In a new world of remote or hybrid working, the push and pull between benefits to the businesses and benefits to employees, a desire to connect, have face-to-face time but also to have more control over our work life balance, we’re all tentatively pulling at threads of what might be new forms of social conventions, and trying to untangle the mess of knots to find the new order of working relationships.

We’ve been talking for a while about what hybrid working means for Unboxed and how we will all work together in the future. Rather than create a practical guide, it felt right to check back in with our values.

We have a set of values that tie us together as a group of professionals, maybe even as a group of people, and in the light of these new working styles being defined and boundaries being marked out, I wanted to ask; Are they still appropriate? How do they work in hybrid working environments? Are they still meaningful? Do we need to make a conscious effort to keep them going? What tools do we need to support us?

Ultimately, Unboxed is a client facing business that relies on close knit teams. Working at pace and our relationships with our clients and each other can make or break the projects that we do. Ensuring our values stay alive and well in a hybrid working environment will be one of the keys to success in this new world of work.

Openness and transparency in hybrid working

I decided to start by having a conversation with a range of Unboxeders about openness and transparency and what that means to them. I also hosted a similar discussion at GovCamp to understand how other organisations are coping in the new world of work and what to do if your work culture doesn’t support openness and transparency.

Our values:

Openness and transparency

Healthier relationships

Continuous learning

Learning by doing

Care and attention

After many different conversations, I realised that we are actually still doing the same as we did before, but working that bit harder to make sure we can stay open and transparent. There are definitely challenges, some of which we still don’t have answers for, but we try to overcome issues as we go together, as teams.

One of the bigger questions that came up was - do we need to learn new skills to read how our colleagues are feeling? Is there more work for us as individuals to do to be vulnerable, honest and authentic when we’re doing it through our screens? And might we need new rules of engagement for the workplace so we can communicate differently and more effectively in hybrid setups?

Some of the more practical challenges that came up include:

  • finding the right tools - that everyone can use, document in a useful way, and support easy communication
  • providing moments to connect and making sure people feel welcome to attend
  • our circles of influence can narrow if we just keep asking the same people to help us
  • asking for help can be really hard

Consciously communicate, company wide

In conversation, it came through very strongly that openness and transparency really is part of what makes Unboxed, Unboxed.

“It allows us to build trust with clients, stakeholders and team members. It enables direct meaningful conversations with the right people and with the relevant information. It allows better risk and expectation management.

If there's a problem or an issue, having this value as a cornerstone of how we operate means that we can deal with it head-on and collaboratively with the people involved.

As people work with us over time and learn that this is the way that we operate, it deepens mutual trust, enables more frank conversations and, I would like to think, psychological safety.

What it doesn't mean is not considering the other party's perspective or revealing sensitive or private information. But, by having openness and transparency as a default behaviour, it guides us in our interactions and
what we should be communicating.”

Matt, Director at Unboxed

To enable a culture of openness and transparency, we have to very consciously communicate - we choose to have as much conversation as we can in open Slack channels for example, allowing others in the company to stay informed with what’s going on, but also opening up ideas and decisions to input from around the company. Slack has become an even more important tool, and open communication more important than ever when we’re all working from different locations.

“In most conversations that I’m having, I’m thinking – can this be had in a channel or in a group?” Matt

Of course, it’s not appropriate to have every conversation in a public space, and there must be a space for private conversations too. It’s important to be able to judge what is and isn’t appropriate to discuss in public forums.

We’ve also been working on providing space for Unboxeders to be reflective on their professional practice, letting them get to know themselves better and think about how they would like to move forward, but also providing spaces where it’s safe to share and grow (as Vicky describes below).

Something we’ve always done, but have worked much harder to do through the course of the pandemic is provide opportunities for Unboxeders to get together in different groups than their regular project teams. This has been in many formats, including regular design clubs, which have become a highlight of the week across the company, wellbeing sessions, social sessions like breakfasts, and internal initiatives that encourage collaboration with others.

Design Club Screenshot

It was mentioned in GovCamp that in one organisation, not feeling judged by their team had allowed them to feel comfortable enough to share more personal aspects of their needs - for example, needing regular breaks to support a mental health issue.

SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW WITH VICKY, WELLBEING AND CULTURE PERSON - WELLBEING INITIATIVES IN HYBRID WORKING

Why is openness and transparency important to culture and wellbeing?

I think it’s a really important value for our culture and everyone’s wellbeing at work because being open and transparent in what we do and how we communicate helps to create an increased sense of engagement. It helps people to feel valued and trusted which in turn boosts happiness and helps to reduce stress. Working in a hybrid way means we still have a mixture of remote and in-person which means we really have to keep in mind how we maintain being open and transparent and what that looks like. In some ways we have considered it much more whilst remote and hybrid and we have built in some new processes to support each other while maintaining the things we always did:

  • Monthly individual reflection sessions give people the opportunity to be open and honest about how things are going in a safe and trusted space. It’s a regular opportunity to check in, to think about goals and celebrations and sometimes just to offload
  • Our career progression process is designed to give everyone ownership of their own growth and development as opposed to top down expectations. While the bi-annual review process provides a space to be open and honest about how people want to develop and grow at Unboxed and beyond
  • We work hard to create a culture where people feel psychologically safe to be open about themselves, to raise any issues about the company or a project and there are various opportunities to do this be it in a retrospective, a mentoring session or company meeting. Good relationships and an inclusive environment are crucial for this and it’s an ongoing piece of work
  • We try to be really open about how we work and our values throughout the recruitment process and onboarding our new joiners. It’s not always a way of working that people have been used to or experienced before and it can take a bit of getting used to
  • We regularly share all sorts of information; internal communication channels through Slack, company meetings, opportunities within the company, issues that affect us all in wellbeing sessions, opportunities to connect to each other etc. it all helps to build trust and create a place where people feel they belong, not just fit in

I think it’s really important for any organisation to live by its values and demonstrate them day-to-day and to be realistic about what else we could be doing, or what we could be doing better. It’s an ongoing process!

What challenges have we faced during the pandemic to maintain openness and transparency in culture and wellbeing?

The last couple of years have undoubtedly been a challenge. We’ve had to adapt our ways of working and try to maintain a really good culture. Since the pandemic started we’ve actually recruited 16 people, over half the company! So I guess one of the challenges was making sure that new joiners were onboarded well by which I mean, they felt part of the company quickly, they understood our values and ways of working and weren’t feeling isolated. It’s hard to join a company remotely and I think knowing this we have tried to ensure that we’ve conveyed our value of openness and transparency to new people in the ways we work, how we communicate and how we value the importance of wellbeing and connection. But we could do more. It’s easy to assume knowledge when in fact in a hybrid way we need to really think about how we communicate effectively.

With everyone isolated in their own spaces it was really important to me to make sure that we found ways to maintain our connections with each other and to have spaces in which we could share our challenges and feel supported. I certainly felt very conscious that we shared information particularly around Covid regulations and wellbeing. But I think communication has suffered. If people were left feeling uncertain about something or they were experiencing difficulty then it was much harder to “see” and that process of openness a bit harder to manage. We’ve definitely missed being face-to-face and the ad-hoc conversations you have in a shared space, where it’s often easier to pick up on things and get any issues out in the open - literally and metaphorically!

We’ve tried to make sure that people felt comfortable to be open about wellbeing struggles during the pandemic and still, as we re-adjust to new ways of working. We are still learning to do hybrid group sessions for example!

What have we done to keep openness and transparency central to our culture and wellbeing, and how well has it worked?

We have communicated our values right through the recruitment and interview process, to onboarding into the company and how we work on projects. We started monthly reflection sessions, creating a trusted space to be open about how people are getting on alongside the career progression process. We’ve really tried to keep our social and emotional connection going through remote weekly Unboxed breakfasts, remote wellbeing drop in sessions, one-to-one check ins, wellbeing blogs and training sessions and where we could, opportunities for social connection. With a bit of ‘distance’ from the pandemic and some time to reflect, I feel really proud of how we have managed to maintain our culture. I guess a measure of this is how new members of the company have spoken about our culture and how it has clearly come across. We are all individual human beings and so will always respond in our own ways according to our personal characteristics, but on the whole I think it’s something we should acknowledge and even celebrate!

Practical tips from Unboxeders

  • open Slack channels to broadcast organisation updates, encourage involvement in company wide discussions and initiatives
  • role modelling expected behaviours from senior staff - “I shared some of my vulnerability about the stress I was feeling and that was a real practical help”
  • provide opportunities for people to interact with others outside of their normal day to day team
  • create spaces for people to feel comfortable and safe sharing

Trust and transparency in team working

Lots of our processes go into supporting our teams to work in open and transparent ways - retros, stand ups, pair programming, including wider team in ideation and design, the ceremonies we use in our day to day work are designed to help us be more transparent.

“Openness and transparency fundamentally is about building psychological safety, it is an environment that allows team members to feel that they can make mistakes, be vulnerable, be honest and open without fear of being judged. It also fosters an environment where we can take risks and learn along the way. Retros are part of nurturing the above where we provide a ‘safe space’ for team members to talk about the work over the last sprint and we use certain themes/ formats to help teams to be open. It allows team members to perform at their best and studies have shown that high performing teams value this in teams.” Marie, Delivery Manager at Unboxed

We build trust with the client members of our team by listening and checking in often as we go - did we understand this correctly, documenting what people say, visualising it, bringing people together and onto the same page. We work with and not for our clients.

“Share your journey. Every step of the process. Keep it open. It’s harder, just trying to get that willingness from everyone to contribute. It’s quite difficult but keep at it. Having real, human conversations with an understanding that people have busy, complex lives so you don’t just see people as a co-worker that just does a certain piece of work but actually see them as human beings. It sounds obvious but sometimes when you are trying to just get something done, you can treat people like just a co-worker and not as a human being because it’s all part of relationship building.” Caroline, designer

Practical tips from Unboxeders

  • “Communicate - even when people are not going to work for 30 minutes, they say in chat ‘I need to take a screen break.’ So we know what is happening on the other side.”
  • “I use collaborative tools like Google Docs, Google Slides, Trello, Figma or Miro and give people the ability to pop in and check in what I’m doing. It was a bit weird at first, it takes some getting used to, but now I find it easier.”
  • “I like pair programming”
  • “Share work with other disciplines on projects, we also share with competitor agencies working with the same client tso everyone knows what’s going on.”
  • Handling meeting/diary noise:
  • you can free up time not travelling to an office, to a workshop/meeting
  • tools like Miro/Figma can mean workshops and other work materials are available to people who could not attend.
  • set your calendar to create default meeting lengths to 25 mins in 30 mins
  • it’s ok leave if you are no longer getting value
  • publish an agenda in the invite so people can choose if it’s a useful session for them

Start with you

Tools and processes allow us to be transparent, but people and culture allow us to be open. But how do you create openness? It’s a loop, a safe and trusting environment enables people to be honest and vulnerable, and being honest and vulnerable creates a safe and trusting culture. At Unboxed, we think it is important that this is role-modelled by senior staff, but does it have to start there, or is it possible to start with one person within one team?

As an individual, one of the ways you can start to be more open is to ask for help. It can be really hard, and needs practice, but it allows others in. It also opens you up to other ways of solving problems, different perspectives, different opinions. Get feedback.

There was a lot of discussion about how it’s so important to be yourself. Being honest is also part of being authentic. Honesty builds trust, but isn’t there a line in the workplace? Expectations around behaviour? We have to tread the line between individual authenticity and expected behaviours.

It’s about being respectful of others, knowing you won’t all come from the same place, but understanding each other’s opinions and giving each other the space to share can help you understand where that’s coming from.

Practical tips

  • “When I need to find a solution to something, I think about who can help rather than bottling it up or trying to think of a solution myself”
  • “I shared that I was struggling with someone outside the project I trusted because I wanted to share my feelings about the project and how things are going but then little by little, we started communicating within the project team and things got much easier”
  • “ ‘Know yourself’ and share that with people - things like ‘know what’s best for you – are you one of those people who like to think out in the open or do you like to think on your own, do you like to work outside your house or do you like to work from home?’ Just understanding how you work, how you think and being open to sharing that with whoever you’re working with’ ”
  • “Allow yourself to be vulnerable, I know that word has been used quite a lot but if you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know the answer. I think that’s good because if you show vulnerability then they show vulnerability and that’s where trust builds.”
  • “work with other people - talk in channels when you can, have conversations with wider groups, ‘bring in people to help”
  • “I’d also say offer help when you can. I know that sometimes people are busy and you’re not in a specific environment where you’re offering help and it is harder to do that remotely because you don’t always see that people need help but – think about where you can offer help. And another thing is to take help when it is offered. Being open to taking help. I know not everyone is British here but I know that it’s quite a British thing to say, when people offer you help, ‘no no, I’m fine’ “
  • “If you want to be in an open and transparent environment then be open and transparent. Understand what it means for you and then just start doing it”
  • “Constantly seeking feedback from people, teams, customers. Prompt questions used on monthly basis”

So what are the next steps for Unboxed? We’re working through some practical changes to our office to support hybrid working, but, perhaps more importantly, we’re continuing to review and reflect on the processes and safe spaces for collaboration and reflection that we created during the pandemic.

How has hybrid working affected your workplace culture? We’d love to hear from you, email us at: hello@unboxed.co as we’re always looking to learn from others about how we can create a supportive and productive working environment.

Written by Holly Brenan