Few leaders can say they have perfected hybrid working at their organization. The evolution from pre-pandemic working methods was always going to be messy and stressful, and a steep learning curve. With no one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf solution, the scale and logistics of making a hybrid strategy work have been headache-inducing for many.
In a desperate attempt to ease the pain, and with dark clouds of a financial crisis looming, many employers, twitching from productivity paranoia, have retreated to old ways and imposed return-to-work mandates rather than persevering, opting to treat the symptom rather than the root cause of the problem.
But hybrid working is failing due to poor execution rather than as a concept — and that lack of success is primarily down to leadership — according to a global pulse survey by business consultancy Gartner, which questioned 330 HR leaders across a range of industries. So in that sense, will such RTO diktats not be regressive and more damaging in the longer term?
Gartner’s data shows 69% of business leaders have expressed concerns about collaboration, culture, creativity, and engagement. Little wonder more office-centric workforce strategies have been written up frantically. Further, 54% of human resources leaders reckoned their employees are less connected to their organizations than before the coronavirus crisis.
However, those who believe returning to the office will boost staff productivity, visibility, and loyalty are failing to realize and address the underlying issue, argues Caitlin Duffy, Gartner’s Virginia-based research director. “Many of the problems leaders are experiencing are not the result of hybrid work itself, but a failure to fully optimize it,” she said.
To an extent, the instinct to “take more control” over workforces, including “mandating a rigid return to the office,” is understandable “as we head into a period of economic uncertainty,” suggested Duffy. But, she said, “enforcing an office-centric approach would be a mistake, as it overlooks the numerous benefits of hybrid work for both employees and the business.”
Duffy made a case for a more “human-centric” work design. “A key benefit of hybrid work is the ability to grant people and teams autonomy over how they do their work and achieve their outcomes,” she argued. “A flexible-hybrid model also offers better opportunities for work-life integration and proactive rest.”
After all, redrawing expectations around office attendance and being more inflexible is the polar opposite of what people want or need in 2023. Indeed, such a backward step will likely further deplete staff engagement levels, Duffy said. “After years in which employees have experienced record levels of stress – 2022 was an all-time high – organizations must enable proactive rest, which leads to a 26% increase in performance, to improve productivity and prevent burnout and fatigue.”
Moreover, leaders should seek “more intentional solutions to their connection challenges,” said Duffy. For example, by identifying opportunities for employees to feel “connected to the organization through the work itself, and designing both on-site and off-site experiences to be more purposeful, collaborative, and valuable for building connections,” she added.
If cracking the whip and making employees return to the office is an uncreative and counter-productive strategy to reduce hybrid working woes, what can leaders learn from organizations that have enjoyed success?
Most importantly, trust is a must, posited Vanessa Stock, co-founder and chief people officer at Berlin-headquartered presentation platform Pitch. “Building a remote-first culture is all about granting that trust freely up front,” she said. “This is a big ideological shift for lots of old-school employers, and has led to what Microsoft recently described as growing ‘productivity paranoia’ setting in across leadership teams.”
Ultimately, the “clearer a leadership team is on their stance on remote work, and what success looks like,” the better the team can execute the plan, added Stock.
Listen, learn and evolve
Dr. Debbie Bayntun-Lees, professor of organizational change at Hult International Business School – which has campuses in London, San Francisco and New York City, and elsewhere – agreed that because hybrid working is evolving, it requires “a new leadership style and mindset.”
A recent research report, co-authored by Dr. Bayntun-Lees, explored this subject. The main takeaways were that “successful hybrid working practices and cultural norms lie with leaders and managers at all levels being able to develop new skills for a more human-centric approach and navigating different conversations with their employees,” she said.
Specifically, key personnel must “understand and care about the real needs” of employees, Dr. Bayntun-Lees added. They have to play a “crucial role as ‘connectors’ – connecting the needs and preferences of employees with those of the business.” She added that this required “aligning or integrating the purpose and passions of their people with the organization’s mission, purpose, and productivity requirements.”
Texas-based Branigan Mulcahy, co-founder of hospitality software company Virdee, echoed this advice about what makes hybrid working successful. “Listen to your employees,” he said. “It sounds simple, but few companies truly do it. If your employees are happy about how, when, and where they can work, they will be the most productive.”
Mulcahy added that providing the technology and support that “allows employees to thrive equally, whether in the office or at home, makes the difference.”
Building on this theme, Pitch CPO Stock, who “built a remote-first culture from the ground up,” said this strategy was a success for her organization because “foundational principles and processes” were established to ensure communication and collaboration were not limited.
As a first step for leaders hoping to improve hybrid working, Stock recommended analyzing – with an open mind – how the workforce operates to identify blockers. “Say goodbye to unhelpful cultural leftovers from the in-person era,” she said.
Finally, and related to removing obstacles, meeting madness has become the scourge of effective hybrid working. Stock cited a Harvard Business Review study that found a 13% increase in meetings during the pandemic. This rise, she said, was “driven by teams needing more check-ins to replace the types of updates formerly delivered across the desk in the office. But in this new world of work, ask yourself, could this meeting have been an email, and could that email have been a Slack message?”