At Telstra we’re talking a lot about how COVID has fundamentally changed how and where we work, the way we live and how we stay connected with others. For many in 2020, morning exercise and family dinners replaced the daily commute. Home became our workplace, and for many families, the classroom.

With so many people forced to work from home, some enjoyed a level of flexibility they hadn’t imagined previously and some didn’t do so well as isolation, child caring and home-schooling, or unsafe domestic situations took their toll. Work more than ever is so much more about how you do it and how employers support you, than the place you go. Many organisations are now seeing the benefits of this shift with employee engagement levels high at a time when conventional wisdom may have thought they’d decline.

I do think employee engagement will at times be challenged in 2021 as people realise there is no ‘return to normal’ and learn to live in a world still shaped by uncertainty. As we plan for the year ahead, here are five things we’re encouraging leaders at Telstra to consider for leading a hybrid of virtual and on-site teams so our people can thrive.

Rethinking what it means to be a leader

In many ways COVID has been a great equaliser – it has shattered hierarchies and created much deeper connections across all levels. We have all gotten a better glimpse into each other’s real lives – our partners, kids, pets and homes. But while many have embraced the flexibility of hybrid working, it has also created a challenge for some – the need to shift from being managers to being leaders.

Leading a virtual team means being more personally connected to your team; spending time talking one-on-one with your people and as a team to check in on how they’re going, to ask what they’ve been up to on the weekend, and being more alert to their mental wellbeing than you may have been previously. It’s also about considering the impact of long stints of working at home and what that may mean for your team, from making sure regular leave is still taken (as some are reluctant to use leave when they can’t travel) to taking time out to get better if you’re sick – even if you’re at home.

Redesigning Agile for virtual teaming

One of the main advantages of Agile is its focus on outcomes – the process drives transparency and empowerment as teams agree priorities, timings and accountability. Early Agile methods favour on-site, face-to-face ways of working. In our emerging new world this is no longer possible so we must re-design some ways of working to suit geographically dispersed, virtual teams.

We designed our Agile model with our dispersed teams in mind so many of our Telstra leaders were already starting to lead this way. But as more people opt for hybrid working longer term, it’s important that organisations invest in upskilling their leaders in areas like virtual teaming, creating a feedback culture and building resilient teams. So too is creating spaces for leaders to connect and share tips so they can learn from one another – we do this through Yammer and regular leader livestreams.

Keeping the focus on mental health and personal connections

Physically we have never been further apart, but in 2020 often I felt closer to my interstate and international colleagues than ever before as we strove to show our care for each other and build connections on a much deeper level. The simple question “how are you?” (and really listening to the answer) was no longer a polite refrain – it became a symbol connecting us and looking out for each other.

Supporting our team’s mental health and wellbeing has been our top priority during COVID and we provided the resources and webinars to help – from juggling parenting and working from home, to building resilience and mindfulness.

But what really stood out was the grassroots communities that sprang help across our organisation for like-minded people to connect and spend time focusing on their wellbeing – from yoga, meditation and even virtual cycling. More than 90 per cent of our people working from home have said they value the way their teams actively connect and support each other.

As more people choose hybrid working, leaders will need to consider how they continue to nurture personal connections and a sense of team to maintain engagement and productivity, and combat isolation. And given the strong connection between physical and mental health, introducing symbols and role-modelling behaviours that encourage people to get away from their screens and reenergise throughout the day, will also be important.

This could be as simple as introducing meeting free times, which we did mid-last year to help our teams break-up long stretches on video calls and give them time away from their desk. People have found this a great way to take a guilt-free break and it is something we will continue doing.

Maintaining choice and flexibility

Having so many people across the country working from home has shown many of us that the work we do – and our achievements – are not bound by a traditional office. We found the transition to moving our office-based teams to full working from home arrangements was made easier given we had embraced flexible working back in 2014. From choosing where we work, to working a nine-day fortnight or changing our hours beyond the standard 9–5 – the options were there.

But it has taken this pandemic to fundamentally shift us from a workforce that sees flexible working as a nice-to-do to a permanent fixture in the work-life juggle. More than 90 per cent of our people feel they are either the same or more productive working from home. And many have told us they no longer want to spend Monday to Friday in a traditional office environment. Instead, many see themselves coming in up to two days a week to collaborate, see customers, and connect with their team.

We know our teams are not alone in feeling this way. The opportunity for leaders now is to look at how they make flexibility a standard offering by giving people choice when it comes to where and how they work.

Enabling hybrid working with technology and tools

Many organisations sped-up the rollout of technology platforms to help their teams stay connected in 2020. At Telstra, for example, we scaled from less than two million Teams calls a month in February to more than eight million by the end of 2020.

But as more people choose to work from home more often, leaders will need to consider how they can provide a hybrid of digital and physical tools and spaces that are tailored their people’s technology needs and preferences – and that provide a consistent experience regardless of location.

Technology is key, but so too is getting the basics right – like ensuring your teams have the essential equipment needed to work just as safely at home as in the office. We are doing this by investing in standard tools for anyone who works from home regularly, such as a desk, chair, monitor, keyboard, mouse and laptop stand.