative data.
We also have some hybrid working Champions within the Faculty, so we have regular meetings with them, and they've enabled us to kind of communicate more widely with teams, and again to see what's working well.
00:11:50 Karen Plum
Right, so is the hope that the learnings from the pilot will be made available to other parts of the Faculty as they look towards embracing more hybrid working?
00:12:01 Margot Power
Yeah, absolutely. So the results have been made available. I think the next step really for us is to look at those interactions between our PS and academic communities. Although they work quite differently, they are so integrated and so now it's really to look at how, hybrid working within the PS community kind of impacts or benefits the academic community.
So I think the reason we didn't run the pilot with our academic community is that they already work in a more flexible way, however, their interactions with PS colleagues that's integral to the pilot.
00:12:39 Karen Plum
So what would you say about your culture now?
00:12:43 Margot Power
I think we're in a much better position now, so the appetite is still there to make sure that that is maintained and we have different challenges now so whilst during COVID restrictions everybody was at home and everybody was logging onto remote meetings, now we have staff you know coming into work on different days.
So if a meeting is happening, some people are on campus, some people are at home, and even just in terms of line management. So for example, I manage three different teams and I'm on campus three days a week. So I've tried to make sure that I check in with all of the teams on different days. So that's tricky now things are quite more spread out, kind of physically and from a locational perspective.
But of course we do have those opportunities now to have face-to-face meetings where possible and face-to-face one-to-one meetings. So like I said, the appetite is still there to make sure that it's maintained. But you know it is still in the face of some challenges.
I think for the University it's a much longer term strategy that they're looking at, but for us as a Faculty, because we are just about to move into the new home for Science and Engineering, we've had to preempt probably some of those changes to space management and estate management. So we are now thinking about space and how we use that better and that's impacting on our plans really around team and individual presence on campus.
It's something that we couldn't ignore. We absolutely had to think about how we were going to do that in the face of hybrid working. So I think the University will be looking at us as well to see how that works for us, thinking about longer term strategies around estate management.
00:14:26 Karen Plum
Do you think that your plans for this new location are more mindful about organizational culture than perhaps they might have been?
00:14:35 Margot Power
Absolutely yeah, I mean this project has been a long time in the making, and of course there was a lot of thought put into the design of the workspace. Different types of workspace and how that would be used for different activities and by different people, but it's more in focus for us now without a doubt.
It's inevitable really that we would be thinking in that way. I know that many staff are thinking about how they can work in more of an agile way. We've moved away from that concept of one desk per person, but that's not to say that everybody couldn't always have a desk. We have a whole variety of types of workspaces in our new building and people are thinking much more carefully now about how they will use those spaces in a much more agile way.
00:15:19 Karen Plum
And with the confidence that they've shown that different ways of working can work.
00:15:24 Margot Power
00:15:26 Karen Plum
Well, my thanks to Margot for sharing her experience in navigating the pandemic and helping to introduce hybrid ways of working to the Faculty of Science and Engineering. I'm sure we'll follow their journey as they relocate to their new office.
And now it's time for a quick break, and then I'll be joined by two colleagues, Lara Al Ansari and Josh Sumner, to talk about the work we've been doing at the University of Manchester and how other organisations are coping with culture change.
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00:16:52 Karen Plum
Welcome back. As my discussion with Margot illustrated, there's a lot that's changed in the world of work in the last couple of years. If you'd like to read a piece about the 10 positive things that have happened during this time, please take a look at our latest report – “Change for good - 10 lessons from the pandemic”, available on our website. There's a link in our show notes.
And now I'm delighted to welcome Lara and Josh to the podcast - hi guys!
00:17:16 Lara Al Ansari
00:17:17 Josh Sumner
00:17:18 Karen Plum
Good to see you both here. I wanted to pick up on some of the things that Margot talked about and I know you've both been working on this project. So Lara, I wondered if you could explain what the working together agreement is and how they were created for the staff of the Faculty.
00:17:32 Lara Al Ansari
So the working together agreement essentially outlines how we as a team are going to be working together, so that's everything from how often we plan to come into the office together, to how we're going to communicate, where we're going to store files, everything along those lines.
And in terms of the working together agreement for the Faculty of Science and Engineering in the University of Manchester, we sat down with the leadership team and guided them through a workshop, really, in co-creating working together agreements.
So this involved the leadership team brainstorming and identifying what agreements they felt would be beneficial as part of a working together agreement. So for example, as I mentioned earlier, this would involve them thinking about OK, we're going to come together X amount of times for social cohesion or to socialize.
And as a result of this workshop, not only did they have a draft of a working together agreement for the leadership team, they also saw what it was like to be guided through this kind of workshop. And so, following the workshop we provided them with the materials to help them facilitate these conversations with their teams. And they went on their way and they did just that.
00:18:57 Karen Plum
And I guess they're sort of opening gambit for their working together agreements and they will evolve over time.
00:19:04 Josh Sumner
Yeah, for sure and I think it's foolish to think that you can create these things and do it once, and then they'll last you for the next year, two years, three years. So I think really they need to be live documents that react to both the external factors of what's going on in the world and also the internal factors of what's working for the team.
00:19:24 Karen Plum
I mean, we're talking about culture on this episode, and people often say that they're worried that things like hybrid working will damage their culture, or that they'll lose their culture. What do you think they mean by that?
00:19:38 Josh Sumner
Yeah, you know it's actually quite an interesting question because I think a lot of the time people don't necessarily know what they mean when they say that. And I think it's important or it's helpful to define our terms I think when we're talking about culture and losing culture, because culture as a concept can be quite a slippery one.
People confuse or they conflate culture with atmosphere and one thing that I think I'm seeing that people are very scared of losing, is this kind of pre COVID atmosphere that maybe we're seeing with rose tinted glasses that you know every Friday afternoon there was loads of people in the office and we all went down to the pub and we had a great time.
So instead of focusing on the atmosphere that we feel like we used to have in the office, when defining the company culture, or an organization’s culture, I would tend to focus on culture as being the characteristics of an organization. So if we were to describe an organization, what is it like? What's it like to work there? What are the people like? How do people treat each other? Those are the characteristics that I would tend to try to focus on when talking about culture and either losing it or changing it. Focusing on those aspects leads to a much more rich conversation.
00:20:53 Karen Plum
I think the thing is that - what you said quite early on was - let's be clear about what we're talking about. Let's define our terms. What do we mean by culture?
I wanted to ask Lara whether the working together agreements are a mechanism, do you think, for giving people more ownership, or perhaps more control, over these behaviors that we would describe as culture?
00:21:20 Lara Al Ansari
Yeah, absolutely. With anything when you're given that opportunity to create something, either yourself with a team, you're going to feel more ownership over that versus when it's either handed to you or almost forced upon you, and I think that's human nature, and the same goes for the working together agreement.
You sit down with your team and co-create the way you want to work and so not only does it give people more ownership, but they feel a lot more connected to it, and I think that's one of the things that makes working together agreements so effective is that it really does involve this bottom-up approach rather than a top down one.
00:22:03 Josh Sumner
I think it's multifaceted, so I think actually there's been quite a lot of positives over the last couple of years, I think it's easy to overlook and easy to forget. And I think one of the things that really struck me from Margot's interview was when she mentioned that being forced to work in a very virtual way, out of the blue, did probably more for the trust within the organization than a five-year change program for them.
And I think that's something that I've heard from pretty much every client that I've worked with in the last 18 months. That trust, self-direction, ownership of work, has really improved and I think it's important not to lose to lose sight of that.
00:22:42 Karen Plum
I love that you picked up on trust. Part of the work that you did with the University was looking at levels of trust and the other factors that we know impact on the performance of teams - the thing we call the Six Factors. Can you tell us a bit about what you discovered?
00:23:02 Lara Al Ansari
As part of the pilot that we ran with the Professional Services staff in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, we administered a survey towards the end of the pilot period to check into what was working well, what wasn't really working well. But we also checked into the working together agreement, so did people have them? How often did they get the chance to review them?
And then also we touched upon the Six Factors within this survey as well, which really briefly the Six Factors are the factors that we found to be associated with productivity and team performance. And essentially what we found was that people who had a working together agreement, scored themselves and their teams significantly higher across all Six Factors than those who didn't have a working together agreement.
And I think in part this is due to what the working together agreement is at its core, which is making what was previously implicit knowledge about how we work, making that explicit. So I think the working together agreement could touch on many if not all of the Six Factors, and I think with trust more specifically and its relation to hybrid working, I think they go hand in hand.
I don't think you could have successful hybrid working without improving trust. For example pre pandemic it was quite common for managers to manage via presenteeism or micromanaging, which with the pandemic we've been forced to work away from one another. And that sort of management style just doesn't fly any more. It's not appropriate, but it's also not possible to manage via presenteeism because you can't see what people are doing And so it required managers to really re-think how they manage moving from what could have been presenteeism to now a more trust-based output-based style of management.
On a colleague level, you have to be able to trust that your colleagues will deliver the output that they say they will without being able to see them physically. And so I think trust is inherent to new ways of working. If organisations are taking steps towards hybrid working, then at the same time they're going to have to be taking steps towards trust, in order for that hybrid working to be successful.
00:25:36 Karen Plum
It struck me as you were talking us through that, that the process of developing a working together agreement actually demonstrates the Six Factors in action.
00:25:45 Lara Al Ansari
00:25:48 Karen Plum
Because you can't develop a working together agreement that's going to be effective, if you don't share information, if you aren't cohesive as a team, and if you don't trust each other particularly.
So it's a nice way to cement that, and so I guess it's unsurprising that when you measured the factors for the teams, those with a working together agreement had higher scores. So Josh, I wanted to ask you what other reactions you've seen from clients, you know if they're concerned about losing different things in terms of culture.
00:26:23 Josh Sumner
On the one hand, I think you've got the organisations that are very worried that they're going to lose that kind of atmosphere that I was alluding to earlier in the office. And I think in order to safeguard that, we're seeing some clients prescribing days in the office.
I think the danger of doing that, although I completely understand the reasons behind it, I think the danger is that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. And that all of the goodwill and the trust and the other positives that we've discussed that have been being built up, kind of as a byproduct of the way we've been working over the last two years, are kind of thrown by the wayside.
And people will now start to feel, well, I was trusted to work in this way for a couple of years, we performed really well and now all of a sudden I've got to come in because we want to have a bustling Tea Point on a Wednesday afternoon. I don't think that makes too much sense.
00:27:17 Karen Plum
You can decide, until you can't!
00:27:19 Josh Sumner
Exactly, yeah, you can decide as long as it's the three or four days that I'm telling you that you can come in.
00:27:23 Karen Plum
As long as you make the right decision, yeah.
00:27:27 Josh Sumner
Exactly, exactly. One of the things that working together agreements are great for is that they help you with the paradox of choice that I think people have got. It was very easy or things took care of themselves when we worked together in offices. We then went all to working in the same way in working from home, which was a very hard thing to do, but in a lot of ways it meant that you had no choice how you connected with people.
And although it might have been suboptimal, at least everyone knew what they were doing, and there are ways to get around these problems and people have done that successfully. Now we're in a world where you can choose. You can come into the office, you can work from home and people might be in both places. Having those understandings drawn out by the team, is a way of ensuring that you still have those personal connections and those meaningful connections with your colleagues without being prescriptive and retaining the sense of ownership that I think people have had over the last couple of years.
And I've kind of thought of it almost in the same way that you know we're now all getting COVID booster jabs. It's almost like a I don't know, a social interaction booster where it might be that we only see each other once a month, it might be that we only see each other once a quarter, but I think you'd be surprised how effective and how meaningful, even very infrequent in-person interaction is in terms of keeping that camaraderie within organizations.
00:28:51 Karen Plum
I love the paradox of choice. You know, it's something we always say we want more of. But then sometimes if somebody gives us more choice, we're a bit reluctant to take the responsibility. Suddenly we have to think more about what we want.
Anyway, we've run out of time today, so I'd like to thank both of you for joining me on this episode, it's been a real pleasure diving deeper on culture with you.
00:28:12 Josh Sumner
Thanks for having me.
00:29:13 Lara Al Ansari
00:29:15 Karen Plum
And that's it for this episode. We've talked about working together agreements on several podcast episodes now, and if you'd like to take more control of your team culture and behavior, having an agreement like this is a great place to start. It's practical, but it also builds trust, cohesion, empathy, and understanding. What's not to love?
CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.