A Human approach to managing hybrid workplaces post-COVID

Since the pandemic, the scattered distribution of workforces is a challenge most companies have had to rise to meet. We asked some HR experts in the field on their thoughts.
Anthony Sochan
July 5, 2021

Since the pandemic, the scattered distribution of workforces is a challenge most companies have had to rise to meet. 

The office as we knew it was an undisputed central location to meet five days a week. With new remote working opportunities, it’s now a potential go-between or a landing pad for workers hopping in and out throughout their working week. To survive and thrive, companies have had to adapt to these changes, instead of just applying the ‘back to the office’ bandaid. 

We asked some HR experts in the field: Nicky (Senior HR Manager at Zendesk Australia), Justin (Chief People Officer at Blackbird Ventures), Dan (Head of Talent & Organisation Development at Redbubble) and JJ (my fellow Think & Grow Co-Founder). 

Flexibility and choice  

Nicky from Zendesk believes that a successful hybrid workplace gives staff flexibility and choice. Companies can no longer afford to demand that staff work in the office, as we have seen. employee expectations have changed. Now it’s a question of what will work best for the individual, the team and the organisation.

Dan from Redbubble agrees, noting that the power dynamic between manager and individual has shifted. People expect choice in where, when and how they work. This never happened before the pandemic.

Mental Health Focus

JJ, co-founder of Think & Grow believes that we can’t underestimate the long-term impact of people’s disengagement from society and re-engagement back into it. Every employee’s stability disappeared almost overnight. Zoom meeting fatigue set in. New systems and KPI structures were implemented and learned quickly. Companies shouldn't just be looking at this from a location standpoint, but from a social connection one too. “A big challenge for us is the mental wellbeing of our staff with their disengagement with society over the last 12 months. And their re-engagement into society.”

After spending a large chunk of last year and this year in lockdown, employers have to consider their strategies and expectations for their staff on their return to work.

Questions to ask yourself as a manager or CEO:

  • Are my expectations of my team and of the business in the next 3-6 months realistic? 
  • How can I bring my team back together after spending so long apart, potentially with many new hires having never met in person? 
  • Can I be doing more for the mental health of my employees? 
  • How much flexibility and choice should I offer when it comes to returning to the office?

JJ suggests: “it depends on your company and the people - as long as there’s a path for success it’s about tracking what’s right. That comes down to strategy and whether they can achieve the milestones expected in the environment they’re in”. 

Sense of belonging and inclusivity

A sense of belonging in a company creates performance, retention and a solid foundational culture. It’s hard enough to create that in an office environment with everyone there five days a week. So, how do you achieve that when half of your employees are now remote? 

Firstly, let’s dive into what belonging actually means for a company. Dan, Head of OD and Talent at Redbubble shares

"Belonging for me is psychological safety, never doubting if I should be there. It needs to include trust, expectation, choice and a sense of inclusion as a mindset (not target or agenda).”

Justin, Chief People Officer at Blackbird Ventures, adds he would “focus on vulnerability as a leader to help people not feel alone, because humans struggle with uncertainty and have a psychological need to belong.”

Our tips for increasing a sense of belonging and inclusivity:

  • The ‘one out, all out’ rule when it comes to virtual meetings. If three are in the office and one is remote - then all of you join from separate rooms. 
  • Have two people (not in the same team) work together on a small, simple project. 
  • Conduct focus groups to ask your staff how they feel. If they know you listen to what they have to say, they will be honest and feel more included - part of the ‘tribe’. 
  • Treat every single person as an individual. Your ability to listen is a skill, the ability to communicate related to that is another skill. 

Managing productivity across time zones and distances. 

The fact is, it’s likely that your staff have found their sweet spot by now in between finding comfort in their own home and in the office, and the times and locations they are most productive. Forcing them out of their routine not only disrupts them, but it means you’re not getting the most out of them. 

The three things that Dan comes back to are “trust, setting expectations and choice”. Nicky, Senior HR manager at Zendesk shares that:

“Leaders need to be intentionally inclusive in the way they lead a distributed workforce. No matter where an employee is working, all should enjoy a great employee experience."

This is why you need expectations and how to set them: 

  • Let each team do what’s right for them. Each team will be individual when they need to collaborate and when they need time away to focus. E.g. A product team will differ from a marketing or customer team. 
  • A manager’s role has shifted and there’s more responsibility for them to get the most from their team virtually. Make sure they have access to the collaboration tools they need to get the results. 
  • Align the KPIs to current situations - can this team or this individual achieve that? Will they need longer? Speak to them directly to get on the same page.

Returning to a new normality was always going to pose challenges ahead for leadership teams and their staff. And although productivity levels, location preferences, time zones and lack of face-to-face connections bring uncertainty about the future of our work environments, they can also present strategic opportunities for work improvements.

Anthony Sochan

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