While 2020 will be remembered as the year work went remote, 2021 is shaping up to be the year we navigated the non-return to work. While many are eager to return to the office, others are pushing back. After Apple’s CEO Tim Cook announced he’d be requiring everyone to report in-office three days a week, employees wrote a letter voicing their concerns. A refusal to go back to the old normal is also causing “The Great Resignation.”
So, how do you find the sweet-spot hybrid model that suits organizational and shareholder needs? A hybrid cultural model, with some employees on-site and others working remotely, is a popular solution. Another hybrid version consists of different teams working the same days each week, either in-office or remotely. A well-designed hybrid model can encourage increased productivity and expanded talent, as well as collaboration across all levels of management.
But, traditionally, blending virtual and on-site employees is not a smooth transition. Managers must develop strategies for relationship and work effectiveness, create work solutions that appeal to remote and on-site workers and reward equally those who work onsite and/or remotely — all while encouraging engagement and productivity.
With remote and in-office organizational cultures working together as one, five significant obstacles emerge that threaten coherent workplace success:
1. Ambiguous Communication
According to a survey conducted by MIT, 47% of employees believe effective communication — frequent, transparent, two-way dialogues — is crucial to their transition to remote work. Remote workers often miss the face-to-face “pop-in” office meetings and lack the in-person capabilities to clarify deadlines and nuances of expectations with direct leadership. But, that doesn’t mean you should be scheduling meetings just for the sake of having them. In fact, we’re seeing quite the opposite for the hybrid model. If the meeting could have been an email, write the email and skip the meeting.
2. Stilted And/Or Siloed Collaboration
In a hybrid model, managers must be cautious of in-office employees dominating the work environment while remaining cognizant and appreciative of the benefits remote workers bring to the table. Working in-person requires different leadership interaction than employees working remotely, and leaders must have the skills and tools to support both. Additionally, the transition to a hybrid model poses new challenges to leaders and employees when it comes to productivity goals, a lack of clarity regarding communication and collaboration structures, new work processes and relationships.
3. Remote Work And/Or Transition Burnout
Leaders need to look for signals of remote work burnout which include, but are not limited to, using work to escape stress, adhering to few emotional and time boundaries (including not setting up a proper home office), not taking time off, and — the less obvious one — being obsessed with job security.
With a hybrid work environment, it may be difficult to maintain the personal WFH space and combine on-site work a few days per week. It’s important to consider the following:
• How can leaders effectively mitigate these employee challenges, while supporting employees to maintain a healthy remote workspace and/or transition to a hybrid culture?
• What about the leaders/managers, themselves?
• How do they lead effectively from a remote location while maintaining healthy relationships, especially if team members are working in the office?
4. Cognitive Threats From Uncertainty
Uncertainty during a workplace change can be worse than the change event itself. According to Dr. David Rock’s SCARF Model, a lack of certainty is a significant threat to the brain, negatively affecting decision-making, relationships, stress and one’s overall health.
With the work environment rapidly changing and shifting toward hybrid cultures, many employees are uneasy about how these shifts might affect their overall performance and, ultimately, their job. Additionally, employees fear the hybrid model will impact their privacy and cyber safety since more and more people are working from home. Leaders need to recognize that employees may need additional software and hardware tools, including cyber safety measures, to make them feel comfortable working remotely.
5. Diminished Trust
Whether employees are working remotely or on-site, virtual meetings are a common, daily occurrence. According to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, online meetings hinder the reading of social cues that build trust through non-verbal agreement. Communication in virtual meetings can undermine emotional and psychological safety, resulting in people being more reluctant to raise questions or concerns or share their ideas.
Effective leaders must find ways to alleviate unproductive online meetings, facilitate the participation of everyone on the call, create equitable virtual communication guidelines, resolve time management issues and diminish gossip, which negatively affects morale for in-office and remote workers. These actions can show your employees that you actively support a positive, creative, innovative and fair workplace.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the hybrid and remote work complications. Each organization and leader must discover and strategize to create the model that works best for their team to:
• Find resolutions that soothe the uneasy feelings about the transition
• Connect effectively and authentically to encourage productivity, while also providing emotional support
• Schedule routine meetings, utilize online project management tools and remember that you, as the leader, are the steward of your team members’ time
• Clarify expectations. Never assume your employee understands and agrees. Agree upon working hours remotely and in-office, establish preferred communication methods for each team member and set goals to increase collaboration and productivity.
It may also be an ideal time to utilize a behavioral evaluation to gauge how employees are managing productivity and communication from home. Using these assessments helps provide objectivity, as well as an extended understanding of the feelings and behaviors your employees may not specifically be able to address.
To lead in the new frontier of work effectively, you must find the “sweet spot” for your employees. We are in a time of experimentation and innovation. Patience is vital. If a hybrid model is in your organization’s future, conscientiously strategize to plan a smooth transition. If you adopt a culture of sharing and openness, with consistent clarity of expectations from the start, I think you’ll see that, no matter where your employees are, they will be capable of collaborating and innovating just as well as — if not better than — a completely in-office team.
This article was written by Dr. Cheri Rainey and published by Forbes.com on August 2, 2021.