Work From Home. It was great at first, wasn’t it? No more commute, relaxed dress code, home comforts… But then it started getting boring, once the novelty wore away. Interminable video calls, sitting at the desk all day, lack of spontaneous chat with colleagues.
While these may be the familiar downsides to home working, in my opinion, there are other more deep-seated and fundamental ones that businesses and publishers still need to address.
The other week, I attended a “conference”—a virtual one, of course— organised by Salesforce.com, which focused on the collaboration culture in driving creative transformation in 2022. The panel session quickly focused on the issues around hybrid working—how to accommodate the balance between those working from home and those with office access. Attending this conference prompted me to write some thoughts about the challenges we face. My caveat is that I am no expert, but I did listen to quite a few experts, which has fed my thinking.
The big issue we currently face is the imbalance many workplaces now have because of hastily put-together home working practices. Now that remote work is becoming permanent, the need to readdress so many of these practices is becoming more evident. There is a need for a “levelling up” in the hybridity of home working.
Let me give a couple of examples:
Do we have meeting equity?
How often are meetings now held where some people are in the room and others are tuning in from home? It used to happen a fair bit with people dialling in from offices, which was hard enough—but now it is the norm.
Common issues with meeting equity include:
1) Those in the room have far more say in the meeting than those who join remotely.
2) Those at home struggle to get their say, struggle to be heard, and often find it hard to put their point across, without the benefit of their physical presence in the room.
3) Body language is difficult to read on a small screen, and to interrupt to have your say means you must alter your normal style and behaviour to be heard.
Equality of access
Do companies with hybrid working give equality of access for those at home as those with office access?
Issues to consider around access:
1) Are you less visible to managers and those who can progress your career if you are not physically in sight?
2) Do you have the same opportunity as someone sitting in the office when your manager wants a quick volunteer or wants help in finishing a pressing task?
3) Do you have the same access to the leadership, who may be walking the office floor?
4) Do you have the same access to spontaneous coaching, mentoring or just plain help?
We are also seeing a shift in the balance of power. Today, employees are more “portable”—they can move jobs without moving location, which gives them more bargaining power as employees, and companies more of a retention problem as employers.
However, have we really designed our working cultures for a remote working environment? There were several big company brands attending the conference, but none of them could really say, hand-on-heart they had got this right.
One thing is for sure, there is no one-size fits all solution to the future of where and how we work. The pandemic has certainly revolutionised the model and the way we need to think about offices, remote working, and employees’ workplace needs. All this means there is no standard way of working, but there are perhaps some new norms that are common to all businesses, which we would benefit to reflect upon in this new era.
First, we need to reconsider how leadership and management function. We need a new kind of leadership that incorporates more humility and humanity, as opposed to a relentless focus on results. This will require new empathy-based management training. Do our leaders and managers know how to ask the right questions? Do they know how to dialogue, instead of simply commanding? One of my editors told me only today that their job seems to be nearly 60% about counselling—but have we equipped them to safely take on that role? There is a need for a changing style of leadership and an obligation for leaders to demonstrate where there are inequalities so that they can tackle them. Why? Because talent is now more mobile—and if you don’t create a level playing field, there are other opportunities available to choose from.
We also need to consider the question of how to do performance management in a hybrid environment. We all have the tools to manage performance and underperformance in an office environment. But how do you deal with it in a hybrid world? How do you know when you terminate the video call that your employee is ok?
And who does the employee have to talk to? If they go back to their desk at work, they have the spontaneity of a chat with a colleague. But the inequality of not having that choice could be mentally disastrous. This also raises the issue of training: how do we encourage creativity and spontaneity, ownership over one’s work, but a willingness to reach out for help? Have we thought about psychological safety, and the isolating impacts for remote work?
We need to be intentional in designing remote working practices, rather than assuming we will establish the right norms by a process of osmosis, gradually assimilating ideas. If we leave it to chance, we will build in inequality and a lack of inclusiveness and a set of values we would never have dreamed of having if we had intentionally designed them.
Global companies are wrestling with this, but there are solutions. It is now a duty and a necessity for us as business leaders to consciously review our hybrid working practices to ensure a productive, safe, rewarding workplace for all of our employees.