In recent news that’s rattled workforce industry leaders, about 41% of talent across the globe are planning to hand in their resignations, according to the Microsoft report “The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?” Over half of those employees, at 54%, fall into the category of Generation Z. There are several factors analysts bandy about in attempting to rationalize the situation: the economy is steadily recovering from the pandemic, consumer confidence has strengthened, and workers feel they have greater choice in a market that’s starving for skilled labor. There is, however, a more distressing figure. Research from a Prudential survey of U.S. workers found that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn’t offer remote working on a long-term or permanent basis. Obviously, there’s a growing disconnect between the decision makers and the workforce. That’s why we need to examine the role of management in the future of hybrid work.
The Workforce Compromise for Our New Normal
As we wrote in May, the return to work conundrum has been complicated by the hasty, somewhat slapdash efforts of businesses to call everyone back to the office, leading to accusations of tone-deaf executives, broken promises, confusing policies, disingenuous appeals to “corporate culture,” and misleading statements about productivity.
In that same piece, we discussed a hybrid model of onsite and remote work as the best compromise, pointing out the elements of a solution that would continue to benefit company leaders and employees, even if it’s not the ideal that either party envisions. But we’re at a moment in time when nobody is necessarily going to have their cake and eat it too. If businesses try to strongarm a “butts in chairs” preference, their staffing shortages will soar. Workers have much resolve now, and their willingness to walk away is strong. That said, if most companies adopt a hybrid approach, workers may find themselves struggling to locate a place that will honor full-time telework at the level of compensation they expect.
This crossroads likely indicates that hybrid work may represent the course of our new normal. But even with a policy in place, a lot of businesses have simply relied on determining schedules as the whole of this structure. And that won’t be enough. We have to anticipate problems, assess existing conditions (both conflicts and improvements that occurred during the pandemic’s remote working period), and put together a best practices approach to maintain a happy, equitable, and inclusive culture.
Ants in the Sugar: Identifying the Potential Pitfalls of Hybrid Work
Nicholas Bloom, writing for the Harvard Business Review (HBR), covered the controversial topic of how much choice employees should have in their schedules under a hybrid work from home (WFH) structure. He addressed a few major concerns that all companies should consider.
“One concern is managing a hybrid team, where some people are at home and others are at the office,” Bloom noted. “I hear endless anxiety about this generating an office in-group and a home out-group.” He used the example of a company meeting in which some workers participated in person while others attended virtually:
“Employees at home can see glances or whispering in the office conference room but can’t tell exactly what is going on. Even when firms try to avoid this by requiring office employees to take video calls from their desks, home employees have told me that they can still feel excluded. They know after the meeting ends the folks in the office may chat in the corridor or go grab a coffee together.”
Although remote talent prefer this arrangement, Bloom’s illustration makes a valid point. What if the WFH folks start to feel as though their in-office colleagues are keeping secrets from them or gossiping? Continuing for a long stretch of time, and left unchecked by management, this behavior can instill a sense of conspiracy and paranoia, which tears a cohesive culture apart. Mistrust, exclusion, and broken bonds will erode a team rapidly.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging
Another risk is the threat to DEIB efforts. “It turns out that who wants to work from home after the pandemic is not random,” Bloom explained. “In our research we find, for example, that among college graduates with young children women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men. This is worrying given the evidence that working from home while your colleagues are in the office can be highly damaging to your career.”
Bloom cited findings from a 2014 study he conducted, where his team “randomized 250 volunteers into a group that worked remotely for four days a week and another group that remained in the office full time. We found that WFH employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to their office colleagues.”
This situation creates a sort of “WFH promotion penalty,” and managers in the study confided to Bloom that remote teams got passed over because they were “out of touch” with the office. Whether that was true or not, the perception is the reality.
“Single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, who choose to WFH for several days each week are held back. This would be both a diversity loss and a legal time bomb for companies,” Bloom wrote.
One would reasonably imagine that issues of harassment or discrimination would fade with more people working from home. In a New York Times article on the subject, Leah Fessler demonstrates that this presumption would be wrong.
“What surprised many was the extent to which remote work made it easier for some employees to exert power over those who were comparatively vulnerable,” Fessler wrote. “That’s because the channels through which remote work occurs — text, phone, video — are often unmonitored, unrecorded or occur outside employer-sponsored platforms.”
Fessler spoke with Kalpana Kotagal, a partner at Cohen Milstein in the Civil Rights and Employment group, who said that instances of “virtual harassment” had plagued many organizations during the pandemic:
“In an in-person office setting, bystanders can be ‘a source of protection if they are trained, able or brave enough to step up,’ Ms. Kotagal said. But working from home deprives us of witnesses; the colleague who may otherwise overhear an off comment in the office is not present when we’re on a call at home.”
Another DEIB leader, Jennifer Brown, mentioned that “since the start of the pandemic, employees have felt as if online environments are the Wild West, where traditional rules do not apply.”
Other firms have also provided data that depict actual increases in harassment during the 15 months of mass working from home circumstances.
- According to a Deloitte survey, Women at Work: A Global Outlook, 52% of women experienced some form of harassment or microaggression during the pandemic while working remotely. They admitted to confronting disparaging remarks about their appearance, attire, race, sexual orientation, caregiver status, and communication style.
- The same report showed that women of color and L.G.B.T.Q. women were significantly more likely to experience these non-inclusive behaviors.
- Research from Project Include found that 25% of respondents experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic; 10% experienced an increase in racism; and 23%, who were age 50 or older, encountered a spike in ageist comments.
Hybrid WFH Success Comes Down to Solid Management
Managers who want folks back at the brick-and-mortar may reference issues such as virtual harassment for their desire to end telework. But that still begs a big question: what were they doing during the pandemic that allowed bad actors to flourish? I suspect the answer is “not much.” And if, as suggested by the DEIB experts quoted in the New York Times, harassment is more easily contained or curtailed by other coworkers who serve as defenders or witnesses, we still have the unaddressed question about management’s role in stanching exclusionary or discriminatory behaviors. This was a problem before COVID-19, which persisted throughout the outbreak.
In Microsoft’s report, Dawn Klinghoffer, head of people analytics, pointed out that managers may also be the remedy to the hybrid WFH issues:
“To improve team connection, especially during the uncertainties of the shift to hybrid work, managers matter more than ever. We found that when managers stepped in to help teams prioritize, feel productive, and maintain work life balance, employees felt more connected to one another,” Klinghoffer said.
Managers, even with teleworking employee populations, must be present, foster collaboration, referee debates, engage remote talent, and promote a supportive, inclusive environment.
Concentrate on the core. Team connection isn’t the result of social events, even in a virtual world. Throughout the pandemic, too many organizations narrowly focused their efforts on culture building by forcing talent to endure video happy hours or other digital events that experts say went over poorly and led to disengagement. Off-site and informal meetings that bring all the workers together would fare better. However, the fundamentals should be the core concentration for managers attempting to get a handle on hybrid WFH: prioritization on productivity, work-life balance, inclusion, team support, collaboration, and maintaining strong, interactive communication between all employees, wherever they are.
Oversee onboarding. As Microsoft advised, “Make sure employee onboarding systems do not rely solely on onboarding buddies and other peer support. Position managers as the first line of support for those who are new to the company.”
Listen. Managers will have a heightened role in the hybrid model, and they’ll need to actively listen to their workers in order to gain insights that will help develop best practices processes in a more digital world. They will need to translate those insights into resources, training, and the increased care that employees will require in hybrid or remote arrangements.
Manage. Supervisors will need to remain more aware of the conversations taking place between onsite and offsite personnel to ensure that virtual harassment or feelings of alienation are curbed. That could take many forms: auditing conversations, enforcing rules to prevent gatherings that exclude those working remotely, having people buddy up on calls to provide for witnesses, or more. They also need to rely on data. Talent who are teleworking should not incur a “promotion penalty” by default. Their performance and productivity should be measured by data against their peers or established metrics. If the excuse is that WFH folks are out of touch with the office, it’s the manager’s responsibility to be communicative and transparent to help keep them in touch with the office—just as it’s the workers’ responsibility to actively solicit feedback and remain attuned to the office.
Scheduling. As Bloom opined in Harvard Business Review, allowing employees to select their own schedules for hybrid days may not solve the challenges. He recommended that “managers should decide which days their team should WFH. For example, if the manager picks WFH on Wednesday and Friday, everyone would come in on the other days. The only exceptions should be new hires, who should come in for an extra office day each week for their first year in order to bond with other new recruits.” The benefit of this, despite the expectation of push back, is encouraging coordination by ensuring that teams who work together regularly have at least two days of overlap in the office.
As with any hybrid creation, it’s difficult to gauge what the results will be once the creature is set loose, so to speak. Success will demand diligent observation, analysis, attention, and ongoing support. When workers are remote, they and their managers must still remain present.