Employers have gone to considerable pains to keep workforces safe and maintain business continuity, dividing employees into bubbles to facilitate the alternation of home-working with working in an office or other location.
Many employers are concerned about the potentially disruptive impact of this pattern of work on productivity and culture. Iain Moffat, chief global officer, MHR explains that concern is particularly valid for sectors such as manufacturing or retail where the physical workplace is the only option for many shop floor or customer-facing employees.
Yet in other sectors employers may be pushing for a return to the office because they lack the cultural mindset and digital capabilities to properly support a hybrid model. Or it may simply be they subscribe to the belief that unless employees can be seen, they are not working.
In reality, employers can maintain productivity, continuity, and connectedness in a hybrid work environment if they were already delivering against those objectives pre-pandemic. These are companies already collaborating in ways that promote social, expressive, and motivational aspects of colleague interaction.
The three essentials of collaboration
Businesses are social institutions and our work lives, remote or otherwise, are as much about collaboration with peers as they are about the work. While many organisations have processes to manage the task-based aspects of working in hybrid teams, they often struggle to deal with the social, motivational, and expressive parts of work. These are areas where they can develop more productive collaboration by:
- Establishing common guidelines for equitable collaboration. Organisations can mitigate the sense of missing out among remote colleagues by providing them 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. Also, consider creating a digital space for notes and contributions for those who prefer to reflect and contribute after a call.
- Encouraging participation in ad-hoc groups and companywide communities. Activities that foster a sense of connection with the organisation minimise isolation and disengagement. Consider creating secure social channels for critical communications from HR or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); special interest groups for current events; pandemic news; or merely fun employee-led communications, such as a pets group.
- Keeping hybrid teams engaged in purpose-driven projects. A recent PwC survey reports that only 28 per cent 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 organising a live video session that brings employees, vendors, and customers together to discuss the impact the company mission has had on them personally and professionally.
Embracing an overall culture 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 important 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 organisations to adapt to a more natural and holistic check-in process covering tasks, performance, clarifications, feedback, tactical and strategic updates, and wellbeing.
Managers can practise flexibility, empathy, and the more human aspects of their management style. They should remind themselves of their vital role as “connectors” for remote workers, as well as recognise the productivity benefits of remote working for both current and future talent.
How does it work, though, if the manager is remote and supervising in-office teams? As long as remote managers embed regular team check-ins into their schedules, they will be as effective as their on-site counterparts. 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 remote managers see problems more holistically than managers who are physically entangled in the challenge.
Check-ins may start with a single session per week, but the timing can be altered as the manager and employee find their comfort level. There is, in fact, no need to 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!
Equality of access to information
Ease-of-access to information is an important aspect of hybrid working. While organisations always have a wealth of data, it is commonly divided between different back-end systems that make it complicated for employees to locate and access what they need quickly and easily.
When considering which HR platform to implement, organisations should consider core function, extensibility, and ease of integration with corporate-level data repositories. It must be possible to 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. If implementation is time-consuming, then chances are IT and HR teams will have to deal with day-to-day complexity. Too much configuration complexity can signal a suboptimal solution.
Although the rise of cloud-based SaaS solutions, has dramatically simplified remote access, solutions worthy of consideration must include data privacy, data security, and encryption functionality, as well as an established track record in working with sensitive data.
A well-planned training roll-out and support programme is also essential, particularly when remote workers are involved. Solution complexity and design are critical in supporting rapid adoption, regardless of where employees are working.
Over and above all this, the organisation needs to ensure the platform addresses the business pains it is trying to solve and the targeted business impact required. Once metrics are established for these two areas, defining what an ideal solution looks like is far easier, along with identifying suitable providers.
We now face a redefined world of work in which some of the most successful “survivor” businesses invest in returning the goodwill of their workers by enhancing the experience of remote work. Organisations that adhere to the three points outlined above, focusing on collaboration, relationships, check-ins, and pain-free access to information are far better-placed to address boardroom concerns about hybrid workplace productivity and culture.