5 tips for leading in the hybrid workplace

When COVID hit, a work-from-home economy popped up almost overnight. The percentage of Americans clocking in remotely shot up from 2.9% to 42%: in the UK, as many as 1 in 2 employees stopped going into the office. But returning to the office won’t happen as abruptly. Employees will likely head back in fits and starts, with safety regulations keeping most offices from operating at full capacity until the vaccine is available to everyone. Many organizations are beginning to explore hybrid work, when some people come into the office some of the time. If you’re a leader, here are five ways you can make hybrid work a success.

1. Pull, don’t push people back to the office

To inspire trust in the midst of uncertainty, make it a priority to roll out thoughtful, transparent return-to-work plans. The best policy likely won’t be a blanket policy (e.g. asking everyone to return to the office by a certain date), at least initially. Carefully consider which teams or people will benefit the most from in-person collaboration. Outline a clear proposal for when and why you’d like these groups to return to the office, and then actively solicit questions and address concerns.No matter what, make sure your people know that if someone has a good reason to stay home —for example, if they’re immunocompromised, have daytime childcare responsibilities, or are taking care of someone who’s sick— they aren’t required (or expected) to come in yet.

2. Focus on rebuilding security and trust

Given the pandemic and ensuing economic downturn, your people may be feeling insecure, afraid, and burnt out. Bringing a group of insecure employees together in-person can heighten these feelings. People will be extra likely to measure their own performance against that of their peers.  To prevent a culture of competitiveness from taking hold, make individuals feel valued by deliberately and intentionally involving them in the decisions that impact their work. Make it a point to run documents or policies by employees who have relevant perspectives to add. It’s important to do this 1:1 as much as possible, so that employees can see you are reaching out to them directly for their input, and they can get that highly valuable face-to-face time with you. If you’re in a very large organization, managers should practice this as well. Nothing will ease an insecure employee quite like hearing “your skills are very unique and important to this company, and I value your opinion and expertise. What do you think of this?”

3. Make the most of in-person time

When employees come into the office, use the time for activities and projects that are harder to do when everyone is at home.

  • Make yourself and your emotions visible. If everyone is back together but huddled alone over their laptops, there's little benefit to being in the same space. Try to connect face-to-face with as many people as possible.
  • Encourage people to eat lunch together, outside if they can. Nature is a known mood-booster, and is also proven to increase creativity.
  • Prioritize collaborative meetings (e.g. brainstorms). When everyone is remote, it can feel harder to make quick decisions or get to “burstiness” (when creative brainstorms are bursting with people excitedly sharing ideas). To boost innovation, schedule these kinds of meetings when people are in the office.
  • Save performance-related conversations for in-person. Tough conversations are tougher online, where the lack of body language can make feedback feel colder and more impersonal. (Not to mention the potential distractions of family members in the background.)

4. Partner with employee resource groups

As you craft return-to-work policies, be sure to include employee resource groups—that means people of differing ages, ethnicities, genders, and parental statuses. Don’t have employee resource groups in your organization yet? Work with HR to create a diverse task force.Ask these groups for feedback along the way: A policy made with the best intentions could still have unintended adverse impacts. Fairness in the workplace is a combination of what’s called procedural justice (do people think the decision was made fairly?) and distributive justice (do they think the outcomes are fair?). Be willing to adjust as needed in response to feedback.

5. Exercise empathy daily

Your people are all experiencing COVID-19 differently. Some might have settled into “business as usual” months ago, some may be struggling with childcare, and others still might be dealing with deep personal grief and anxietyMake it a point to acknowledge the wide spectrum of experiences within your department or organization. In 1:1 meetings, that can be as simple as asking people: “How are you,  really?” — and listening carefully to the answer. In larger meetings, recognize the very real stressors that people face. A sunny “back to business” attitude can backfire, and make you seem out of touch with people’s experiences. Instead, encourage everyone to do the best they can, and emphasize that you’re all in this together.

Want to help your employees beat burnout and stay connected in a hybrid world?  Let’s talk.

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