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How we make ‘work from anywhere’ work at November Five

Discover our take on hybrid working and how we’re developing an approach that focuses on people and outcomes, rather than policies and control.

min read

In the space of just over a year, the world of work has had its biggest upheaval for a generation. Once considered an exception to the rule, ‘work from home’ has nested itself comfortably as the new default for previously office-based roles. But with the post-pandemic era now on the horizon, the time has come to shape our own vision for November Five’s working environment of the future.

When Belgium first went into lockdown in March 2020, November Five, like many companies, had to make a full switch to remote working almost overnight. Yes, our robust technical infrastructure and well-established use of collaboration tools made for a smooth transition. But for a company culture like ours that is built upon connection – creative, innovative processes that are performed by, and between people; solutions that are often the result of intense in-person interaction and collaboration – compensating for the distance was tough at times. We discovered that there are limits to recreating connection digitally, especially over a prolonged period. 

Now, 18 months on and with an ever-improving pandemic situation, we find ourselves with some important questions: How can we engage with the new ‘work from home’ mindset, while at the same time protect the physical interactions that are at the heart of some of our very best work? And how can we grab this opportunity to innovate towards a way of working that truly aligns the needs of our people, our clients, and our company? 

In this blogpost, we share our own take on hybrid working, and explain how we found a middle ground that puts the focus on people and outcomes, rather than policies and control.

No ‘one size fits all’

Today, companies across the world are trying to figure out how to organise the future of their workplaces, and many have already made and communicated their decisions – from Goldman Sachs who essentially want everyone back in the office, and Google’s hybrid approach, to Twitter and Shopify who have declared ‘work from home forever’. 

Even amongst those who support a hybrid approach, as we do, positions vary considerably, from more prescriptive regimes with a fixed number of days in the office, to approaches that offer near-full flexibility with few to no guidelines:

It’s clear that there can be no ‘one size fits all’. This is a huge shift for companies and their employees, and one that will have far-reaching implications on employee sentiment, productivity, recruitment and retention, compensation and benefits, office space and infrastructure, client interaction, and much more. So it’s crucial to strive for an operating model that not only meets a company's needs on a more practical level, but that also fits authentically within the established company culture and values.

Gradually shaping our vision

Shaping the vision for a new, revolutionary way of working is not something that can be done in a vacuum. Especially not in a company like November Five where we empower our people to speak up and drive innovation in everything we do.

To give ourselves the best chance of laying solid foundations for the first iteration of our new operating model – and let’s face it, we’re all new to this, so we accept that there will be trial and error – we carried out extensive consultation with our employees. From the thoughts, questions and concerns gathered during our regular 1x1 manager-team member discussions, to quantitative data collected through various internal surveys, we started to understand what is important to them and how they see the future of work.

Added to this perspective, we sought external insights from other companies who are sharing their approaches – sometimes being inspired by what they are doing, other times identifying what not to do. We also partnered with Thomas More University in a research project on hybrid working, where they compiled a literature search, market research and an internal survey to best identify our team members’ hybrid work needs. In the resulting advisory report, they recommended Activity-Based Working as the most suitable practical framework for November Five. So we started to explore how this could approach could work for us.

Activity-Based Working, the November Five way

At its core, Activity-Based Working is a people-centred approach; it acknowledges that we all have different productivity needs, and that the various activities we perform may be better suited to a particular setting depending on the type of activity. It puts the focus on the outcome, rather than ‘having to be somewhere’.

When we look at the broad range of activities our team members do in the course of their work, we can see that in many cases, remote working is perfectly suitable. On the other hand, there are many situations where being together in the same physical space will undoubtedly lead to the best outcome. If we take a holistic view of the kind of work we do, and how we collaborate within teams, across teams and with our clients, then we can see that a roughly 50/50 balance between working at the office and working elsewhere could be feasible.

But how to achieve such a balance without strict policies and control? November Five is a company that wants to empower people, rather than exert power over people, so it’s important for us to help people find an appropriate balance themselves. To guide them, we identified four activity types that must be carried out face-to-face because of the kind of collaboration or interaction needed:

  • Project kick-offs: when we align on the scope of a project

  • Project retrospectives: when we evaluate what went well, what didn’t go well, and how we can improve in the future

  • Workshops: activities that rely heavily on human interaction and capturing each other’s sentiment
  • Personal Development Plan discussions and Performance Reviews: the moments that are key in following up on the growth of our team members

Although these are recurring activities, none of them are weekly, giving people the possibility to keep their schedules flexible. With the exception of these four activity types, people are welcome to ‘work anywhere’ – whether that’s at home, from a local café, or from their friend’s garden.

Success drivers for operating model v1.0

Deciding on an activity-based approach was one big step, and identifying the four face-to-face activities brought what we felt is a necessary minimal structure. But we realised that managing expectations (and ruling out assumptions) towards each other would still be one of the biggest challenges in implementing a model that offers such individual freedom and choice. 

That’s why we decided to underpin our approach with three success drivers to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of ensuring flexibility without jeopardising outcomes. We see these as the three golden keys that will unlock the full value and potential of our hybrid operating model going forward:

  • A team-first mindset: We are a team, and we do our best work when we pull together. We count on everyone's collegiality to prioritise the teams’ needs. This might mean more office presence if needed e.g. for onboarding a new team member or standing in for a colleague who has a family emergency.

  • Moments to connect: Connection is key to how we interact with each other, with our clients and with our company. Therefore, we’ll expand our moments to get together, with the office serving as the crossroads for encounters, and as a second home where people can drop by at any time. Everyone is welcome every day, which also means we’ll never consider relocating to an office space that wouldn’t seat everyone form the team at the same time.
  • Mutual trust: This is a foundation for any type of relationship, including work relationships. We trust in accountability, and that we can make the right decisions for ourselves, for our clients, for our team and for November Five as a whole.

Parting thoughts

One of COVID-19’s silver linings is the opportunity it has given to truly transform the world of work. Reverting to ‘the old normal’ is just not an option and it’s exciting to embrace both new work-life dynamics, as well as new team member-company dynamics.

But it can’t be anything but a gradual process. We know that the ‘work from home’ mindset is deeply rooted, so it’s only normal that reconfiguring it in a way that meets diverse personal and professional needs will take time and perhaps even trial and error. We’re taking on this challenge together as a company, and our hybrid work project team – which has dedicated as well as temporary, topic-specific team members – will be monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting our approach along the way.

Even if we know there is no finish line where we say ‘this is how it will always be’, we don’t underestimate the fact that the next few months – when we fine-tune our approach and start implementing it for real – will be defining for the coming years. Ongoing success depends on everyone’s engagement and commitment, which makes this a team effort that is deeply intertwined with our company culture.

Together, we’ve got this.

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