Business owners and managers across the UK have accepted that the working world has changed. But any company simply ticking the ‘hybrid working’ policy box is in for a shock. Post COVID-19, the work environment is going to be far more complex than many managers have yet acknowledged for one very simple reason: employees’ expectations are worlds apart.
Ashley Carr, Founder and Managing Director, Neo PR, explains why active management will be vital to achieving successful hybrid working, not only for employees but also with clients and suppliers – and why it’s important to start the conversation now.
Remainers vs. Returners
The world is opening up and ‘back to the office’ is in the diary – albeit in a different, socially distanced and increasingly hybrid model. But have companies really got any idea of the challenges ahead? This is not a simple situation, where flexi-time is a given and the traditional ‘office’ can be reinvented as a hot-desking ‘touchdown’ space visited by employees once or twice a fortnight – while spending the rest of the time working from home. That may work for a handful of individuals – but employees are increasingly split into multiple tribes with very different needs.
As we begin to emerge from 12 months of isolation, companies need to recognise the growing number of ‘returners’, individuals desperate to leave the kitchen table behind, throw off the onesie and interact with colleagues, preferably every day. These people actively want the work/ home delineation provided by a commute, meetings and the daily coffee run.
At the other end of the scale, there are a large number of ‘remainers’ who would happily never endure a physical meeting ever again, and are perfectly content at home, with zero commute and no need to dress up. These two tribes may be at the extremes so how will companies plan to manage many very different expectations of working life – and also ensure individuals work together effectively for the business?
All for one
While the past year has proved the value and possibility of remote working models, it has also reinforced the importance of face to face contact. Social interaction – the shared tea breaks and water cooler moments – helps to build a company culture. Individuals gain knowledge and confidence simply from listening in to other people’s activity – from phone calls to meetings. Being together in a shared physical space will remain a vital part of a successful business, albeit less frequently than in the past.
The challenge for business owners and managers will be to actively manage employees to achieve some synchronicity in the way different tribes come together. Companies will need to create frameworks that help employees find the right rhythm – to be in the same space, at the same time, at the right frequency. This is not about setting rules and dictating how, when and where employees interact. The past year has changed employee perceptions too much to make that approach viable or successful: setting rules runs the risk of eradicating the flexibility employees desire. Managers will need to work with employees and highlight the importance of face to face interactions – not only for them but for their colleagues and the wider business.
Maintaining strong relationships
An essential part of this process will be the way the physical space – the touch down location – is framed to the hybrid workforce. The emphasis must be on coming together to build relationships and share knowledge. It certainly should be not the place where individuals have to catch up on HR tasks or get a laptop refreshed – that will set the wrong tone.
This is about showing employees how to get the best from a hybrid working model – as individuals, teams and the wider business, by highlighting the importance of shared experiences and ideas, of building relationships.
This thinking also needs to be embedded in relationships with clients and suppliers. No one wants to go back to the time consuming and exhausting face to face meetings that used to dominate client interactions – the four hour drives for a one hour meeting, before hitting the road again. And if companies successfully embrace a hybrid working model that achieves a great balance between remote and face to face interaction, that shouldn’t happen: regular updates will continue via video call, with an annual or biannual face to face meeting dedicated to essential relationship building.
Listen to your workforce
Offices are opening their doors soon – and business leaders need to start planning. That means not assuming a one size fits all hybrid model will suit all employees or laying down a set of rules that completely undermine the concept of flexible working. They need to work with employees to both understand their perception of hybrid working – and explain the upside of face to face interactions with colleagues. They need to highlight to clients and suppliers the value of hybrid working – before companies stumble by default back into unhealthy, unproductive working models.
Essentially, business owners and managers need to accept that employee management just got a whole lot tougher – and active management is going to be essential to create a productive, well balanced and committed workforce wherever and however they choose to work.