A lot (maybe everything?) has changed due to the COVID pandemic, with one of the biggest impacts being where work is done, particularly for office workers. During multiple lock-downs, companies and organizations had to adapt to a workforce based at home.
Now that restrictions are easing, and things are slowly getting back to what we had before, everyone is challenged to figure out what’s next. What is the new contract between employees and employers? And what does this mean for where work is done? Join us as we deep dive into these different aspects of where we work, and what we face in stepping into hybrid workplaces.
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Ask Us Anything: Hybrid Work
Welcome to another Ask Us Anything episode. How are you doing?
I am doing awesome. Although, it is spring, so my allergies are starting to act up. That is problematic and it was raining a bit, but other than that, I am doing good. After a couple of years of pandemic, there a lot of people in my life for whom things are starting to turn around a little bit. Things are coming together. It is good.
We are all hungry for things to shift into something non-pandemicky.
A lot of changes going on.
We have got a great topic for our readers. Our Ask Us Anything is someone has asked us something, but in this case, many people are talking about this topic. We are hearing it as an Ask Us Anything. We are going to jump in, and the topic is Hybrid Workplaces. Readers probably know what this is, where some people are working from home or other people are working for the office.
Maybe there is a day of the week or the month in which people are present in person and everything that comes with that. This is the topic that we are going to dig into. We have been reading about this. Many people, for instance, we follow on LinkedIn. There is a lot of talk about what this looks like.
I am hearing everything from, “I could stay home in my pajamas until retirement and still be productive, work in my job, and be a valuable member of my team,” to, “Get me out of my basement. I need to be around people again. I am happy to have a place to go, leave the house and go to work at.” And then there is everything in between. We are going to dig into this. I am going to ask you. What are you thinking and hearing? What is popping up for you on this topic?
Like you, I have talked to lots of people about this. I think there is a range, although generally speaking, I would say the trend that I am reading and seeing is that people want flexibility. Very few people want to go back to the status quo of what we had previous to the pandemic. There is a little bit of tension between organizations wanting to regain their idea of control is, perhaps.
When I say the workforce, I mean right up to pretty senior level… I have talked to mid-senior level leaders and managers. We all want the same thing. Just because we are in a leadership role, it does not mean we are suddenly different. I have heard people say anecdotally, that one conversation was with a leader in a financial role in an organization who told me that she got an email one day from the leadership of the organization. This is on a Thursday. They are saying, “Starting Monday, everybody is back in the office,” with no real dialogue about that.
She heads up a team of her own and did not have an opportunity to dialogue with her team about it. I think that there are a lot of misses happening here. For me, I am going to come back to a couple of themes as we have our conversation, which is grounded in what we know around what motivates people. If we are thinking about culture and engagement, what is important to consider as we think about what this new model is going to look like.
The key theme for me is that people want autonomy and control over their day and what their life looks like, and they want to have consideration for the fact that it is different for everybody. It is everything from my circadian rhythms might be a little different to the demands that I have in my life outside of work.
Having that bit of autonomy control, flexibility, and having a say and go, I cannot overemphasize how far that can go with helping people feel a sense of increased belonging and engagement at work. The other thing that is top of mind for me is retention. In April 2022, the biggest thing I am seeing in the market is that employers are having a retention challenge.
They are having trouble attracting talent, keeping talent, and a lot of resignations. I am seeing a lot of unexpected resignations, which we could do a whole other episode because I have a lot to say about why it is that you have a team member who is unexpectedly leaving, and you had no idea that they were either unhappy or wanted a different career entirely.
That is a real challenge in organizations. What I suspect is happening in this regard is the first impulse is to throw some money at that problem. Is this a salary thing? Although, I think that looking at compensation practices is part of that, I do not think that is the biggest thing because the one thing I always come back to that we know is that most people leave their bosses. The biggest factor in someone’s satisfaction in their role is their relationship with their boss. I am keeping that in mind as we have that conversation too. That is what I am seeing and hearing out in the market. It is an interesting time in the market.
When you talk about the person you report to being so critical in your working life, what came to mind was there is a bit of an unraveling of what we would have called the ‘traditional employment contract,’ where the employer has a need and the employee molds and fits… here are the seventeen things I need to do. Here are the traits, characteristics, and education that I bring to the role. Everything else that I am, I leave outside and I do not bring to work.
When you are working remotely while your kids are in the background and your dog is barking. Your delivery of whatever it is you have ordered. The doorbell is ringing.
We have seen a little bit into people’s lives. People did a lot of masking in the workplace when we went to work. You did not see all of that. There is something liberating about being able to be that person and not having to use energy on impression management. I like the idea that there is a bit of looseness around this. I think about what leaders need to consider right now.
As I talk about the employment contract, to me, there has always been a whiff of putting people on a leash. We need to contain and manage the employee. I prefer the language of we are stewarding, and developing people’s potential and performance. We are catalyzing the potential and performance of people.
People want flexibility. Very few people want to go back to the status quo of what we had previous to the pandemic.
To get out of this idea of the hierarchy, know-it-all boss, who is the overseer, and to really start thinking about what is the optimal relationship between employees and employers, and then think about how does this play out in the hybrid environment? How do we create an environment where people whose needs, wants, and preferences are part of the conversation as opposed to what you described as a decree?
One of the worst things I have heard is from one organization in the States: an employee had tweeted that she got a message from the head of HR saying that people with pets should start leaving their pets in another room, or not spending as much time with their pets to prepare them. The pets are prepared for the employee returning to the office. I thought this is unbelievably ridiculous, intrusive, and frankly stupid. I am going to put my hamster in his cage in the shower, so the hamster knows that I am eventually going to be putting on some proper clothes to go to work.
There was somebody showing up to work with their cat or their dog rolling in with a crate to put the dog in the corner because the dog is suffering from anxiety.
That is interesting and I want to add one thing before I come back to you, which is leaders need to have the kinds of conversations: what does a successful, productive, or effective humanistic conversation look like with employees who have been productive over a period of time working from home, who have done more work, contributed more hours, have been more available, and have been in more meetings than they were pre-pandemic.
What is an effective conversation about these wants, needs, and preferences look like? I get that some workplaces do need people to come into the office. Maybe it is dependent on the role or the employee’s preferences. Let’s find a way to have the kinds of conversations between leaders, organizations, and employees. If we want people to bring their good energy and their great ideas, we have to meet some of these needs that people have been able to fulfill while they have been working from home.
Let’s treat people like the adults that they are. When you say, “You should start whatever doing this with your pets.” There is something a little bit paternalistic about it. That does not usually go over well with people. The key theme that you are getting to with this idea of conversations, and this is where I am landing as well, is to involve people. Make them part of the conversation and the decision-making.
In a large organization, people are going to go to things like employee surveys. I know you have a lot to say about that. The problem with employee surveys is that the culture in every organization is going to be a little bit different. Generally speaking across the board, unfortunately, a lot of organizations have mishandled employee surveys. In other words, part of the reason why we are experiencing what we are experiencing right now is there is, generally speaking again, low trust in companies and organizations.
There is often low trust when someone is asked to do a survey. Also, what do you do with this information? Do you report it back in a timely manner? Do you share or act on it? People are a little bit understandably not that trusting of that whole situation. You might have stuff to add to that because you have been involved in a lot of that.
There might be a place for some of that, but you have to be thoughtful about how you proceed and what you are going to do with that information. The other thing is having conversations with people because there might be something that is company-wide, but then, there might be a lot of room for difference and flexibility from team to team within organizations.
It is not to say you are going to be able to always give everything that someone wants. Even asking goes a very long way and having that dialogue. I am going to ground this in what we know about neuroscience. I am not going to go into a lot of detail about it, because we have talked about this in a couple of other shows. I will go back to David Rock’s SCARF model.
The SCARF model stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness. These are five parameters that our brain is always scanning our environment for potential threats. Now, we do not tend to get chased by lions or we do not have the same threats, but this primitive part of our brain is still operating.
For example, let’s take the S, Status. Any potential change or threat to our status triggers a threat response. Any change in our environment is first perceived as a threat. Yes. It could be an opportunity and we are supposed to embrace change and be agile. That is so nice. We are getting grit, resilience, and all these things that players have been trying to have.
The reality of how our brain operates is that these things are a threat long before they are an opportunity. Let’s have this fun exercise. If we go through each of these five parameters and think about changing someone’s work-from-home status. Let’s say I have gone through two years of working from home, and now I do not know what my employer is going to do exactly. It is still up in the air but there is going to be a change in how I am working. In terms of status, could that be a threat to my perception of my status?
For sure, and here is an example that I’ve heard. While people were away and employers are rethinking the office space, there are no more offices. Now we are going to create a hybrid, giant countertop café style. You show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Nobody has a desk anymore. I know for me, that would be a huge threat because I like to work in silence.
Being told I have to work with other people around me, it feels like my status is being affected. It is not that I do not want to be around my coworkers, but that is one example. Things might have physically changed. You are coming into a different office and that could have an impact on your status.
If you want to have a private conversation, maybe there is this tiny little telephone booth of a room that is not that private because often they are made of glass.
They are so small, but if we are supposed to still keep a 1-meter distance or face in the opposite directions.
The biggest factor in someone’s satisfaction in their role is their relationship with their boss.
My status is threatened and even not having a choice or a say in the matter, “You shall do this.”
The C is for Certainty. We have had a lot of uncertainty and continued uncertainty. That is threatened. What about autonomy?
That is the big one. We have gotten some autonomy from working from home and now it feels like the leash is going to be yanked, and it is going to be yanked back into an office environment. Small caveat: many people have had to go to work throughout the pandemic. We are being very specific about people who are working in office environments. Kudos to people who kept everything going for the rest of us because we could not have done it without people who showed up physically for work.
Where is my autonomy? Maybe I could walk the dog in the middle of the day. Now, I am commuting an hour and a half in bad weather. My day is already two hours long before I stepped into the office, versus I used to jump out of the shower, put on (from the waist up) business clothes, and get into my work mode.
Involving people in decision-making and giving options and choices as much as you can go such a long way for people to feel like they have that autonomy. That is important for people. Our workplaces and how work fits into our lives has evolved over time. We have multiple generations and people of all different types of backgrounds in the workplace.
Giving control and autonomy is important for a culture and retention. I will say also retention perspective. Awareness of this and how people are going to react can go a long way.
Relatedness. We are social creatures and beings. We need people. This has suffered quite a bit during the pandemic. This to me is an area of real challenge and opportunity as we rethink what this is going to look like moving forward, because we still need that social interaction.
I am calling them C words because they all happen to start with C for some reason. As we are reading articles about work-from-home and the challenges and so forth, what are the major concerns, connection, communication, collaboration, creativity, and workplace culture? Those tend to be the big ones. Most of those things have to do with relationships, the degree that we have trust, and open communication.
We have to figure out different ways to do that, grow in connection, collaboration, and have those relationships, when we are working in a different way. A couple of people I have spoken to say, a lot of organizations are immediately going to a hybrid: it will be that work 2 to 3 days a week in the office. What if it is one day a month in the office? I have heard people say, “Once a week, I am good. Once a month, I am good.” I think we need to tease apart time where it is getting together just to connect.
I would add to that this idea that form follows function. What is the purpose of being together in the same place? Is it so that your employer is in some panopticon, and can they keep their eyes on you to make sure you are at your desk? Is it to forge the kinds of relationships of candour, honesty, and collaboration that are required for very complex problems that we are solving together on our teams?
This brings me to something that is slightly outside of hybrid that fits. This idea that we have, that because everybody reports to one boss that they are a team. Most people are in workgroups. They are not as teams. They are not working together to accomplish something. Let’s get crisp and clear about what we mean by collaboration. We do not need to have people talking and getting along for the sake of people talking and getting along.
We need people talking and getting along where there is a need to work as a team and collaborate. This reminds me of all the times I have been asked to like, “Come in and do some team building.” First of all, it is like, “Are you a team? Do you need each other to get your jobs done? If this is just let’s feel good about ourselves, maybe we need to about another intervention, if we even need that.”
The other thing that I want to pick up on when you were talking about the SCARF model is about relationships. We have been through not the pandemic, but there is been a real realization and understanding of the importance of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice in the workplace. This, to me, plays out obviously around differences in race, gender identity, in all the different facets, and the different inter-sectionalities we bring to work.
The other difference that needs to be explored in hybrid workplaces is if you are working from home, are you not going to be getting the better, more interesting projects because you are not as visible. Are you still in the running for potential promotions? Are we now giving more ‘bonus points’ to people who are making the effort to put on some uncomfortable shoes and commute to work, than we are to people who are working hard at making contributions to our organizations? The world is evolving. The arc of time bends towards justice, but it takes a long time. If we want people to bring their best to the work that we do and why we hired them, we need to loosen these constraints.
I was saying this earlier about who people are when they bring themselves to work. I am not talking about I am going to bring my curmudgeonly do-not-talk-to-me-before-I have-had-a-coffee person to work, but we need to create some looseness around what we consider to be acceptable behaviours in the workplace.
I am not talking at all about it being okay to be disrespectful. Whether we are working remotely or not, or hybrid or not, people do need to bring an expression of who they are to what they do. We talk about our personal lives. We have lives. Let’s stop this massive distinction between our professional lives and our personal lives. The pandemic has blended them in many ways and there are some maybe things we do not want to keep going forward from that. There are things that we would benefit from and leaders, again, need to think about how do we leverage what we have learned over the last few years in terms of who people are, and what they want and need in their lives and work.
I agree with that. You bring up a good point around the visibility and FaceTime with the boss and who knows you. As someone who has done a lot of career coaching work, it is a common problem with people who think, “If my head’s down, I am working hard, and I am doing a good job, I am going to get noticed. I am going to get promoted.” That is unfortunately not the case.
Being known, managing your reputation, having a good network are things I could talk at length about. How do you do that in this new environment? That is an important consideration. From a leader’s perspective, how will we manage this in this new environment? Maybe some people are coming into the office and others are not so much. How do we make sure that we are still evaluating people on fair and relevant criteria when we are looking at things like promotions, salary increases and things like that. That is something that needs some consideration.
From the point of view of the employee, in terms of also managing your career, it is something to consider. I think the system is changing. We have been in a system that has been stuck. It has not been that receptive to change, and it is being pushed to change now. As the system changes, we do need to find some new ways.
Both as an individual who is thinking about their career to manage that and also as organizations that are trying to attract talent, retain talent, have a great corporate culture, have a sense of belonging and high engagement with people. We are in a time when this is changing and there needs to be some room and acknowledgment of that.
You can create very powerful connected relationships as a leader, regardless of the location of the people you are working with.
We might have to experiment a little bit. We are not necessarily going to hit this out of the park on the first go, but I keep coming back to involve people, have the conversations, be as receptive and responsive as you can because people are going to be way more invested if you are involving them and being receptive to their input and the things that matter to them. How honest they will be in that conversation with you as the leader, depends almost entirely, maybe on the trust that you have.
Know that trust is a delicate thing and it is easily broken. This is a real opportunity to slowly gain trust with employees too. I was having a conversation with somebody about exit interviews and I read an article on this that most people either do not participate in exit interviews with their company or lie. Even when they are leaving, they do not feel comfortable, to be honest, and open because they think that it is not going to be held confidential. It is going to come back and bite them in the butt. How could we move forward in a meaningful way if we can’t even have open dialogue and get open feedback from people about their experiences? That is a little off track perhaps. What I am saying is do not assume that you have the trust to have those dialogues. You have to build it and earn it over time.
This might be a good note to end on, which is, it should not matter whether people are working remotely, whether they are showing up. You can create very powerful, connected relationships as a leader, regardless of the location of the people we are working with. It is how you lead, how you show up to a conversation, and how you bring curiosity. You cannot meet every person’s needs and preferences for what would work for them in their lives.
You are giving people money to add value to whatever your organization is creating, whether it is a product, service or any of that. There are expectations that come with having a job. What I am talking about here is everyone needs good people. Everything from walking down the street and seeing virtually every single business, looking for employees to office workers, to manufacturing.
Good people are needed everywhere. My wish and my hope are that employers start looking at what are the things they are doing to continue even in this market to create obstacles. To people being able to get and do good work. We still have a long way to go and in some ways, the pandemic has created an opening where some of these, as you said, ways to experiment can come forth and we can try things. It is going to take leaders who are willing to step in and evolve their own ways of thinking about what their role is in the lives of the people who report to them.
We did not get to the F in SCARF, but that is Fairness and you already touched on it. Are we being treated fairly in this process? A lot of employers are automatically going because I have seen a lot of people leaving organizations and moving around right now. You and I have used the term people we are going to start voting with their feet. It is not all about the money. People are making decisions. I have someone in my network who sat down with them and said, “My decision about where I am going to spend the next X number of years of my career rests almost entirely on the organization work from home policy.”
People have a bit of leverage right now. They are using it. I would say that this is a huge opportunity to lean into those opportunities to involve people and that it can go a long way for that trust factor and having that culture where people feel a sense of trust, belonging, and being part of the conversation. I think it is important.
To underscore that last point you made, I was reading the statistic. This is American, and 79% said they would consider looking for a new job if they could no longer work remotely. That is 4/5 of your workplace. This is not 1 or 2 people who got comfortable working in their pajamas. These are people who have structured their lives to be productive and effective at work with the other responsibilities, needs, desires, and commitments. The ball is in the employer’s court right now. People are being pretty clear about what they want and need, and employers who want good people who are motivated to make a difference need to figure out what that looks like at their end. That is what I am seeing.
That is a wrap for now. Get in touch with us at our website, www.WorkRevolutionPodcast.com. We would love to hear from you. That is it for now. We will catch you next time.
Take care, everyone.