The Hybrid Model Coming Our Way: What We Can and Can’t Anticipate

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”).

Unconscious Bias

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.

WFA Inequity

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.

Connect Intentionally

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.

The First Steps to Transforming Work Culture

Changing workplace culture is never a revolution—at least, not if you want change that lasts. So if you’re focused on transforming your work culture as we move into the coming year, it’s important to know that it’s a process, not an overnight transformation. That’s an idea that makes many leaders uncomfortable; we like to think of ourselves as disruptive and courageous, able to flip a switch and inspire change. The reality is, particularly in a large organization, sudden changes often do more damage than good. It’s exceedingly difficult, and often a mistake, to aim for wholesale culture shifts overnight.

The benefits of a positive workplace culture are significant: greater productivity, lower turnover, good communication, and employees who are satisfied and happy. In a climate where many organizations aim to dominate their particular market and good talent can be scarce, leading a team that’s dedicated and energized is a powerful lure. If transforming your work culture is on your radar, here’s a look at first steps you can take to get started.

Turn to Customers and Front-Line Workers First

In larger companies, goals are generally set by the C-suite; someone with industry experience and access to analyst trends often sees an opportunity and the executives decide it’s time to grab it.

That top-down approach is sometimes successful, but it’s often more of a gamble than it needs to be. At worst, it creates blinders that can lead to failures: See Blockbuster, Nokia, and Borders.

The high-level perspective is important, but often misses early indications of problems, solutions, and trends. Instead, it’s the people at the front of the organization—your customers and the people who connect with them daily—who are best positioned to give the kind of feedback the business needs to stay healthy. Listening to your customers, front-line sales team and customer service representatives can provide valuable information that can lead to new ideas and potential revenue opportunities, help identify mistaken assumptions in your business model, or even change your understanding of market segments.

Make sure you get customer and front-line input before setting your goals, and then keep that group involved as you make and implement plans; and don’t forget to keep asking for their feedback along the way. All of this will help lower the risk of making bad decisions and go a long way toward not only keeping customers happy, but your team feeling like an integral part of the business building process.

Identify People Who Get Things Done

Effective leaders find people who make things happen; they recognize that there are change agents in every organization. While it’s often middle managers who lead cultural shifts, it isn’t always the people with “manager” in their titles.

Change agents prioritize curiosity, learning, and relationships. They empower others, embody the company’s values, and can interpret change at a human level. These are the people with the power to truly disrupt a company from the inside. Fgure out who they are and find out what you can do to help them.

Develop a Continuous Feedback Loop

One of the strongest ways to transform work culture is to simply pay attention. Instead of waiting for quarterly reports or annual reviews, create a continuous feedback loop that allows for constant testing, tuning, and re-tuning organizational vibe.

Instead of waiting for people to come to you with criticisms or kudos, go to them. Prove you are listening and find ways to create small victories that will provide information you need for big wins.

This approach also has the advantage of giving you early warning signs when work culture takes a downturn. Are people working long hours but productivity is suffering? Find out what’s at the root of the problem. This may mean finding small, smart practices to encourage creativity, revisit milestones, or talk to a manager about resetting expectations. Don’t let middle managers—and the people below them—feel that the status quo is unchangeable. Show them that they count, and that their voices and opinions matter. Take input seriously, then use it.

Making incremental change starts a wave of work culture transformation across an organization. It isn’t an abrupt flip, but a signal that positive changes are in the works. Leaders must monitor these steps and make sure the organization keeps moving forward. By doing so, you’ll build momentum that will eventually transform how your organization exists.

What do you think? Have you experienced leading or working in an organization focused on transforming work culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and any suggestions you have based on your experiences that I might have missed.

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