For the past year, we’ve lived through a worldwide experiment about work from away (WFA)—whether the away was home, a second home or vacation spot, or crashing with friends and family. As we look ahead to the hybrid model coming our way, we’ve learned some fundamental lessons:
- Many organizations pivoted to WFA at breakneck speed successfully.
- People can perform many types of work remotely.
- Many types of work can, in theory, be at least as productive remotely as in-office.
- People working remotely often worked more than if they were in the office.
- Organizations can hire and onboard people remotely.
For employers and employees, this is great news.
NOT a True Test of Work From Away
We must also accept that WFA during a worldwide pandemic is not an actual test of “normal” WFA. Rather, for the past 12-15 months, our children have been at home. Right beside us, they’ve been learning remotely (or not learning so much). We couldn’t, or didn’t, see friends and family in person. And our usual coping strategies (e.g., going to the gym, having a drink with friends) weren’t available to us. In the end, our mental health suffered, and we discovered the ways we missed being in the office.
We missed the small micro-interactions that we didn’t realize mattered to our relationships, work, and mental health.
Specifically, many of us have missed:
- The shared moments in the coffee area
- Being able to read each other’s moods at a glance while walking by or looking up from our work area
- The ability to get questions answered quickly by simply walking up to the person without having to schedule time
- Being able to have any non-textual interaction (without scheduling it)
- Collaborating in person (It just isn’t the same remotely.)
What Do Employees Want?
As organizations are thinking about the hybrid model coming our way when it comes to working style, many are asking employees about their preferences, as they should.
A caveat about the data: decades of research by psychologists has found that people’s attitudes, what they tell you they think or feel or prefer, don’t always align with their behavior. So, we need to take those surveys with a grain of salt. This is especially true now because we don’t know what it will be like to work remotely without COVID-19. And we also don’t know what it will be like to go back to the office.
Nonetheless, the virtues of minimal or no commutes, wearing sweat pants on weekdays, being able to sleep a bit later (for those who don’t have to get children off to school) are powerful. So undoubtedly, many people will want to work from or near home at least part-time.
Predictions About Hybrid Work
Here’s what we can predict about the hybrid model coming our way in general:
Disadvantages Based on Work Location
People who are in the office the least will likely be at a disadvantage in terms of collaboration, promotion opportunities, getting quick answers to quick questions, feeling as much a part of the team (i.e., engagement, belonging, commitment to the organization, a sense of “team-ness”).
Managers and leaders may have an unconscious bias toward employees they “see” more often: giving them feedback (essential for professional development), inviting them to meetings (especially spontaneous ones), feeling more positively (or negatively) toward them simply because of seeing them more often in informal, casual moments that bind relationships.
Lack of Culture Clarity
Employees who were hired and onboarded during the pandemic may initially seem a bit lost when coming to the office. It may take a while for them to understand the “culture” once people are back in the office.
Disadvantage: Digital Natives
Younger employees may be at a disadvantage. Research indicates that the current cohort of younger employees, many of whom are digital natives and have spent less time interacting in person than previous cohorts, may be less skilled at navigating challenging interpersonal situations. As a result, issues such as tension with a colleague or not meeting a deadline may prove difficult.
People have made do during the pandemic, sometimes taking calls in a closet or bathroom because it was the only private or quiet space. Before we became more conscious about our video call backgrounds, we got a glimpse of our colleagues’ home lives. While work from away will likely continue in some form in the hybrid model, the inequity of WFA environments will likely persist.
For instance, have, and will, all employees have equal access to fast internet speed? To ergonomically designed workspaces and decent lighting for calls? Did they benefit from a quiet work environment? Did your organization make financial contributions to mitigate some of these inequities? If not, employees with poor WFA environments may choose to go to the office full time out of necessity.
What To Do?
If we can reliably and accurately predict some of the pitfalls of the hybrid work coming our way, we can mitigate them.
The mere exposure effect indicates that we are more likely to prefer things—and people—we’ve become more familiar with. Thus, all other things being equal, we are more likely to prefer colleagues we see more often, which may be colleagues who are in the office more. So intentionally touch base with and even praise your remote colleagues, particularly if they are less senior.
Build Unbiased Relationships
Managers and leaders will need to work to reduce a natural bias to favor employees with whom they have more positive interactions. In this case, those micro-interactions of casual, informal contact are a glue that binds people to each other. They will need to make a conscious effort to create those virtually with remote employees. Note: For some employees, more in-person contact may not lead to more positive micro-interactions.
Create Meeting Equity
Create equity in meetings and communication. For instance, when even one person attending a meeting is remote, everyone should participate in the discussion via their computer to equalize the dynamic of the meeting.
Clearly Set Expectations
Clear communication of expectations and responsibilities is crucial. Remember that with video-chatting or phone calls, many of the non-verbal cues that we use to help us understand the “message” are not available to us with non-in-person communication.
Invest in Visibility
Consider using an always-on video portal, like Sneek, Sidekick, or Tandem. Such platforms allow coworkers to see each other onscreen during the day. They also make it quick and easy to have micro-interactions remotely.
However your organization chooses to craft its hybrid model, soon we’ll all be participating in a new experiment. Along the way, we’ll learn how best to make remote and in-office work successful for all.