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Trust is the best basis for hybrid working

08 September 2021

A cliché heard now is that after the health crisis, the office has become a 'meeting place'. Koen Van Beneden and Eva De Winter take a broader view.

'No, I don't think the office will be just a meeting place,' responded Koen Van Beneden CEO of HP Belgium and Luxembourg, immediately to the cliché. 'Organizations will use it more consciously for specific tasks. You cannot and do not want to plan one day that only focuses on work and another day just meetings.' The average knowledge worker will go to the office for focused work, work that requires physical interaction, and those meetings that are best done in person, according to consultant Eva De Winter (Otolith, VOCAP).

Starting with trust

How do you make this happen? Koen Van Beneden is not that keen on making fixed agreements per team: 'At HP, we've allowed employees to choose where they can be most productive for decades. That works well for us. We will now draw up a teleworking policy, but mainly for technological agreements. Where and how long someone works is left to their discretion. Newcomers are always surprised by this. We believe that an employer should start from a basis of trust, rather than rules.'

The years of experience with this 'free' interpretation was confirmed by the CEO of HP Belgium and Luxembourg with his conviction that preferences are very much a personal matter. Koen Van Beneden: 'Even with the same job, you see one colleague five days a week in the office and someone else much less. Just as one student studies productively in their bedroom and another in a library. Some employers may want to check whether staff are working enough, but our experience at HP is that we are more likely to check that staff are not overworking themselves. We also give staff their own part of the business, so to speak. And that applies to every position, from team leaders to individual contributors. Based on this, we clearly agree on what we expect from 'their company'. That motivates. Staff want to prove themselves. That is why we have to slow them down rather than motivate them.'

Tasks and teamwork

Eva De Winter understands that the idea of the office as a meeting place seems self-evident. However, to determine more concretely what that means for each organization and individual, you must look at the task level. 'For brainstorming, exchanges, coordination, and so on, a physical presence is the easiest. This makes it is easier to build trust. This also applies to engagement. For example, newcomers. With that said, not every organization is equally advanced in this area. Some companies that did not have telework before the coronavirus are still looking. Studies before the coronavirus often indicated that two days was optimum for remote work. In the meantime, personal preferences may also have evolved.'

It seems like a risk to her that you conclude that you let everyone find their formula without a framework. Eva De Winter: 'You do have a shared vision at the team level, both at the task and relationship level. What obviously works well for one team member from home, may not work so well for others.'

HP Belgium & Luxembourg recently asked everyone individually what they want and did not want to do at home. What will be office work? What will be interpersonal? How do you see the team meetings working? How do company rallies work best? Koen Van Beneden: 'We discussed the results team by team. We saw evolutions. I was convinced that everyone would welcome the much-appreciated company rally again every two months that are followed by an informal friendly drink afterwards. In the meantime, we make a short company call every two weeks that lasts about half an hour. I give twenty-minute updates so that they are up to date for all topics. They know how to find the right source when they need to delve deeper. It's efficient and our staff like it, so we'll continue to do that even after everything has reopened. Twice a year we will organize a really nice face-to-face moment with the whole company where the focus is entirely on making connections and being together.'

The functional and the relational

Eva De Winter also advocates individual customization. In many organizations, she sees generic agreements and charters emerging for teams and organizations. Eva De Winter finds a framework useful, but that is not the end of the matter. 'Have a conversation with the team and do this regularly. Using digital channels, we fall into talking to each other in a more functional way and this communication method risks replacing the more focused relationship. For colleagues who have known each other for a long time, this risk may be smaller. However, building trust is a lot harder using a virtual medium. Developing a high-quality relationship with newcomers via digital channels requires a very conscious effort.'

Koen Van Beneden feels the same way: 'It says a lot that even before the coronavirus, I insisted on taking trips in the car with new team members to get past the purely functional. Today, it's much more difficult. Even with people you know well, you still need a good IT connection to take in the body language. I've sometimes heard more about their private lives in the past year than in the many years before. It's not impossible. Many international teams have no other option. I started my new role a month before covid-19, which means I never met my manager in person. Nevertheless, we built a good relationship, if only because we had to make difficult decisions together. That presupposes trust.'

For Eva De Winter, too, it was sometimes unavoidable. As a consultant, she has given many online training courses. 'Yes, it's possible, but in-person is easier and faster. You must be very aware of the specific characteristics of online contact. We've already pointed out that you must consciously avoid the functional aspect gaining the upper hand. So, make time for the relationship. You can do this a lot more spontaneously with the physical contact.'

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