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Hybrid working: the big return and the fight for flex

Parts of the world are still battling COVID-19, but as lockdown measures ease in some countries, the prospect of a slow and steady return to the office is firmly in sight. But the subject of transitioning back to the office remains divisive.

A staggering number of businesses are not involving their people in the decision-making process around what happens next. And every day, we are seeing the latest reports of companies  getting it wrong with public declarations about the need for full-time office working.

Last week, the tech giant, Apple, announced that it expected its people to be in the office for three days a week, stipulating that those days had to be a Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. In the memo, Tim Cooke, CEO, justified the decision by commenting that “innovation isn’t always a planned activity, it’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that”. This view is shared by leadership teams around the world and, in truth, in-person collaboration is important for innovation, but being in an office for a fixed number of days a week is counter-intuitive.

A wave of Apple employees publicly disagreed with the mandate. They didn't feel that they have been consulted, were concerned that the removal of flexibility will create inequality and fundamentally disagree with the one-size-fits all approach.  

None of this is remotely surprising. People don’t like being told what to do, they want to be able to choose how they work, and where, particularly as remote working has been so successful.

Companies are increasingly telling their people that they should bring their whole selves to work – so they justifiably feel that they can say what they really think. And those organisations that have consulted their people, and sought feedback properly about future working arrangements, are far more likely to have their employees’ support, even if those employees don’t necessarily agree with all of the decisions that are being made.

So, with this in mind, how can we engage our people through the transition?

Here are five things we think you need to consider:

1. Equip your line managers to engage their teams through the change and ensure no one is left behind

Managers and leaders have to be trained and equipped to manage hybrid teams properly. They have a critical role to play in maintaining an inclusive culture. A shift in mindset won’t happen by default and the change won’t be easy, so you need to pilot, review and evolve your ways of working continually.

People are feeling resistant and anxious about the shift to old working practices, with many fearful that the independence and autonomy of the last year will be chipped away as companies return to habits that many would prefer were left firmly in the past. Managers should help to ensure the psychological safety of their teams and can help alleviate some of these concerns, but they have to be supported in the right way so that they feel confident to manage the change.

It’s also critical that they are consistent in their approach, even if you’ve decided to let managers and teams set their own working patterns. The senior leadership team should be aligned and connected so that silos don’t form, and divisions between functions are avoided, because for many businesses, there will be a segment of its employee base that are not able to work elsewhere due to the nature of their roles and we have to be mindful to ensure that no one feels that they have been left behind. Flexibility is now an expectation, so if location can’t be considered, you should investigate how else you can offer some autonomy over how people choose to work.

2. Continual check-ins

You may well have surveyed your people to death about their preferences, but now is the time for anecdotal and informal feedback. Tap into your influencer and manager networks to understand people’s concerns in real-time so that you can help to alleviate them with your communications and course correct your approach when needed. It’s impossible to make every single person happy, but employees do need to feel as if they are continually being heard, that their opinions are being taken into account and that they are being treated fairly.

3. Reframe the purpose of the office

As companies have debated the future of work, many have been forced to consider the purpose of their offices. Several have taken the decision to slim down their footprints, and most are now reframing their premises as hubs for social activity, collaboration and experiences. Human connection is irreplaceable, and people do want to come together but on their own terms, and only when it really matters or is critical to a task.

4. Shift the mindset around office-centricity and presenteeism

Last month, the new CEO of WeWork caused outrage when he declared that the most engaged employees would go into the office. Despite the welcome explosion of opposition, this is sadly still a truth quietly held by many leaders. As the pandemic retreats and people start having those return to office conversations and define new working patterns, we need to remind leaders and managers alike how important offering flexibility is today – countless studies have shown that if you want to attract and retain diverse talent, you have to offer a degree of flexibility and choice. We also need to reinforce that presenteeism, whether remotely or in-office, is not a marker of productivity and efficacy.

5. Focus people on the future

Even if your business is one of the lucky few that has weathered the pandemic well, start to reinforce your strategy and energise people around your vision. Employees need clarity and direction amidst the continuing uncertainty. And as trust in leadership is, for the most part, at a high, it’s time to capitalise on the groundswell of support and realign and unite your people towards a brighter future, irrespective of where they are working. Employees are also hungry for growth and development opportunities after a stagnant year, so painting a compelling picture about your ambitions as an organisation will re-energise, provide focus and may prevent some talent from seeking a new role elsewhere.

If you need help engaging your people and aligning your leaders as you transition your ways of working, reach out to Alys or Victoria at hello@unitedcultureco.com – we’d love to chat.