As we gradually return to workplaces after months of remote work, organisational leaders are once again navigating the complexities of what is now ubiquitously known as hybrid work.
Executives are wrestling with the challenge to find the optimal balance between office and home and a similar balancing act between the business needs and those of the employee.
In determining what works best, it is important to recognise that every industry, company, business unit, team and individual is different. Each has different forces influencing it, different objectives and cultural dynamics. There is no silver bullet, you’ll have to work it out for yourself and for your people.
Here are eight tips and considerations for leading the transition from remote to hybrid and onsite work, so you can see if you’ve got it covered.
1. Create and enhance the team’s sense of purpose and belonging
Working from home during a pandemic lockdown, we psychologically retreat into a smaller physical and mental world, focused on different needs. Family were the only ones we saw in person and they remain the overwhelming priority. Our purpose becomes re-oriented around safety, security and lifestyle. It’s easy to see why we get attached to it.
“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd
However, our organisations, teammates and careers offer an additional, broader sense of purpose. A chance to apply our unique talents to something greater than ourselves and most importantly, to truly experience that feeling through re-engagement with our teammates, stakeholders and customers in person.
As you return to the office, make sure this is front of mind and make each interaction matter. Engage your team with a view to make them walk away feeling like their work matters, like they matter. Talk about the impact they are having on customers, colleagues, shareholders or the community.
If people aren’t feeling this from their managers and colleagues, well may they ask, why should I come in?
2. Personalise, to a point
Whether your team works best in remote, onsite or hybrid mode what matters is you have flexible work policies that get the best out of talent.
For example, after 18 months in and out of lockdown, a client of ours concluded their contact centre had consistently better KPI results when working fully onsite. Team members also preferred it. Therefore, in the interest of business and customer outcomes, they were designated as an onsite-only team (while other teams were classified as hybrid). However the executive made it clear that this does not preclude them from occasional remote work under their flexible work policy.
You probably need an enterprise-wide hybrid work policy. This can be in the interest of preserving culture and standards, not simply exercising control. Empowering managers to personalise policies at a team level also makes sense, at least during this transitionary phase. However, managers should be advised to tread carefully to maintain equity and fairness, which leads to point 3…
3. Work towards consistent hybrid work policies and practices
Inconsistency breeds perceptions of inadequate fairness that can hurt your culture. And a talent exodus from one BU to another because of variant work practices would be an unwelcome distraction.
Consistent application of hybrid work policies will enable seamless collaboration across the organisation and a more united culture. A challenge people are having is that they go into the office but not all their stakeholders are there so they are having Zoom meetings with people who are at home anyway.
This is where greater consistency is needed and I’m starting to predict that more days will be spent in the office than not, for many hybrid roles.
4. Foster flexibility to strategic priorities, not individuals’ entitlement
Flexibility must come from employees and employers. Even if an organisation has decided employees only need to be in the office two days a week, if the role or project requires a period of face-to-face activity for the greatest possible impact, you might want employees to come to the office, regardless of whether it’s their usual office day or not. If half the team consistently stays home, their impact on the project or team may be relatively constrained.
I read another firm’s article stating managers should avoid ‘proximity bias’, indicating employees who get more face-time with the boss will be viewed more favourably. Managers should assess performance based on outcomes and KPI achievement, but this overlooks the obvious benefit of trust-building that comes with in-person interaction and the efficiency and impact that comes from strong relationships. Proximity bias is simply human and inevitable (maybe this is my own human bias!).
In some cases, talent will make unfeasible demands and leaders must decide their limitations to meet the needs of their operating model. We were helping a client hire for a sought-after new senior management position during the lockdown. A candidate made it to the final round but during negotiation demanded they be allowed to work from home every Thursday and Friday. While the organisation allows flexibility, they drew the line on locking in set work-from-home days, mandated by an employee. This also raised doubts about the candidate’s attitude and commitment to the company, its culture and its clients so they were not hired.
This was a strategic choice to fit their culture – you might validly make a different choice to fit yours.
5. Adapt, don’t ‘lift n shift’ past practices
There is no return to normal. Workplaces and work practices have changed and even our brains have been re-wired to a degree to cope with remote work and the mental agility and resilience required to prosper lately.
This means we need to creatively re-invent our regular team operating rhythms, rituals and individual habits and routines.
This relates to when and how you facilitate weekly meetings, quarterly town-halls or your executive communications. It also relates to your personal and family commitments, like when to exercise and spend time with family. I suggest you reflect on how you manage these repetitious activities and design the timetable and approaches that ensures they get done and have the greatest impact.
For example, there’s a mantra going around lately when it comes to socializing in the city: “Thursday is the new Friday.” Social events are now scheduled on a Thursday, as everyone knows there are very few people in the office on a Friday.
6. Agree best-practice guidelines for communication and collaboration tech use
Most teams unconsciously adopt new communication systems. Over the years I’ve seen Skype, Slack, WhatsApp and many others come and go as the preferred text channel. MS Teams is the latest. Email has outlasted the lot but it is more of a workflow tool than an effective communication channel.
Part of the reason we look for the next best thing is that we blame the apps for our own poor communication behaviours.
People were overwhelmed by excess email so they started using MS Teams. Now they’re overwhelmed by even more text-based communication channels that facilitate instant transfer ‘from thought to type’ with minimal time for thinking and consideration in between.
Has your team decided which information should be conveyed through which channel? Why is that channel most suitable? Are meeting rooms equipped for remote and onsite attendees to participate effectively? (I know of one team who adopted a rule that each meeting is either virtual or at the table, no hybrids, to avoid the inevitability of onsite attendees dominating the meeting).
Once you’ve addressed questions like this with your team, they can align their communication behaviours for efficiency and use each channel purposefully.
7. Regularly discuss & revise communication & collaboration practices
Most teams are good at discussing what they are working on. Now there’s a greater need to discuss how they are working together so practices continually evolve with team and business needs
It’s important for teams to review how the hybrid arrangement is working. Ask questions in team meetings to reflect and review, such as:
- How well are we collaborating in our hybrid model?
- What is and isn’t working?
- What are the agreed expectations about how we communicate?
- How could we improve?
8. Ensure everyone knows your COVID-19 safety policies and outbreak response plans
With most people vaccinated and restrictions easing it can feel like this pandemic is close to over. While I’m no epidemiologist, a brief look at the past 18 months and what is happening in other countries should tell us to expect just about anything.
To avoid the full impact of being struck by a COVID curveball, make sure your organisation has a clear COVID safety plan and an outbreak response plan.
My final observation is that in organisations that have great cultures, people tend to want to return to the office, at least most of the time. Great culture leaders know how valuable these real human interactions are for building congruent beliefs and behaviours and delivering a fulfilling work environment. They also like seeing junior employees and the impromptu inspiration that comes from unplanned interactions. The employees of these organisations also want to get back to the office as they enjoy being part of it and experiencing the interpersonal development and growth that comes with it.