Back to business as usual? How managers should handle hybrid working and the return to the office.

Now the pandemic finally seems to be easing, everyone is eager to get back to normal – including workers. But what does normal mean now? Can we really just return to ‘business as usual’, or has our whole way of working changed forever?

When lockdown first hit, businesses of every kind faced a frantic scramble to adapt. The handful who already offered home working as standard found it easiest. For others, the transition from an in-office model to a distributed, remote way of working was a major jolt.

Many workers found solo working tough. Managers, too, often struggled to supervise teams they couldn’t see. With Zoom and email replacing meetings and watercooler chats, the whole rhythm, texture and emotional tone of the workplace changed overnight.

However, for other workers, these changes were a breath of fresh air. Research suggests that three-quarters of workers prefer a hybrid working model, and just 12% want to return to the office full-time.

Opinions are split on age lines – probably corresponding to the perceived risk of infection. While younger workers miss a buzzing office environment and the opportunity to learn and grow, older workers are happy to take care of business at home.

Whatever happens next, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. The majority of businesses plan to operate a hybrid model where employees split their time between home and office, either at their own discretion or according to a fixed schedule.

That means managers must adjust, permanently, to an environment where their team members are out of sight at least part of the time. But one thing hasn’t changed: managers and employers have a responsibility to help workers succeed and thrive, no matter where they may be based.

Best of both worlds?

In theory, the hybrid model offers the best of both worlds. Remote working offers increased flexibility and productivity, plus enhanced employee satisfaction. Working in-house, meanwhile, offers the emotional benefit of face-to-face interaction, as well as more opportunities for collaboration, learning and creativity.

However, both work styles have their downsides too. Working at home can leave workers feeling directionless, isolated and dejected. Travelling into the office, meanwhile, raises fears of contracting COVID-19 – plus some workers never really liked the communal workspace anyway.

The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between. Every worker will have their own view – and that view could change over time, too.

So managers have to acknowledge these priorities and concerns over the location and format of work, and find a way to bring them into their relationships with team members. And for most of them, that’s something completely new.

Finding the way forward

With so many changes in such a short time, managers have been left without a roadmap to show the best way forward.

The key questions they have to answer now are:

  • How do I maintain a connection with my team? How do I make sure everyone stays involved – the people who like hybrid working, and the ones who don’t?
  • How do I balance the priorities of the business with the needs of my team? Do I need to scale back my expectations – or will people actually be happier and more productive?
  • How do I keep performance on track without endangering people’s mental health? How can I tell when people are working too hard, or heading for burnout?
  • How can we remain attractive as an employer? How do we retain our best people, and attract new talent? What sort of culture and community do we offer these days?
  • How can I tailor my approach to each individual in my team, so everyone feels they’re being treated fairly?

What employees need

The overriding emotion of the pandemic has been anxiety. Some of us have been in very real danger, while others have been afraid for friends and family members. Others have suffered from a kind of low-level, ambient worry that doesn’t really have a focus, but still never goes away.

The antidote to anxiety is reassurance. And what we all want right now is to feel safe and secure. Whatever the ‘new normal’ turns out to be, we just want to be able to live and work without the nagging sense that something’s going to go wrong.

Two types of safety

This shows what managers should focus on. Leaders need to give their team members a feeling of physical and psychological safety, no matter where or how they work.

Physical safety is about social distancing rules, physical barriers, PPE and other arrangements in the workplace. Nobody should have to feel that they’re endangering themselves just by coming into work, and managers have a duty to keep them safe.

Psychological safety is more subtle. It’s about feeling safe to be yourself without fear of negative consequences for self-image, status or career. In teams that are psychologically safe, team members feel accepted and respected for who they are, and able to take risks without fear of repercussion.

Psychological safety takes more time and effort to achieve than physical. The key is communication. Employers need to keep everyone in the loop with clear and regular communications about anything that could affect their working setup.

If changes are being planned, people need to know what to expect. And they want to feel involved, too. So before making changes to working styles, managers should ask everyone what’s working for them – and what isn’t.

New needs

Employees’ needs have changed a lot over the last year. People are approaching their work with a whole new set of problems and priorities in mind. Even if we do get back to something approaching normal, our perspectives and feelings around work will never be quite the same.

To feel safe, people need to have a sense of control. When freedoms are taken away, that’s when people get defensive and upset. So managers need to stay flexible, and focus on empowering and supporting their teams. Even a little bit of power can go a long way.

We all know that ‘out of sight is out of mind’, or that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the oil’. Inevitably, office workers are the most visible, which can leave remote workers feeling hopelessly out of the loop. Everyone’s efforts, and everyone’s needs, must be recognised equally. That way, managers can make sure that there are no ‘tribal’ divisions between office and remote workers, and that a ‘two-tier’ system doesn’t emerge.

Overall, hybrid working provides many opportunities, but also a few risks. It has to work for everyone. For managers, that means leading with empathy, being clear around expectations and treating everyone fairly. And take a long-term perspective too – by giving a little now, you might get back more in the future. To sum it all up in two words: be human.