Many workers and managers are facing a dilemma: Workers are demanding flexibility, including the option to continue working from home. But managers and corporate leaders are increasingly seeking to bring workers back to the office. A common compromise is a hybrid arrangement, where workers are in the office some days and working remotely some days.
That umbrella description, hybrid work, covers dozens of possible permutations. Getting hybrid right is a challenge. These five strategies can help.
1. Figure out WHY you’re bringing workers on-site
Workers want to know why they need to return to the office. “Many organizations have been clear in encouraging employees to come back in, but what’s been less clear is the why. If leaders don’t get this right, they’re going to risk employees giving up on the notion of hybrid completely,” Jared Spataro wrote for HBR.
Simply being in the office offers no clear value to many employees—particularly if the rest of their team is working remotely. “Leaders need to be intentional about the who, where, and why of in-person gathering,” Spataro wrote.
They also need to think through which tasks need to be done in person and who needs to work together, according to Dan Schawbel, writing for LinkedIn.
2. Agree on how to collaborate
For some organizations, improving collaboration is cited as the driver for bringing people back to on-site work. “That’s part of the impetus behind the growing popularity of hybrid schedules,” Ask A Manager’s Allison Green wrote for Slate.
In reality, though, “a lot of people who have returned to their offices for some or all of the week have found that they’re the only ones there, or others are staying isolated in their offices, and all communication still happens over email, Slack, or Zoom.”
If leaders intend to maintain social distancing policies, and workers in the office will “meet” virtually—or meetings will often or always include remote employees on Teams or Zoom—then workers quickly see that they’re not collaborating any differently or more effectively on-site and resent being required to be there.
“Just telling people to come in two days a week doesn’t facilitate collaboration. A more thoughtful approach would be for teams to map out what they truly need to collaborate on, with whom, and when, and then plan schedules accordingly,” Green wrote, adding that leaders should acknowledge and accept that this approach could mean that some weeks, many workers my not need to come in at all.
A key element in smoothing collaboration—on-site or not—is ensuring that everyone on the team has the tools they need. And that the whole team, or better yet, the whole company, uses the same collaboration tools. HBR points out that “tools” extend beyond collaborative software to “the physical setups that employees have access to in their homes.”
“If hybrid work is an option, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure employees can be successful wherever they are,” the article, “What Great Hybrid Cultures Do Differently,” argues.
3. Equalize opportunity
For hybrid workplaces to succeed, everyone must have the same opportunities to participate in meetings and conversations and the same access to key people. This essentially means treating everyone as remote, according to HBR.
It also requires fairly allocating opportunities for remote work, according to Schawbel: “This means understanding what works best for each employee’s individual circumstances, but also ensuring that accommodations for remote work aren’t being provided to some workers more than others (e.g., parents vs. those without children).”
This is a significant culture shift that requires abandoning the notion that somehow, being on-site is “better” than being remote. It requires fully embracing asynchronous working and communicating, including understanding that workers won’t always be available for an instant response. It could also include:
- Recording meetings for those who cannot attend live
- Moving from daily meetings to written updates and chats
- Encouraging or requiring employees to mark work hours in their calendars, including indicating when they cannot be disturbed—whether for personal reasons or because they’ve blocked out focused work time
- Documenting more things—processes, conversations, meetings where ideas were generated and developed
- Regular updates from leaders, whether a newsletter, a recorded weekly message, or something smaller-scale for each team
4. Set clear expectations
Individual managers and employees have preferences about how and how often to communicate; team cultures evolve around use of collaboration and communication tools as well.
Setting clear expectations is essential to working successfully in a hybrid framework. How quickly are team members expected to reply to an email? A meeting invitation? An instant message? How much notice is expected when scheduling a meeting? If a person misses the meeting, are they expected to watch the recording? Will someone take notes to share?
Feeling pressured to always answer every communication right away is a quick path to burnout; setting guidelines, per platform or medium, with team members or throughout an organization can reduce stress and improve collaboration.
5. Re-imagine & reconfigure relationships
It’s been challenging for employees and teams to maintain established relationships throughout the pivot to remote and the evolving hybrid framework. But the challenge is magnified exponentially for new hires who’ve never met their colleagues and who are new to remote work.
Onboarding remote and hybrid employees has become a much-discussed element of L&D teams’ overall strategies, as it’s known that newly onboarded employees have “weaker workplace relationships” and are more likely to consider changing jobs, according to Spataro.
Social relationships won’t rebound automatically once people are back on-site, especially if they’re still largely communicating virtually or working different on-site days than their peers. People’s priorities and expectations around work have changed, too, even if they’ve been with the same organization since pre-pandemic days.
Spataro encourages “creating the time and space for relationship building to happen and encouraging teams (especially remote and new employees) to prioritize networking and in-person connection” as ways to rebuild that elusive sense of connection.
Explore leadership issues with your peers
Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; don’t undertake it alone. Explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.
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