As companies transition to a hybrid model of combined remote and in-person work, leaders must ensure this new mode of working doesn't combine the worst aspects of the two.
After several fits and starts, most companies I've spoken with, including my own, have started a transition to some form of combined remote and in-person work. As a result, business travelers are returning to the airports, and offices are reopening their doors.
Many companies envision a new model for working that combines the best parts of remote work, with the greatest hits of in-person working. Some companies even suggest that individual employees can "choose their own adventure," working however they wish on a spectrum from 100% remote work to 100% in-person. This vision suggests that workers can maintain the best parts of remote work: additional time with family, reduced commuting times and flexible schedules, while adding in the productivity and social benefits derived from interacting with coworkers in three dimensions rather than a Brady Bunch-style grid of faces on a screen.
Hybrid work: An unmanaged utopia?
While the pandemic-driven transition to remote working was largely unplanned and hastily executed, it exceeded all productivity expectations. In most cases, employers found their employees as productive, or even more effective when working remotely, and anecdotal evidence suggests that was due partly to the always-on nature of remote working. We've all experienced days with back-to-back video calls, with nary a moment to even use the bathroom, and I've personally had an acute case of remote-working blues and found my colleagues share this combination of burnout, lack of motivation and frustration after weeks of lurching from one Zoom call to the next from morning until night.
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Despite well-intentioned admonitions from company leaders, an email extolling the virtues of "no meeting Mondays" doesn't do any good when the majority of the company happily gobbles up every free calendar opening, and no one has a plan to deal with clients and customers who don't care about your wellness policies. Moreover, the vision for a utopian future of work, where individuals happily select their preferred working style and the world magically adapts, is as flawed and foolishly optimistic as expecting an unsupervised child not to reach into the candy jar.
Shape the future, or it will shape you
I have yet to return to the airports and offices that I plied in the pre-pandemic environment, having traded 120+ annual flights and a similar number of hotel nights for the frequent pleasures and occasional challenges of working from home. However, a handful of my colleagues have ventured out to client sites and airports, and their initial reports are not favorable. The "remote work culture" has them scrambling away from the interpersonal interactions they aspired to create by jumping on an airplane to a hidden corner to catch that 3-hour block of Teams video meetings. Many report that they find themselves in an untenable position of trying to support a remote team that's come to expect around-the-clock access via video, and the focus and informal interactions that make an in-person gathering so valuable.
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While there is certainly a transition period required to debug this new style of work, we as leaders also need to actively create policies and examples of what is expected. Otherwise, our teams will interpret a lack of guidance as an expectation that not only is your smiling face expected to appear on a screen on-demand, but the rest of you is now physically expected to appear in locations around the globe.
Perhaps the easiest way to set these expectations is to model them in your behavior. Block time on the calendar for in-person meetings and travel time, and don't be that guy who constantly double-books your staff and expects them to scramble to adapt to your calendar for a non-urgent meeting. Decline routine meetings that are scheduled after hours, and rather than doing the humble brag routine about your 80-hour weeks, talk about how you purposefully take a walk or run for 60 minutes at mid-day to recharge.
Call out bad behaviors, and share your challenges, frustrations and successes as you rebalance in-person and remote working. Listen to your teams, and share the best ideas with your working group, and also relay these to senior leaders as they set organization-wide policies and procedures.
The opportunity to redefine the very nature of work is exciting and challenging, and a chance to leave a lasting legacy on your organization. However, a utopian working model that combines the very best of remote and in-person work will not happen by default, and will require strong leadership both in policy and in example.
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