Leading flexible teams to do the best work of their lives

Over the past two years, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant acceleration of a set of trends impacting how we work. These include the advent of broadband access at home, the proliferation of easy-to-use SAAS tools, and demographic changes in the labor force. Companies dealing with these forced changes tend to go in one of two directions. Many organizations simply ‘retrofit’ their office-bound existing habits and practices to accommodate remote working. However, some companies have gone further by rethinking and redesigning core operating principles such as onboarding, innovation, or creativity to re-engineer the business for greater flexibility. For episode # 48 of the World Class Leaders Show podcast, I’m very happy to bring you a conversation I had on LinkedIn with Brian Elliott, the executive leader of Future Forum. Brian has an amazing track record of leading teams and building companies, as a CEO of several start-up firms, a product leader at Google, and a senior vice president at Slack. Brian’s new book “How the Future Works; Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of their Lives” was co-authored with Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp.

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”

Future Forum is a consortium conducting several different activities, including research. One of their recent quarterly global surveys indicated that flexibility, especially schedule flexibility, has become a fundamental expectation for most working individuals. According to 94% of the Future Forum Pulse survey respondents, this even supersedes the desire for location flexibility (i.e. working from home), and encompasses how teams interact and deliver. People want greater social connection and collaboration, but, even more, they want the ability to control how their work activity and required tasks are scheduled.  A workday that is largely consumed by meetings does not offer a productive model. If we can change those habits, it has an even bigger impact on people’s stress levels and improves their work-life balance and their productivity in significant ways.  Achieving schedule flexibility across an organization is challenging since different sections of the business will require different parameters. Your product design and engineering department may find a set of guidelines that work well, but those same parameters would not work as well within a sales organization. The past two years have given us a massive opportunity to redesign how work gets done to make it better for people and for organizations, in ways that are much more inclusive, flexible, and connected.

Impact on Talent

In any industry, there are companies leaning forward to these changes who view it as an opportunity through the lens of talent management. If you survey a group of CEOs, the number one item on their agenda is talent — we all understand that attracting top talent, aligning them against your mission, and helping them move faster against it is really what makes you successful or not. There’s fierce competition for talent going on within many industries, and location and schedule flexibility are critical tools for differentiation. We’re no longer constrained by our ability to hire people who can show up in a given location five days per week, every week. Diversity is also a core issue. If we can recruit and retain top resources from a greater pool of talent, then we achieve a competitive advantage.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Top-down blanket mandates are usually not that well received by all organizations, and they also don’t typically work that well.  The answer that works most consistently is to figure out what your organizational framework is; that is, what’s the purpose and principles around flexible work. Then, a set of simple rules and guidelines can be created, along with team-level agreements.

Steps for Designing the Rules of the Game

  1. Executive alignment over boundary conditions
  2. Establish sub-boundaries for different sections of the business
  3. Manager training is critical to reinforce and support front-line leaders
  4. Develop team-by-team agreements on how the guidelines apply to their specific needs. 

“Progress, not Perfection”

When different teams begin experimenting with the redesign of their working models, they encounter a variety of interesting challenges and consequences. Online teams must become much more efficient and discover asynchronous ways of working with each other.  The process is one of continuous learning and improvement, with an open mindset for analysis and iteration.

Potential Pitfalls

The executive conversations are critical, as the C-Suite leaders will set the tone for the organization. If top executives are in the office five days every week, it will send the signal that all employees need to be back in the office. Obstacles will arise if the prevailing culture requires a physical presence during senior executive review meetings to provide the perception of a level playing field. Since different teams will have varying agreements, it’s also essential to define the parameters offered to the teams in an equitable manner. One approach is to define the types of events that are crucial for in-person attendance, versus time-oriented parameters such as “three days of each week in the office”.

Taking the Next Steps

Some organizations leading the charge to the future are leveraging their most forward-leaning internal groups to experiment with the more extreme levels of flexibility. Identifying these internal champions, learning their habits, and then translating the learning to the rest of the organization can accelerate the evolution even faster.  The patterns may be slightly different team by team, but this will provide both internal and external benchmarks for success.

Guidelines for Team Agreements

When a remote team is forming the principles that outline shared behaviors, there are several issues to consider: The first, and most obvious, covers collaboration hours – each team member, regardless of geographic location, needs to understand and agree on their availability and accessibility for shared group activities. The second area for agreement is communications and boundaries. There are so many communication methods and tools – it’s important that the team agree on response time expectations. To avoid a 24/7 expectation of monitoring four or five different tools (email, text, Slack message, etc). with the attendant stresses, the team should agree on priorities. For example – for an urgent situation requiring as rapid a response as possible, use text only. Another example would be the use of ‘scheduled send’ — while the team leader may be working odd hours, sending emails to the team during the unscheduled hours may result in increased stress for the team members. In addition, the team should agree on roles, responsibilities, the decision-making process, and the handling of disagreements. Transparency is essential and being public about certain information and decisions can help reduce the unnecessary participation of individuals who simply need awareness.

Geographic and Gender Differences

The Future Forum survey studies specific countries, such as the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Japan, and Australia. The data shows that countries where ‘back-to-the-office’ is significant, such as Japan (50%), stress levels have also risen notably.  For other indicators, such as cultural differences in terms of who cares for children, and infrastructure from a childcare perspective compared to, say, continental Europe, visible variances are evident. Return measures are putting caregivers more at risk; not just for children, but also for those caring for adults at home. If you’d like to learn more about Brian Elliott’s work, visit the website https://futureforum.com/. Brian can also be followed via LinkedIn, at https://www.linkedin.com/in/belliott/. For more information about my work with leaders and organizations, to subscribe to my weekly newsletter, or to take a free assessment of your leadership level, please drop me an email at [email protected], or go to my website at https://www.andreapetrone.com/. I would also very much appreciate hearing from you about your thoughts on this episode, or suggestions for future topics for this podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please leave a review. Listen to the podcast related to this article:  https://www.andreapetrone.com/leading-flexible-teams-with-brian-elliott-svp-of-slack-podcast/
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