Bringing Poly-Working Down to Four Foundational Steps


By Chris Preston

Whilst there’s a great deal of opinion and guidance on how the future of work will shape up (including our take on the rise of poly-working), many organisations are struggling to identify the foundational steps that will help them move from ideas to implementation.

Our Poly-Working article set out the major factors for the future and now, in this update, we share the four key components that organisations will need to define and execute in order to cope with the next phase of the pandemic; and a longer-term future where everything is up for grabs.

They are:

1. Identifying the vision for the organisation’s new way of working – this is proving exponentially harder than anyone anticipated (see number two). We’ve been spending a great deal of time on virtual calls with leadership teams to help them pick through the myriad of factors that will form their future strategy. 

What’s emerging is that the blend of bravery and commercial reality is the thing to focus on. In the red corner, we have the desire by many leaders to capitalise on the results of the ‘experiment’ that was a lockdown, and free up a workforce to work anywhere and everywhere. There’s a dawning realisation that people can be just as effective at the kitchen table as in the boardroom. This gives a number of possibilities that we’ve been exploring with companies big and small. But, in the blue corner, these options have to be held up against the need to keep a business running, and to keep people connected on a ‘real’ human level. And that’s just your business – bring in your customers, suppliers, stakeholders and the jigsaw of the future gains a few thousand more pieces.

To make this point starkly, if your local supermarket allowed everyone to work from home, your weekly shop would be a disaster. Now, you say, we just move it online. But not all customers want or need that, and e-commerce doesn’t solve every need, nor does it fit for a large number of organisations. It’s no exaggeration to say that these factors are keeping leaders up at night. One C-level leader told us they are losing more sleep about the return than the lockdown. The workshops we’ve held are highly challenging, and see a great deal of angst around the ‘possible and the probable’.

2. Working through the many, many dissonances that the new ways of working will throw up – less time in offices and workplaces will reduce collaboration, fewer people in the shared spaces will diminish the culture, lower exposure to the direct outputs and the ‘mechanics’ of an organisation will diminish passion… the list goes on.

So many senior leaders have shared the issue of diminishing cross-team collaboration, and how they fear that the organisation will be totally siloed by the new ways of working. We’ve been told by ‘talent’ that changing jobs in a virtual environment is an anathema for them. And, we’ve been advising organisations that have onboarded thousands of employees over the last year, who have never once stepped into their work spaces, how to get them ‘into’ the culture.

This second stage is about identifying the levers that leaders and managers can utilise to overcome the dichotomies that poly-working creates. Right now, managers are crying out for practical tools (virtual) that give them the simple tips, stories and reassurance that they are on the right track in managing people in a volatile environment. Our virtual learning content is flying off the shelves at an incredible rate. As organisations realise they don’t have the knowledge or experience to guide people through the transition, they are looking externally to bring it into the organisation. And they need to do this darn quick.

3. Helping teams to find their own sustainable way of working – we are seeing many organisations propose admirably broad, all-encompassing statements that offer people something along the lines of ‘three days out, two days in’ (or vice-versa… or something completely different). Saying it is one thing, but implementing it is another. 

What does it mean if you never actually get your whole team together physically? Or what if you never again have a ‘traditional’ meeting with your counterparts in a different part of the organisation? How will it work if we ‘tell’ everyone the days they can come in. Oh, the problems we weave…

Again, this comes back to conversations and guidance. Managers need the tools and confidence to discuss these, and many other challenges with both their peer groups and their direct teams. Finding local ways to implement organisational policies will need leaders to pass on trust to their managers. Trust that’s shorn up with solid principles that help teams make the right decisions.

For one of our clients we’ve just completed a long series of team conversations to enable exactly this. Turns out, these smart people can quite quickly work out how to make it succeed. They just need some direction and a dose of autonomy. We can give them the former, but the latter has to come from the ‘centre’. Within this exciting mix you’ve got individuals that all have their own personalities and preferences. This should (and can) be factored in as part of a solution that fits everyone. Given this, it’s no surprise that we’ve been running more team profiling than ever before.

4. Re-thinking development for the leadership cohort – whilst this is number four on our list, clever companies are already thinking about this one in earnest. The fundamental truth is simple: no one is equipped to manage the future. That’s likely a ‘gulp’ moment – but it’s true. Just like nature never intended humans to drink cows’ milk, modern commerce never factored in everyone staying at home to do the job. Management development needs a paradigm shift both in terms of content and approach to delivery.

We kept going with our development work during the summer of 2020, and it was incredibly tough. One of our team, an Olympic rower, talks about looking people in the ‘whites of their eyes’ and the critical nature of that connection. The magic is diminished remotely, and the learning dulled.

New routes to development are going to be needed, new attitudes to what constitutes ‘good’ are required and, as the starting point, a whole different focus for the content. 

Actually, when we say different, we really mean a new emphasis. If we were betting people, the key elements for leadership will be Trust, Coaching, Engagement and Resilience. They tell a story – trusting and supporting a far more remote team, and being there for them in ways that overcome the distance that virtual working creates and ensures people continue to work sustainably.. They are not ‘new’ but their application will be.

If they are the top four, then there’s a myriad of components that support them – wellbeing, communication, tasking, individualisation of management… Some of these people are already working towards them, but others, such as 100% remote team management will be a new skill for many. Our programmes for 2021 are exciting and new – we are relishing the task of creating a new blend and experience.

As ever, we recognise that a short list doesn’t do justice to the huge task that the future presents. But, often, to tackle the big challenge, you need to break it into smaller chunks to enable you, and your people to ‘get their arms around’ the requirements and start to make it feel achievable.

Because, the future is on it’s way – we will either get lost in it or navigate our way through it. And, sometimes, a simple ‘you are here’ map is the best starting point.