Perhaps never has there been so much debate about the way we work, want to work and will work in the future. The experience of a global pandemic, and the prospect of its aftermath, have brought into sharp focus questions about the changing workplace, the role of technology and the challenges and opportunities of distributed teams.

After a year in which working practices have been upended out of necessity, new expectations have been created, new habits have formed, and there’s now more information than ever about what is (and isn’t) possible in the remote environment.

Having spent a considerable proportion of  time scrambling to put crisis arrangements in place, People teams are now able to look forward. With a return to the office underway in some countries, they’re working out how to facilitate that return safely, support the differing needs of remote and office-based teams, and creating arrangements that can balance personal choice and flexibility with team productivity and cohesion.

To discuss how People teams are juggling these challenges, Accel hosted a conversation with People leads from start-ups across Europe, including Algolia, GoCardless, Lyst, Primer and Tessian. We explored questions including the challenges of onboarding remote employees, nurturing collaboration within distributed teams, reimagining the workplace for an era of hybrid work, and managing the transition from remote work back to the office.

Key insights from the discussion included:

1. Culture before process

As companies return to the office, many are putting in place new policies to give people flexibility and balance about where they work. But more important than any process or policy is company culture, suggested Eva Ducruezet, Chief People Officer at GoCardless. “We’ve always had a flexible work policy. As long as you told your manager and were available to get the work done, you could do that.”

Culture will be critical to continuing that in the future, as remote working becomes more prevalent, she suggested. “We’ve brought it back to culture rather than process. As long as we set the right expectations – that collaboration is super important, we all have to treat each other with respect, and it’s always about the team – and remind people about our values, then over time teams will figure it out. We don’t necessarily need to give them set options and say we’re going to police it. It’s more about saying what we expect in general and letting people self-regulate.”

2. One team, many needs

More flexible working patterns have revealed the differing requirements and preferences of teams working in different areas of a business. Those whose primary work is independent and internally-facing may require a very different set of arrangements from others whose job is more collaborative and external. “Our experience over the last year has revealed the contrasting needs and preferences of our team, both on an individual level and around the nature of the role and scope of work being delivered. We’ve spent a lot of time conducting both internal and external research; hosting focus groups and conducting surveys with our employees to better understand what flexible working approaches will support our business and culture best,” said Frances Dyson, VP People Operations at Lyst.

Others are taking a more discretionary approach to the same problem. “We will be hybrid, letting each exec team decide what that means for different roles,” said Kristie Rodenbush, Chief Human Resources Officer at Algolia. “For some that might mean four days-a-week in the office, while others might only come in once a quarter.”

3. Focus on experience

With teams now likely to be working in a number of different places, at different times, the onus is on companies to work harder to support collaboration and foster a sense of belonging. People leads have been considering how workplace design and employee experience can reinforce their company’s culture, as people settle into new and less uniform working patterns.

“If the office is going to be a hub for collaboration, it needs to be designed for it,” suggested Eva Ducruezet. “We’re going to look at the fit-out of our office to dedicate much more space to meeting rooms and common areas to collaborate and socialise.”

Others pointed to the importance of creating parity of experience between those working in the office and remotely. “We’ve created different workflows: you either have a set desk, or you hot desk, or you’re fully remote,” said Paige Rinke, Head of People at Tessian. “We do different things in each of these – for example it affects what happens with your workstation, and how we provide you with a free lunch on Fridays. We’ve organised it into categories so we can create a systematic approach and a strong experience in every case.”

4. Working remote, staying close

The question of how best to manage those working remotely was another topic of discussion. Erin Potter, People and Operations lead at Primer, has been managing the growth of a team that has trebled in size since the beginning of the year, all working remotely. “The two main goals I have predicated all our processes around are  socialisation and growth,” she said. “We wanted to establish a sense of belonging and trust, so people had the confidence to hit the ground running from Day One.

“A lot of that is about creating the network effect: everyone who joins gets hooked up with a buddy, then they have personal intro calls and tech intro calls with everyone on the team in their first two weeks. That will change as we scale, but it’s been super important initially.” This remote onboarding, she suggested, has been designed to limit the feeling of isolation that can accompany remote working. “We wanted to reflect the experience and culture of Primer, which is definitely not about being isolated or alone. It’s a social experience that makes people feel like part of a tribe.”

While some companies will retain the flexibility for people to work remotely full-time, others face the challenge of helping their people to adjust to a hybrid working pattern that will include time at the office. “We’ve had about 70 people join during the pandemic, who’ve only known us while working remotely and we're excited for them to be able to spend some time in the office, meeting colleagues and collaborating in person.” Frances Dyson reflected. 

5. The challenges of change

As people leaders prepare for the post-pandemic world of work, they must recognise the risks and pitfalls that may lie ahead. A hybrid working office can easily become a two-tier system; individual flexibility can become organisational chaos; and a company’s expectations may not align with those of their people. Careful handling will be needed to meet the needs of both talent and the organisation as a whole.

“You have to look at the talent market and the direction it’s going in,” argued Paige Rinke. “You can set rules, but there will always be exceptions, and people who need to be at home when you want them to be in the office. The biggest risk is that your talent pipeline dries up, or that your best people leave if you don’t give them the flexibility they want.”

In parallel, Eva Ducruezet observed, companies must guard against the potential for unconscious bias against those who are not a regular presence in the office. “I do believe there will be a tendency for managers to have visibility bias. I really want to make sure we avoid that, so we don’t have a situation where someone gets to their performance review and the manager is questioning how productive they are, because they haven’t seen them much.”

Thanks to Eva, Frances, Kristie, Paige, Erin, and everyone who joined the conversation