It has been five months since COVID-19 drove workers out of the office and into their homes. While many employers considered remote working a temporary inconvenience at first, it appears that even as states begin to reopen, many workers prefer to stay remote.
At the same time, we are seeing a gradual return to the office for those who have their own vehicles and seek a release from home working. Many of these workers are opting to come in for only one, two, or three days a week. As a result, emptier offices are enabling social distancing.
However, as this hybrid workplace model comes into its own, many employers feel concerned about its potentially disruptive impact on productivity and culture. That concern is particularly valid for traditional sectors such as manufacturing or retail where the physical workplace is the only option.
Even outside of these sectors, some employers will still promote a return to the office. Why? Because such businesses likely lack the cultural mindset and digital capabilities to properly support a hybrid model.
In reality, employers can maintain productivity, continuity, and connectedness in a hybrid work environment — that is, if they were already delivering against those objectives pre-pandemic. That meant, and still means:
- Collaborating in ways that promote the social, expressive, and motivational aspects of colleague interaction
- Facilitating regular manager/employee check-ins
- Providing easy access to relevant data and information
Concentrating on Collaboration
Businesses are social institutions that have traditionally depended on in-person interaction among employees to reinforce company identity, connectedness, and culture. Our work lives, remote or otherwise, are as much about collaboration with peers as they are about the work. While many organizations have the processes to manage the task-based aspects of working in hybrid teams, they often fall short in dealing with the social, motivational, and expressive areas of work. They can foster such behaviors by:
- Establishing common guidelines for equitable collaboration. With a mix of remote and office-based contributors working together, workers in the same physical space need to be conscious of how “missing out socially” affects their remote colleagues. Organizations can mitigate this by providing office-based employees with headphones, microphones, and video capabilities to create a more equitable collaboration. We should make sure all remote workers have the technology they need to be on camera so their non-verbal interactions and reactions can be seen as well. Also consider creating a digital space for notes and contributions for those who prefer to reflect and contribute after the call.
- Encouraging participation in ad-hoc groups and companywide communities. Activities that foster company identity and connectivity to the organization minimize feelings of isolation and disengagement. Consider creating social channels for critical communications from HR or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); special interest groups for current events; pandemic news; or merely the purposeful introduction of good news and fun communications, such as a pets’ corner.
- Keeping hybrid teams engaged in purpose-driven projects. A recent PwC survey reports that only 28% of employees feel fully connected to company purpose. For remote workers, it is even tougher. Ensure that remote employees feel included in purpose-driven activities to help maintain a deeper personal connection to the company. Consider projects such as organizing a live session that brings employees, vendors, and customers together to discuss the impact the company mission has had on them personally and professionally. Use video so attendees also experience the visual cues for the passion behind their words.
Embracing an overall culture mindset that is committed to making hybrid collaboration work well reduces the need for a fixed physical location to maintain motivation and performance.
In times of uncertainty, the importance of providing reassurance around the underlying requisites in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs like safety and belonging are paramount. While managers may prefer to convey critical one-to-one messages such as “you are safe,” “you have a future here,” and “we are a team” when both parties are physically present, managers of remote and hybrid workers need to leverage technology, regular communications, and purposeful check-ins to achieve the same motivational and performance results.
Success for the hybrid model requires managers, teams, and organizations to adapt to a more natural and holistic check-in process covering tasks, performance, clarifications, feedback, tactical and strategic updates, and wellbeing.
This situation offers managers a unique moment in time to practice flexibility, empathy, and the more human aspects of their management style. Managers should remind themselves of their vital role as “connectors” for remote workers, as well as recognize the productivity benefits of remote working for both current and future talent.
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Conversely, what if the manager is remote and supervising in-office teams? As long as remote managers establish solid working practices, they can be just as effective as those who are physically present. Managers should embed regular team check-ins into their schedules. Check-ins drive open communication within the team and allow managers to share knowledge, connect with their people, and address issues as quickly as possible. Sometimes the distance from the physical workplace can provide added benefits as remote managers are more likely to see problems holistically than managers who are physically entangled in the challenge.
When determining the frequency of check-ins, the location of either the manager or the employee should not be a factor. Both parties need to understand that they may start with a single check-in per week, but the cadence can be altered as they find their comfort level. More importantly, managers and workers can request and schedule ad hoc check-ins, rather than strictly adhere to mandated timeframes. Managers must also observe which employees need additional check-ins and ensure that employees are comfortable initiating meetings.
Crucially, a check-in should never be perceived as a check-up!
Access to Information
The workplace environment is overflowing with data and information. Yet many organizations keep data siloed in different backend systems that make it complicated for employees to locate and access the information they need quickly and easily. While many solutions are available to address the problem, companies frequently have difficulty in deciding which platform is best for them. Below are some key attributes to consider when assessing the long-term value of data platforms.
- Flexibility. Consider core function, extensibility, and ease of integration with corporate-level data repositories for easy access to contextual data so that information is actionable.
- Usability. Make sure you can drive adoption across all areas of the business. Traditional systems are typically designed to satisfy the needs of the central HR team or business managers but often lack the necessary content and design to appeal to the entire workforce.
- Implementation and support model. If implementation is time-consuming, then chances are the configuration process is complicated, too. This could result in IT and HR teams dealing with day-to-day complexity, not to mention difficulties when troubleshooting problems and working with the vendor to resolve support issues. Too much configuration complexity can signal a suboptimal solution.
- Platform security and data privacy. Given the rise of cloud-based SaaS solutions, remote access has been dramatically simplified. However, suppliers must have the correct accreditations and be able to demonstrate operational controls in accessing and handling data. Solutions worth consideration must include data privacy, data security, and encryption functionality, as well as an established track record in working with sensitive data.
- Training and adoption. A well-planned training roll-out and support program is essential, particularly when remote workers are involved. Solution complexity and design are critical in supporting rapid adoption, regardless of where employees are working.
Beyond these considerations, overall satisfaction requires the organization to ensure alignment on the business pains they are trying to solve and the targeted business impact of the platform. Once the pain and impact metrics are established, it becomes much easier to define what an ideal solution looks like and which providers to source and evaluate.
A Hybrid Future
Some of the most successful “survivor” businesses today are those that are rewarding the goodwill of their workers by enhancing their remote work experience. It’s a new day in the world of work. And organizations that facilitate collaboration, relationships and check-ins, and easy access to information can more seamlessly address concerns around hybrid workplace productivity and culture.