In the first part of this article, we discussed the real estate challenges business leaders are wrestling with and shared a few strategies to create a successful hybrid workplace. In this second and final part, we will address employees' hesitancy about returning to the office and share a positive aspect of the hybrid workplace that business leaders seem to agree upon universally.
For many employers, the pushback from employees who are hesitant to return to the office is significant. Reasons range from a fear of the Delta virus variant to high satisfaction with remote working.
"Although we've had about 20% return to the office, a majority have no desire to come back," shared one CEO. Another stated, "People are saying they are more efficient at home and don't want to come in. They are rooted in that position and want everyone to see the world from their perspective." And a third leader commented, "I see a challenge in making hybrid have a dual benefit to the employee and the employer. Flexibility is a win for employees, but comes with risk to the employer around culture, training, and productivity."
Many employees express they are experiencing greater productivity, enjoying less commuting, and appreciate the ability to use the time they would have spent commuting to focus on their health, wellbeing, and family. Employers are concerned about onboarding and training new staff. Their employees are experiencing weaker ties to the company culture (leading to a drop in retention), and a possible loss in productivity (although several leaders I heard from indicated that employee productivity has maintained or improved with remote working.)
Whether you call it social cohesion, culture, or glue – it is the less tangible way that we experience a company and our coworkers. In the work of Advanced Workplace Associates, which conducted a study with the Center for Evidence-based Management about the factors that support cognitive performance, social cohesion is one of the most critical components for successful virtual teams. To maintain social cohesion, you must be intentional, especially when working remotely.
Social cohesion helps us build trust with one another. When we believe, we can create strong connections to our colleagues, and therefore we are more likely to share information. Companies depend on employees to timely share communication and respond appropriately and quickly to client and colleague requests. Social cohesion helps create that cultural glue, and it impacts productivity and profitability. It is not a "nice to have" but rather an imperative.
Relationships are essential in life and work. Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk from the early 20th century, provided counsel to someone who felt frustrated that his work was not making a difference. Merton said, "Do not depend upon the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be worthless and even achieve no result at all…. In the end, it is the reality of the personal relationship that saves everything." As you navigate a hybrid workplace and what it looks like in your company, remember that relationships will help you strengthen your cultural glue and deserve extra care and attention.
"Be intentional" has been my mantra for the past 16 months. Whether it's been conversations with my colleagues half a world away or when designing workshops, town halls, and communications for clients to share their hybrid workplace plans with employees. For example, when planning a meeting, I first consider if a meeting is the best way to achieve the objective.
You might say that the above steps are best practices with any meeting – on-site or remote – and I would agree! Many people complained of too many meetings before the pandemic. Employees are still lamenting long hours sitting in what often feels like pointless back-to-back meetings. Being intentional with how we connect can lead to stronger relationships and social cohesion.
Also Read: 5 Hybrid Workplace Trends for 2021
Another way to be intentional is with conversations. I have heard people mourning the loss of "water cooler moments" and serendipitous collisions that used to occur in the office. Intentionality in reinforcing relationships requires you to be proactive and connect. Here are a few ways – the first two were shared by one of the leaders I chatted with.
I mentioned connecting to vision and purpose when discussing meetings. Perhaps that seemed like an awkward step, but this is why values, vision, and purpose are so important to culture: When all of your employees left the office last spring, they didn't leave your culture behind to wither and die with the office plants. Your culture consists of your values, purpose, beliefs, and people, no matter where they work. The office was a vessel that contained your culture, and now it is empty. Your culture isn't lingering in the office, waiting for your people to return to embrace it.
One leader shared, "People are looking at themselves in the most narrow light possible." She was frustrated that people see their tasks as singular and not tied to the needs of the business, thereby reinforcing their belief that they should be able to continue to work remotely indefinitely. Employees need to be reminded in particular ways how they are part of a larger structure and how others are dependent upon their contributions (and those contributions might need to be done while in the office.)
Your opportunity is to refresh your vision and purpose and remind people how their work matters in the larger scheme of things. Connection to purpose is an intrinsic human motivator. People need to know that the work they do is making a positive contribution to the organizational purpose. How do you do that in a hybrid world? Here are some concrete steps you can take:
One thing all the leaders agreed on is the opportunity that a hybrid workplace provides for recruitment.
A financial services leader commented, "A hybrid workplace optimizes our hiring and retention options, optimizes work style choices, maximizes productivity, and offers the best work/life balance."
A legal services CEO shared, "Hybrid makes work more humane – not just for parents – but for those with elderly parents, too. Real-life is very full – if you have the autonomy to get your work done in a way that allows you to get your kids more easily where they need to be or get to a doctor's appointment, this arrangement gives more flexibility, autonomy, and trust. Those are all really good things."
A technology leader added, "The opportunity is that everyone seems happier with the flexibility. If you're going to go hybrid and offer flexibility, then really go for it… The other opportunity is leveling the playing field for remote-only employees. They feel less disconnected because everyone is 'virtual' to some extent, which helps protect against a tiered structure (in-office/visible and out of office/invisible)."
Recommended Reading: Recruiting for a Hybrid Workplace
These business leaders recognize that a hybrid workplace requires greater attention and more work from leadership and management to be successful. Metrics must be tracked and managed across multiple dimensions, including productivity, engagement, collaboration, culture, and visibility. One CEO candidly reflected, "This isn't a zero-sum game, and the benefits do not have to be equal for both groups (employer and employee), but I wonder about the sustainability of hybrid workplace models if there's not more in it for the employer. I think that side of the equation needs work."
With a hybrid workplace, there are no easy, pat answers. One leader shared, "Hybrid is the hardest choice. Full remote or full in-office present fewer ambiguities and are easier, but hybrid is better. Nothing of value is easy, and hybrid is no different."
Most employers are figuring the best way forward for their businesses and are operating in a constantly shifting environment with a wily virus. It is tough to plan and give definitive answers to anxious employees. Remembering what my preschool child experienced almost 20 years ago - the anticipation of change was more complicated than the change itself - I have an even greater understanding of business leaders' position right now. And I understand the stress that employees may be feeling. In the spirit of a tough year, it would be good to cut each other some slack – employees and employers – turn up our empathy dials, have some difficult conversations, and create an improved path forward together.
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