Making Hybrid Work

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Come on. Admit it. Back in about May or June of 2020, you started thinking about what it was going to be like to bring people back to the onsite workplace around, oh, say, the end of the summer, after this awful pandemic was behind us. We all did.

And, yet, here we are, and we can’t even predict what it’ll be like at the end of THIS summer. You’ve read the same stories I have about complacency-driven risky behavior, pandemic fatigue, virus variants, and vaccine reluctance, all of which carry the potential to drag this thing out longer than we ever imagined.

You’ve also seen that when both workers and employers are polled about their appetite for returning to working onsite, the numbers are all over the board, and they’ve changed since we first started asking. Enough want to come back, and enough want to stay home that the solution will be anything but simple.

But for all the uncertainty, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: All indicators point to the adoption of a sustained hybrid workplace model. Starting now. Or at least soon. This is Workplace Next.

So let’s get it right.

We’ve learned in the last year, with varying degrees of success, and no small amount of failure, how to manage (if not yet lead) a newly remote workforce. But hey, that’s how trial and error works. Nobody had a blueprint for doing this at scale, and sans preparation. Our posts from January 11 and January 19 offer 13 specific tips on the mostly remote thing. But let’s talk now about the even bigger challenge: Leading the Hybrid Blend.

Three issues that will require great focus and attention from leaders in the coming months are:

Issue #1: Leading and uniting a workforce composed of two groups who are having very different experiences.

The last thing we need is yet another “division” in the workforce: the onsites vs. the remotes vs. the bouncers (those who do both, depending on the day). This can show up in the amount of time we spend with people, online or in person; what and how we communicate with them; how much we involve their ideas, input, and influence; AND the development opportunities afforded to members of the respective groups.

Be careful NOT to interpret an employee’s preference for onsite vs. remote as an indication of loyalty, commitment, or engagement. It can become easy to favor those with whom we share face time, and underutilize those we see more often on FaceTime. But that’s not a useful distinction.

Workers who see each other in person will naturally have different opportunities for building networks and alliances than ones who work from elsewhere. Savvy leaders will work to smooth out those differences as much as they can, to the benefit of both the workers, and the organization.

And we’ve GOT to get better at measuring and rewarding performance over visibility. Output over endurance. It’s the only way to level the field between those working onsite, and everyone else.

Issue #2: Helping people make yet another major adjustment – that of coming back to a physical location they abandoned for reasons of health and safety, and that will now, inevitably, be more constraining than the setting they’ve lately enjoyed (depending on who you’re talking to).

This will be a bigger deal than many of us are expecting.

Industrial psychologists tell us (and you knew this already) that many people have endured trauma since March of 2020. And not only with their jobs. Keep in mind that almost every employer of any size in the US will be welcoming back people who have experienced, at a level greater than ever before, real loss, ranging from important social connections, financial and emotional security, and the comfort of routine, to personal health, domestic stability, and the death of friends and family members.

Many will have a further sense of loss when they return to work onsite: 1. Loss of control over their own personal health bubble, and 2. Loss of the daily freedom and autonomy afforded by working from home.

And then when they come to the worksite for the first time in months, they’ll see a once-familiar world made somewhat less recognizable, by the modifications necessitated by the pandemic.

Some might think this characterization overdramatizes the situation a bit. To those, I would counsel, “Think some more.”

All I’m saying here is: go easy. People who are hurting don’t do their best work. Good leaders do what they can to help people hurt a little less.

Choose your battles wisely. Leaders who need a workforce willing to expend copious amounts of Discretionary Effort in pursuit of their mission will prioritize the safety and physical and emotional wellbeing of their employees over short-term profit, and compliance with lots of new rules.

News flash: most of your employees really are not trying to cheat the company, as was implied by the Chief HR Officer of a major corporation in a recent article in a well-known business publication. But they need to know at least two things: 1. Do you care about them? 2. What do you expect from them?

As people are wading back into the water, be super clear about the non-negotiable “musts”, and the reasons behind them. And in formulating new processes and procedures, be governed first by science, and then by employee preferences, followed closely by customer needs. And remember that in this case, One Size Fits One.

If we’ve learned anything from the Work From Home Experiment, it’s that the value of the in-person human connection is greater than we used to think. And remember that just because someone prefers to work remotely doesn’t mean they never want to see anyone in person. Look for opportunities, including creative ones, to get people together, safely, from time-to-time. I think you’ll find this helps. Everyone.

Issue #3. Keeping the organization attractive to new and current talent. How leaders and organizations manage this next phase will have everything, let me repeat that, I said everything to do with their ability to engage people productively, and to attract and retain talent. Remember the competitive labor market? It’s coming back, too. And to the victor go the spoils.

As much as you may want to have everyone back onsite, like in the old days, you may not find that option on your menu. I’ve already talked with a hiring manager who really, really, really wanted a particular candidate, but lost her to a competitor, because the other company’s post-pandemic Work From Home plan was more attractive. This has become the new competitive distinction. Position yourself to compete well.

In the end, I can offer no more powerful advice than this: Tell people what’s going on, trust and expect them to do their best work, and above all, CARE about them.

We got through the last year. We’ll get through this. If we can help, let us know.