Hybrid work – the new term for combining home and office work – is not a phenomenon induced by COVID. Statistics show more than 25% of the workforce were working this way pre COVID; all the pandemic did was accelerate the process.
But this has not stopped some corporate leaders bemoaning this trend. Speaking to some of them over the past few weeks I have heard comments such as, “I think it is unacceptable that some staff have not been into the office in the past two years”, “our year one turnover is out of control”, “it’s just not working – we need to mandate a return to office” and, my personal favourite, “I think I just have some slackers in my team”.
From my perspective, I believe these comments are not only misplaced but demonstrate that some managers have used the office as a crutch for good management over the years. When COVID hit, and staff had to work from home, it revealed their paucity of management skills. It’s also got me reflecting on a few things, particularly when I was leading global teams over the past decade.
But before sharing my “wisdom”, let me say from the outset that I believe there are very few roles that can be done exclusively from home (or some other non-office location) 100% of the time. Likewise, there are very few roles that need to be done 100% in the office. Therefore, hybrid is the way forward. Anyone who thinks the workplace will return to what it was pre-COVID is, in my opinion, simply not accepting that this change is now, to use a bad pun, part of the furniture.
That said, here are my observations and a few practical tips to consider from someone who had to adapt their leadership style to lead and manage a team in 11 countries.
Leadership bias: My observation is that many senior managers LOVE spending time in the office. During the height of the pandemic, they were the ones still getting into the office, fretting about its demise, and generally missing the workplace structure that comes with being in one location.
But I think it’s time these individuals reflect on what that does inside their organisations. First, many of them are at the most senior levels, earn high salaries and therefore (generally, but not always) have short commutes to the office. Given their position and income they probably don’t use public transport and are less likely to have competing career responsibilities in their household, meaning they don’t take on primary care-giving responsibilities.
Contrast this with the “unacceptable staff” who may have commutes of up to two hours each way on public transport. They may also have to contribute more to the running of the household – which should remain as an enduring benefit of the pandemic. If leaders prefer the office, they need to recognise this, but not impose their personal preferences on staff. They should also reflect on the privilege that comes with their personal situation compared with their workforces. And not being in the office themselves continually, would set a good example.
The demise of culture: I think this is a crock. In global companies, you would never fly all employees to one location for a physical meeting. When I was running a global team, I never had all my team in the one place at the one time. Ever. It strongly suggests being in an office cannot be the thing that builds or diminishes culture. Rather, it’s nurtured through the systems, symbols and processes that reinforce what it means to be part of a good company. Managers need to be creative about belonging, inclusion and connection. That is what is missing in some workplaces, not a demise of culture because people are not working in the office every day.
I would agree that it’s harder to try and create that sense of belonging over a phone line. Certainly, that’s my experience. It does take more creativity and nous to have people see that they are contributing something more than their specific piece of work and it does take resilience to keep up the discipline. But heh, welcome to management.
In my experience, you need to invest time to have the team know each other. We used to spend 10-15 minutes at the start of every team call doing an activity that got others appreciating their peers. For instance, “what do you miss most about travel” or “what has been your food of choice during lockdown”. I would then have a topic presented by 2 to 3 team members (each from different regions) so that they were “forced” to work together before the meeting.
Bit by bit, these activities helped to build a connection to the team, the purpose and, ultimately, the organisation. As a leader you need to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field as it relates to contribution. For instance, at various times of the year, it was difficult to accommodate every time zone. So, we recorded calls, swapped around who might be excluded and ensured that if a particular group were in the same physical location joining the call, that they didn’t dominate the discussion. These are the things managers need to consider in this brave new world of hybrid management.
New Starters: I agree that it has been difficult to on-board employees and make them feel connected over the past 2 years. Now, many organisations are facing increased year 1 turnover rates and are using this as the catalyst “to all get back in the office”. It’s not just new employees. I think it also applies to those who were promoted during COVID This is where being in the office and hybrid should kick in. Managers need to plan to be in the office with these new people – not all the time, but they need to be talking regularly with new starters. Something along the lines of “You obviously started at a really difficult time, and I think as we return to a more stable environment, I would like to arrange times when we can be in the office together. Let’s trial this for 3 months and see where we get to.”
The manager then needs to do a few things – the first is to set aside enough time on those specified times to teach and coach the new employee. Nothing screams frustration more than turning up in the office only to have the manager in other meetings and the key purpose of being physically together lost. The manager should also think about other employees who can assist a newcomer. Again, a mature conversation along the lines of “As Mary started with us during the pandemic you will appreciate that it has been hard to show her how her accounting work is contributing to the overall financial reporting that we do. She and I have agreed to be in the office on a Wednesday and Thursday over the next few weeks and I would like you to join us on one of those days to spend time with Mary.” Framed with a rationale and some choice over the day, most employees will buy into this request.
The slackers: Guess what? These people were slackers before the pandemic … you just didn’t notice. You thought they were contributing but, in fact, they weren’t. Coffee breaks, the gym, social media activity, reading the newspapers, and personal business were taking up the bulk of their time. And you thought they were contributing because they were present when you needed to be cognisant about what they were achieving. Working in an environment where you can’t see your employees focusses your energy on being clear about deliverables, timing, and stakeholder feedback. I could tell how everyone performed in my global team. Not because I could observe them getting into the office or leaving, and certainly not because they looked busy. No, it was three things that allowed me to gauge their performance. I set clear deliverables, had processes in place to ensure that showed where they were at (and whether there was going to be slippage) and checking with stakeholders regularly to validate what they were telling me. This is how you manage when you can’t physically see employees, and managers today need these disciplines more than ever. It’s an undisputed fact that productivity has never been higher through the pandemic – let’s not change a whole system for a maximum 5% of your workforce. If you think “the slackers” represent more than 5% of your workforce, you need to either up your game or reflect on your own performance in recruiting and motivating your workforce.
The women problem: Gender diversity is a problem in almost every industry I speak with. It’s also a problem for the Australian economy because we know female workforce participation is the single biggest lever we have to improve productivity. We also know from research, here and abroad, that women continued to contribute more to household and caring responsibilities than men during the pandemic. Most women I have spoken to have commented that the pandemic, while difficult for reasons such as home schooling, has positively contributed to their positive views around flexibility. With the absence of the office commute, they don’t have to plan the evening meal at 6.30am. When little Jack returns from school and declares that he needs to wear his only sports shirt tomorrow, it can be thrown in wash at 3pm for the next day – rather than facing the prospect of getting it ready when you return home, frazzled, at 7pm. Working from home has greatly benefitted women – especially working mums. If you want to make it hard, if you want to put at risk the gains you have made in female participation in your organisation, then pick up your pen and write an edict that declares that people need to return to the office (I have heard several companies say this should be full-time). If you value the diversity that this cohort brings and want to attract a broader talent pool than you traditionally have, I suggest you work out an appropriate balance between home and office work for this group. You will be repaid with loyalty and hard work for firstly recognising the situation and then actively contributing to a tangible solution.
Lindall West | Managing Director
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