Remote working in lockdown presents new leadership challenges every day. While some are the recurring challenges of leadership simply playing out a new environment, others are new. These challenges arise from the uncertainties and contradictions that are associated with remote working.
As we move in and out of lockdown, it’s likely that the hybrid workplace will be a reality for many leaders and employees, and the early signs suggest that when it comes to creating a positive hybrid environment one-size actually doesn’t fit all. Ostensibly flexible, tech-based companies like Google, which may have been expected to embrace remote working, have instead demonstrated the challenges of finding the right policy settings.
Throughout the pandemic, Google has changed its remote working policy several times – from initially requiring employees to come back to the office three days a week, only to then postpone the return (twice) as circumstances changed, to allowing employees to apply for permanent remote work or a change in office location. Other companies in the same market as Google, and others in more traditional industries, have embraced remote and hybrid working as the norm. Solutions must be tailored to suit organisational need and that experimentation is king.
When work is a place, it is fixed. Behaviourally, the act of going to work is trigger habit that marks a shift from one aspect of daily life to another.
The pandemic has been a major global shock to the way that work has been typically done. Some jobs firmly remain location-based but even in these cases, questions arise around just how much of a job is dependent on location. Can the work be structured differently to accommodate a remote element? For knowledge workers, the shift has been more profound and the question deeply philosophical. Why do we work the way we do? Is there a way to make the experience of work more ‘human’?
Leading through uncertainty
For leaders, remote and hybrid working test the habits accumulated through the experience of a working life. We forget just how much of our daily interaction in the workplace is grounded in habit and routine. Leaders and employees know the ‘rules’ of interaction, they are clear on the ‘pattern’ of how work is done, and they know the spatial dimensions of the workplace.
This last point is important. When work is a place, it is fixed. Behaviourally, the act of going to work is trigger habit that marks a shift from one aspect of daily life to another. The act of going home is same. When work is remote or hybrid, these habitual triggers are broken. As the hybrid workplace takes hold, we will need new habits and practices.
Why do we work the way we do? Is there a way to make the experience of work more ‘human’?
In a hybrid workplace, work will be more personalised – configured as a negotiation between leader and employee. New habits are needed to navigate the ‘on demand, always’ feeling of remote working. Social interactions and the way we build workplace relationships will have some different dimensions and require new skills. There is a lot to learn while also remaining productive.
Good leaders adapt quickly to new circumstances. They understand that in times of uncertainty, people are desperate for information. They need a story that helps them to make sense of their circumstances. The early days of remote working were replete with incomplete information, which grew narratives that became embedded as myths. Leaders must accept responsibility to bust these myths.
Don’t jump to the solution
In adapting to the future workplace, leaders need to stay relevant and informed about what is fact, what is fiction, and most importantly, what is simply unknown. Three guiding principles for all leaders in busting remote working myths are:
- There is no one ‘master narrative’ that adequately tells the story of remote and hybrid working.
- For leaders, the need to speak confidently about moving forward should be tempered with acknowledgement of individual experience.
- There will be a long period of adjustment in which new patterns of work behaviour will be established, don’t assume the solution is obvious – it’s not!
Stay alert to changing expectations
The workforce is often discussed in terms of broad brushstrokes, whether it be in terms of office layout, workforce planning, talent development, or any other aspect of HR policy and planning. The fragmentation of experience during remote working requires leaders and HR to take a closer and more nuanced look at employee experience. The place that work occupies in people’s lives is changing. New mindsets and priorities are emerging. Consequently, employees are finding new ways to navigate a changed workplace, and this brings with it new expectations.
Pay attention to changing behaviours
The challenges of isolation and the need for social interaction through the workplace have been key themes of remote working and will continue to be important considerations in a hybrid workplace environment. Some people crave office interaction, others have discovered the joy of distraction-free time, others have found new and enjoyable ways to blend home and work, while others have re-discovered why work and home are separated. Social interaction is central to culture formation. This does not mean that positive organisational culture can only grow and develop through face-to-face interaction. It means the way we interact is going to be more varied. The work context is changing, and our behaviour is adapting within that context. Good leaders pick up culture signals quickly.
Responding to the uncertainties and contradictions of remote and hybrid working requires adaptive leadership. The risks are different but the opportunity to experiment with how work is done is with us now. These opportunities are very rare.
Leaders at all levels need to be open to the possibility of change, connected to the changing mindsets of employees, focused on thoughtful and effective communication, and energetic in their approach.
A question for all leaders is: which trends are emerging from the experience of remote and hybrid working that can help your team to be a more agile, flexible, innovative, capable, and higher performing?
Synergy has built a Hybrid Workplace Framework to help leaders, managers, and employees to understand and adapt to remote and hybrid working. The Framework introduces you to the leadership and employee mindsets that shape workplace behaviour, helping you to generate new ideas and areas of opportunity to improve the experience of work in your organisation.
You can access the Framework as an eBook here: https://www.themandarin.com.au/168371-ebook-beyond-covid-normal-a-hybrid-workplace-framework/