Amy Bradley: Bridging the engagement divide in the hybrid workplace
Bringing your employees along requires more than just flexible work arrangements, writes Amy Bradley.
Over the past 18 months, our relationship with work has changed beyond recognition. Employees are now looking for more choice, flexibility and freedom than ever before and statistics show that if they don’t get what they want, they are prepared to vote with their feet.
Employers across all industries and job roles are currently facing mass resignations with 3.6 million US workers resigning in May 2021 alone. According to analysis by McKinsey, nine in 10 employers plan to combine remote and onsite working and in a survey of over 3,000 workers, 64% of them said they would prefer to work from home permanently over receiving a $30,000 pay rise.
However, to bring employees back from the brink, it requires more than just flexible work arrangements. Engagement in a hybrid workplace runs deeper than choices between how, where and when we work. In organisations where people feel that their work culture aligns with their values, they are able to bring their full selves to work. What’s more, they feel respected, supported and appreciated by colleagues, report higher levels of engagement and well-being.
So, how do you build and maintain engagement when you’re not together every day? Start by focusing on these core aspects of hybrid work:
Trust people to know how and where they work best
Engaged teams are characterised by deep levels of trust where team members have faith in one another’s skills and capabilities: they are all equally committed and accountable and there is a strong belief that everyone cares for and supports one another. This level of trust takes time to develop and requires compassion, empathy and self-disclosure. As a leader, pay attention to how you are setting an example in this regard. Research has shown that being warm and human as a leader builds trust. It is also important to get to know each team member, so that you consider the whole person and understand how, where and when they do their best work. It’s not just nice to be a nice boss; caring managers and caring colleagues are two of the most important predictors of employee engagement.
Establish and maintain your boundaries
When it comes to maintaining healthy boundaries between work and non-work, as the leader, you cast the longest shadow. Be mindful about how and when you communicate, especially if your team spans different time zones. Make sure you are role modelling a healthy balance and encourage team members to call each other out when their boundaries are slipping. When it comes to preventing burnout, it is profoundly important that you and your team recover well at the end of every workday, be it via leisure activities, getting into nature, doing some exercise, or spending time with family or friends. If employees fail to unplug, detach and recover from work every day, they are more likely to burn out in the long-term.
“As leaders, we have prioritised speaking over listening for too long. If you find yourself taking most of the airtime in team meetings, then you may need to re-adjust.”
Don’t inadvertently create a two-tier team
Pay close attention to how you foster equity and inclusion in your team. You don’t want a situation where those people who come into the office are first to hear of team or company announcements with remote workers left feeling excluded. Think carefully about how you share information and use channels of communication that are equitable. Also consider how you personally role model hybrid working, so that team members do not feel it is career limiting to work remotely. Consider all team meetings being either fully virtual or fully in-person so that everyone is on a level playing field. You might also re-think the purpose and use of your physical office space. One of the key reasons people go into the office is to socialise, so physical spaces can become places to be together and hang out, which builds cohesion. We know that the strengths of ties and quality of relationships between people is a cornerstone of engagement at work.
Take the opportunity to re-contract as a team every few months. In a hybrid working environment, it is easy to go off track when you’re not all co-located. In her book, Remote Work Revolution, Tsedal Neeley advocates for hybrid teams to ‘relaunch’ every few months to enable them to re-align, re-focus on shared goals and get clear about their contributions, resources and constraints. In this vein, it is also important to continuously reflect and learn as a team. You might ask yourselves: What is going well and what is not going so well for us when it comes to hybrid work? What are we learning? When do we need to come together as a team and when do we work best remotely? For example, research suggests that for work that requires deep integration of knowledge and intensive dialogue, this is best done face-to-face.
As leaders, we have prioritised speaking over listening for too long. If you find yourself taking most of the airtime in team meetings, then you may need to re-adjust. A powerful enabler of engagement is when employees feel their voice is being listened to and their ideas taken on board, so why not ask your team members what they would like you to keep doing, stop doing and improve on as their leader? Analysis shows that when hybrid working, leaders need to encourage dialogue and feedback at two speeds – the immediate and the long-term. Immediate and ongoing dialogue enables tweaks to be made, such as getting the balance right between teleconferencing and in-person meetings, so that team members are protected from Zoom overload. Longer-term feedback is about involving employees across the board at all levels to re-imagine together what a healthy hybrid workplace looks like.
Building and sustaining engagement in a hybrid world is certainly not easy. It needs constant attention and intention to manage well and requires starting from a place of empathy and understanding. Our approaches will have to change, since as a leader or manager, you can no longer rely on the signals and nuances that you might have once picked up by walking around the office.
Dr Amy Bradley is an IMI Associate and a programme faculty member on the MSc in Management Practice. She researches, writes, consults and speak on the topics of burnout, compassion and engagement at work.