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Has the state of the American workplace ever been more in flux? Decades ago, once you were hired, you went to work. That generally meant going to a physical location, being provided with a workspace and equipment, and assimilating into the culture and routines of your surroundings.
Today you can get hired, on-boarded, trained and sent into action without ever leaving your home. Remote work was growing in prevalence before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ongoing public health crisis has accelerated the trend exponentially. And many organizations aren’t looking back -- encouraging, even requiring employees to work from home.
However, that’s not true in every case. Many employers are striving to establish a “best of both worlds” workplace, whereby those who wish or need to work on-site can do so, while those who prefer or have grown accustomed to working remotely can do that.
If your organization’s leaders are struggling with a “hybrid” workforce, as it’s being called, they’re not alone.
Recognize the Differences
One reaction to suddenly having a hybrid workforce may be to “normalize” the situation one way or the other. That is, treat a hybrid workforce as if everyone works on-site and nothing has changedSept or, vice versa, treat all employees as if they’re working remotely.
Although it’s important to treat everyone equitably, don’t ignore the intrinsic differences between the two. Look carefully at which positions are best suited for each.
A couple of key terms that come into play are synchronous and asynchronous time. Synchronous time is that during which employees must synchronize their schedules for meetings or collaborative work. Asynchronous time is that during which employees can work on their own.
Job roles that involve mostly asynchronous time are well-suited to remote work, where an employee can create a comfortable workspace and work during optimal times. For positions that entail a substantial amount of synchronous time, working on-site tends to make more sense.
Software development organizations may tell us that their products enable seamless and incredibly productive collaboration, but human psychology has long indicated that in-person collaboration is more natural and intuitive. In fact, my spouse is a software engineer who was dismayed when his employer announced last year that the developers had proven they can work collaboratively from home and therefore would NOT be invited back to the office when it opened. Clearly employees can do great things together online, just that physical work locations and personal preferences can still serve a useful purpose as places of collaboration and socialization.
Establish Clear Expectations
Once a hybrid workforce is in place, establish clear expectations regarding “nuts and bolts” issues such as work hours and communication. These things tended to be implicitly understood when everyone worked on-site -- you showed up and left at a certain time and communication was handled face-to-face, on the phone or eventually via email.
In a hybrid environment, leaders need to explicitly discuss these items with employees. Start with work hours, which have evolved quite a bit since the old days of “nine to five.”
Remote workers tend to prefer and, indeed, rely on flexible hours to accommodate childcare and other inevitable home-based issues. Some on-site employees may still wish to adhere to a traditional schedule, but others might demand flex hours if that’s what is available to those off-site.
There’s no single solution. Leaders need to recognize the distinctive cultures of their organizations, build consensus regarding what will work fairly and optimally for everyone, and keep their eyes on the prize: productivity.
Another critical issue is communication. With people in different locations working flexible schedules, this can be a huge challenge. Leadership needs to set clear norms and expectations regarding:
All too often, communication is left to chance or open to interpretation. A hybrid workforce demands an open and unambiguous accounting of how information will be exchanged. Leaders need to enforce the rules and remind staff when necessary.
Master Technology and Build Trust
The importance of technology cannot be overstated. There are many remote business communication platforms in play these days -- Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Chat, Zoom. Leaders need to learn all the features of whichever one your organization uses and demonstrate this knowledgeability to employees. You may want to invest in additional training to ensure a high level of expertise.
On the flip side, there’s the human factor of the equation. Today’s employers face greater challenges regarding trust. Employees can and will acquire information from many different sources. They may distrust their employers’ motives in a time when organizations must make some very difficult decisions.
Leaders of hybrid workforces must overcome the even greater challenge of managing employees in different locations and time zones, on various schedules, who may be comfortable with differing modes of communication. It’s not easy! Remember that trust is based on the mutual understanding that employees will deliver high-quality work while employers, as demonstrated by leadership, will act with clarity, transparency and honesty.
It’s all about flexibility
One thing’s for sure: hybrid workforces aren’t going anywhere. In 2020, 81% of more than 4,000 employees surveyed by online job board FlexJobs said they’d be more loyal to their employers if they were offered flexible work options.
The key word there is “flexible” -- many employees value the ability to work from home, but many others still enjoy the experience of in-person collaboration. It’s the ongoing challenge of every leadership team to find the right balance.
Lynda Silsbee is Founder and President of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration. She has spent more than 30 years creating and leading high performance teams. Along with the other LEAP Certified Coaches, she reports that helping managers make the LEAP to leader is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work.