The ability to work remotely, at least some of the time, is a common expectation of modern employers. Some argue, however, that not every job lends itself effectively to hybrid set-ups.
This debate is particularly pronounced among those working in sales. Advocates of full-time office attendance often suggest that a stable routine, a comfortable and suitably equipped working environment, and the presence of colleagues, are all key components for focus and productivity. Those who support working from home, meanwhile, regularly cite how more freedom and flexibility can help to manage stress levels, balance family or relationship responsibilities, and potentially lead to more creative output.
As much as a functionality issue, the hybrid-working debate also carries a consideration for HR. Increasingly, hybrid-working opportunities are becoming a key factor for people when it comes to deciding whether or not to accept a job. Sales managers and directors, then, face an evolving challenge of keeping staff motivated and disciplined, while still affording them autonomy and privacy.
Accepting and understanding the new expectations of work
The legacy of lockdown measures is a different understanding of work. The Covid pandemic caused people to re-evaluate the importance of work-life balance, while the cost-saving on daily commutes was one of the few saving graces during a very difficult period in human history. The latter point remains especially pertinent during the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
For Chris Roberts, the managing director at digital marketing agency ClickThrough, where the sales team are mostly hybrid workers, but with one member fully remote, instituting flexible-working patterns makes good recruitment sense. “Offering remote working opens up a broader talent pool,” he says, “as people that couldn’t commute to our office five days a week due to the time, distance or cost are now available to us.”
Young people who may have gone through school or university during the pandemic, “may have only ever experienced remote or hybrid working”, he adds, and so are more likely to be drawn to an organisation that has such an approach.
And while Kat Rodway, the co-owner and client services director at website design and consultancy firm First Internet, has a preference for more working hours to be spent in the office than away from it, she agrees that it is important for companies to signpost themselves as sensitive to people’s personal circumstances. “A hybrid scheme allows our sales team to juggle life a bit better, so we are happy to offer that,” Rodway explains.
Indeed, companies that insist on the rigidity of a nine-to-five job risk missing out on talent, because people could become alienated by an unempathetic or uncompromising employer. According to Josh Rosen, the chief executive of Hotspex Media, a digital advertising firm, by letting sales staff choose their own priorities and manage their own schedules, businesses can foster a “culture of trust and empowerment”.
If they are given flexibility to manage their time and projects as they want to, he suggests, salespeople might feel more motivated to give something back to the company that gave them the chance to self-direct.
Collaboration thrives in-person
However, Paul Owen, the managing director of True Sales, a sales coaching and training consultancy, has concerns over the long-term implications of remote work. In what is, historically, a client-facing profession, Owen says the “natural extroverts” who work in sales will always benefit from the opportunity to talk to colleagues in the office or clients in-person.
This not only aids collaboration and knowledge-sharing, but in as fast-paced and pressurised a field as sales, which is judged on hard numbers, it can also be helpful for fellow team members to support and empathise with each other.
“In the office, we have plenty of places to feed the extroverts’ need for connection; at home, we’re alone and that can be very dangerous,” Owen says. “It becomes increasingly difficult, when faced with that lack of support day after day, week after week, to maintain a positive mindset. The fear of missing targets grows at the same time as that sense of being in it together is lost,” he adds.
Faye Hawkins, B2B managing director at advertising services agency Unlimited, agrees that some meetings and and sales interactions, chiefly pitches direct to a client, work better in-person, but is less absolute in her position.
The sales profession has already come a long way from “knocking on doors”, she points out, so it makes sense for companies to move with the times. At Unlimited, Hawkins says, the firm has two “all hands” meetings each month. “Everyone comes into the office for at least one of these team meetings,” she explains. “Otherwise, we let people come in when they need to for team or client meetings; some of our team prefer to work from the office.”
But smaller meetings or quick catch-ups can be done effectively remotely, because they can often be done concurrently, alongside other tasks. “If it’s a remote meeting, they are often set up differently: there’s a pre-read and some distilled insights, which people tend to have read, or can read on the side as the meeting unfolds,” says Hawkins.
When it comes to longer-term strategic decision-making, she says, colleagues can benefit from being in the same room, “having a whiteboard and bouncing ideas off each other.” And when it comes to actually meeting a client, Hawkins says in-person is always the preferable option. It is “much more difficult to create good chemistry remotely”, she highlights.
Face-to-face meetings make it much easier to read someone’s body language, as well as the signals from the various people attending. For example, who is making notes, who is checking their email, who is sitting forwards and so on. “On a call, it’s hard to pick up on these signals and steer the energy or bring the conversation around” says Hawkins. “The hardest prospect situation of all is a remote call with cameras off. It can feel odd to be grinning at a blank screen, trying to find common ground.”
Setting clear and measurable goals
One of the most hotly contested points about hybrid working is the prevalence of distractions. But, according to Roberts, both the office and working from home have them. The key for sales professionals is “being able to concentrate, hear and be heard.” Adults, Rosen says, should be trusted to be able to make their own judgment on where those things are most possible.
Whether at home or in the office, Roberts adds, staff tend to respond best when they have “objectives and goals which can be measured easily”. By having clear expectations for staff and attaching numbers to them, he says, it is more straightforward for them to plan their day, and for managers to track their progress.
The future of hybrid working and sales
Going forward, Rodway believes that a level of hybrid working is to be expected, if it is practical. While she accepts that businesses have needed to adapt to new attitudes towards work, she says that people who want to be in sales should still be mindful of what yields the best results, because that’s ultimately what will decide how much they are paid. They should be self-aware enough, she says, to work out where they perform better.
Working from home some of the time to help with work-life balance is fine, Rodway clarifies. Of course, companies should be sensitive to circumstances, such as hospital appointments or childcare, she notes.
But the reality of the post-Covid market is that, after so long in lockdown, people do buy into people. “Meetings are happening face-to-face again, trade shows are busier than pre-pandemic levels, and people who are coming into interviews at our company are asking for office-based work in order to learn and be with colleagues.”
There is no one right answer. Sales managers and directors should organise their teams, according to size, office space, product or service type, and a range of other criteria. But, in every instance, it is important to make sure that individuals can access the resources they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Ultimately, salespeople should be guided by sales rather than ideology. If the office produces better results, salespeople should make their calls there. If they’re more effective at home, they should do them at home. However, as Owen stresses, comradery is still important. So even fully remote teams should make a point of meeting up once in a while.