Recently Miller Leith hosted a Sydney Morning Breakfast attended by some of the industry’s most prominent thought leaders where we invited a diverse group of credible and respected panel speakers from the FMCG space to discuss transformational change. A recurring theme throughout the discussion was hybrid workforce flexibility.

Nick Dawes, Sales Director for Ferrero, broached the topic and explored some of the unique challenges he had faced within his business. As a leader within the Sales space, this got me thinking further as to some of the challenges met in current times by sales teams, particularly those who are part of a field sales team or working remotely.

Historically, the sales function has always been an interesting one; how do we harmonise teams who are inherently fragmented? Much of the time, particularly for those in regional areas, there is little to no onsite interaction based in the office. Regardless of the sweeping changes coming in as a result of COVID-19, there is a case to be heard which suggests ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’

However, this fails to recognise the voice of the sales teams and whether their previous lack of interactions was simply due to circumstance and lack of opportunity rather than an intrinsic desire to work autonomously.

Salespeople are, on the whole, a sociable bunch. This can pose some problems when tackling the issue of coordinating an entire team, say nationally, to ensure that they all share the same common goals, vision, and identity, whilst ensuring they deliver on their individual sales targets.

Too little interaction and the team can feel isolated, disengaged, and lack a sense of purpose or belonging. (Never underestimate the power of a coffee shared amongst colleagues, or better still, a well-timed team-bonding wine or schooner after work!) On the flip side, too much interaction and the sales team may feel overwhelmed, fatigued and stressed about hitting their numbers. We’ve all had the infamous Zoom burnout from back-to-back meetings.

So, what’s the solution? Has COVID-19 disrupted a well-oiled machine that was chugging along nicely until a spanner was thrown into the works? Or has it provided a long-due overhaul to hit the refresh button and empowered people to connect on a deeper level once more? The answer, in truth, is probably both.

Let’s consider the hybrid working environment and the requirement to be in the office versus working from home, or as is quite often the case with sales teams, being out on the road. I’ve had countless conversations with candidates who have undertaken Zoom conversations from their car, in-between client visits. Make no mistake, autonomy is no stranger to them.

I’ve listed a few variations of the flexible-working model I’ve seen companies follow along with their pros and cons.

THE TYPES OF FLEXIBLE WORKING ARRANGEMENTS

OFFICE-BASED FULL TIME

We are presently seeing this less and less, to some, it suggests a lack of trust, to others it is a meaningful way of day-to-day interaction but in an age where we have digital interaction, is this really required?

Fully remote

On the opposite side, this option can seem to some to represent a ‘cross your fingers and hope for the best’ approach. This relies on superior systems of digital engagement and strong planning. From an employee’s perspective, this may drive a feeling of disconnection with their employer.

Full flexibility (WFH & office)

Again, this situation relies on empowering the workforce to be self-sufficient, whilst this probably drives a ‘feel good factor’ from employees, productivity may suffer consequently. Some will use this effectively; others will take advantage of the situation. In this scenario, it can be difficult to drive culture and team camaraderie.

Hybrid flexibility (fixed days)

This set-up (let’s say 3 days in and 2 days from home) ensures all of your employees are collaborating and sharing information on the same days and can create a real buzz, whilst still offering the opportunity to work remotely on other days. This situation may not offer the flexibility for those who have a preference to work on certain days or accommodate out-of-work commitments such as childcare.

Hybrid flexibility (fully flexible days)

A preferred option of many companies which sees many sub-variances, if managed well, this can really work. The downside is that on your chosen days, this may not align with your colleagues, potentially resulting in missed opportunities to collaborate or interact.

Hybrid flexibility (fixed and flexible days)

Another popular option that is gaining traction, let’s imagine that 2 days are fixed in the office, 2 days are WFH and the other is a self-chosen workday from the office. This can seem to represent a true 50/50 option from both employer and employee, however, the floating day chosen to go into the office may be hard for management to stay on top of.

Flexible start and finish times

This is hugely appealing to those who have other commitments outside of work, e.g. gym, kid pick up / drop-off etc. It may also benefit those who feel they work better at a certain time of day. The challenge here is scheduling and collaborating.

Flexible hours

A great incentive but very hard to measure, from a sales perspective, performance may be the key indicator of success.

Unlimited holiday

Some companies have tried this and whilst on the face of it, this sounds like a truly amazing perk, the research suggests employees feel a sense of guilt for taking the leave and may actually prefer structure and routine.

4 weeks of remote working

A softer version of the above may be much more viable to implement than the unlimited leave option. In a truly international world where people are catching up on missed travel time, this seems a ‘no-brainer’. However, with Australia’s unique geographical location, finding destinations far afield that compliment international time zones is causing people headaches.

It is quite clear that there are a plethora of options out there, and therein lies the problem. Each presents its own shining solution, littered with a minefield of potential banana skins, ready to take your business and your employees along with them. So perhaps it’s not what’s on offer from a flexibility perspective, maybe it’s how we manage your chosen flex.

With those aspects explored, it seemed pertinent to dive into ways to keep your teams engaged. I recently attended a short course hosted by the AIM Institute of Management on managing teams. Once more, the subject of workforce flexibility and communication came up. They assessed that the best interactions (or meetings) were kept to a minimum but delivered with maximum impact, ensuring each conversation was insightful and purposeful with clear measurable directives.

TOOLS TO MAKE INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS EASIER

Coming in prepared

Make sure the agenda is clear between the host and attendees before the meeting. This allows people to focus on topics of conversations pertinent to them and achieve the best outcomes.

Tools

Equip your teams with the best tools to communicate, strong communication platforms such as Lumio invite people to add creative content, keep things engaging and can be used to assess mood, important messages and team performance at a glance.

Inclusion

Ensure every attendee has a voice. Too often we miss important insights from the most imaginative of minds because they were too afraid to speak up and share their masterpiece. Inviting them to join the conversation builds an unbiased agenda. Healthy debate is often the most direct route to the solution.

Structure

Keep it recognisable and familiar… but throw in the odd surprise here or there!

2-way street

Meetings are for everybody, ensure that you give time to receive feedback both during and after catching up with your teams. Rating your meeting with a scoring system afterwards can be a productive way of gaining meeting effectiveness insight.

Open-ended questions

Don’t lead the conversation to a foregone conclusion. You might be quite surprised to hear what responses you will receive once you obtain some context and a different perspective.

Take it off-topic

Understanding your group’s performance is great but sometimes finding out a little about your team members’ hobbies, interests and weekend activities will help you to create a stronger sense of trust and connection. This may well give you a better understanding of outside forces affecting their mood and help guide you as to which way to get the best out of them.

One size does not necessarily fit all

Different people respond to different ways of being managed. Getting a variety of opinions and standpoints will enable you to find the right balance for your team through an affiliative leadership style. Some people will prefer face-to-face and a deep dive into every minute detail, others will prefer high-level, brief check-ins over a quick Zoom or phone call. So long as it is conducive to a productive, high-performance sales team, embrace it. If it isn’t, explain the ‘why’s’.

Base it on the facts

Support constructive feedback with hard data and demonstrate where improvements can be made or underline exceptional performance. This paired with empathy can create a powerful source of guidance.

Summary

The workplace is more complex and diverse than ever before and we are now venturing into uncharted territory which calls for a nimble and open-minded response. We need to seize the opportunity to empower our workforces, because whether we like it or not, now, more so than ever, the power sits within your employees’ hands. Will you be seen as a pioneering and innovative ecosystem embracer, or will you receive the dreaded ‘vote of no confidence’ from your team as they strive to seek opportunities to pastures new?

Listening to your workforce is paramount, no one team is the same and no one individual holds the same requirement. Understanding these needs and determining the appropriate outcome is vital to the success of an engaged and effective sales force.

Put the feelers out there to find out what your team responds best to and what they want from their version of a flexible, hybrid work environment. Anonymous engagement surveys and suggestion questionnaires can be a brilliant way to actively show you care about what your team has to say.

Ultimately, you must stand firm in your decision but ensure you make the decision based on facts and empathy rather than just following the industry-led status quo. A team that feels appreciated is a team that will want to give back. Remember to stay humble, your company’s version of flex might not always be your team’s best version of flex but so long as you are prepared to evolve then so too will your business.

To Flex or not to flex – you tell me.

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