Three ways to reconnect a hybrid workforce

| June 6, 2022

A client of mine recently returned to the office voluntarily, she had missed the connection of working from home five days a week. Her experience went like this: ‘The office was half empty, almost all my meetings were online, and when I was free everyone else was in meetings – either behind closed doors or on their headphones, so I didn’t get to reconnect at all.

I really could have saved myself the trouble, effort and expense, got more work done, connected just as effectively (aka not!) and done some things around the house! On balance – a waste of my day and I’m more disconnected than I was before.’ This is not an uncommon experience and it leaves people feeling that neither the office nor home will fulfil their need for human connection. It’s no wonder so many are reconsidering their employment.

There’s a heated debate about the best place to work – work from home (WFH) or work from office (WFO). If you’re in the middle of this tug of war, it’s time to drop it – you’re both right, and yet you’re both wrong. This isn’t an either / or scenario – it’s a new, 3rd Way of working that none of us have done before.

I can hear those that have worked from home for years saying ‘hang on, we’ve done it for years’. But before the pandemic only 20% of workers were WFH. That’s not really the definition of a hybrid workforce. Today, 71% of us are WFH according to PEW Research, and as that pendulum settles closer to 50/50 in the future, we will for the first time have a truly hybrid workforce rather than WFH being an adhoc minority that have to work around traditional WFO norms.

So what does that mean? It means that in practice, Hybrid is neither WFH nor WFO. Yet so many hybrid work practices and leaders are assuming it is one or the other, and making it difficult for the other half to connect with your choice. Apple went full WFH and is now 3 days a week in the office, and we hear complaints that when in the office, some leaders are still leading like it’s fully remote. Other organisations are pressing for a return to fully office-based working, and those that still WFH are complaining that their leaders are still leading like Covid never happened. Neither option works – as leaders, we have to fully commit to a brand new 3rd way of working.

What happens if we don’t? What happens if we allow individual leader preferences to so strongly flavour the experience of ‘the other half’? We are seeing it already – a significant dip in productivity and engagement.

  1. Productivity is dropping – A Microsoft study found that WFH has equal or higher productivity than WFO. ADP tells us full-time WFH workers were working a 6-day week in real hours, but this ‘performance’ is being slashed by commute time and renewed work/life boundaries
  2. Engagement has dropped for the first time in over a decade according to Gallup, despite an increase in our fulfilment at work according to Employment Hero.

We can’t just put 3 days of office working on top of 2 days remote working and assume that’s hybrid. Here’s what we can do:

  1. Pick your activity to match your location
  • WFH is great for task-oriented and focused thinking activities. This is why WFH advocates swear they are more productive at home – if this is what they do, then they are correct.
  • WFO is better for creative, collaborative and complex problem solving activities. This is why WFO advocates swear that meetings are more productive in person. It actually depends what that meeting is for.
  1. Decide what your meetings are for and request attendance accordingly

If you agree that some tasks are better suited to home and work, ensure your meetings are based around that insight:

  • If you need to get tasks done, get a project update, share information or make day to day decisions – book a fully online meeting.
  • If you need to solve complex issues, collaborate or negotiate priorities across a group – book an in person meeting.
  1. Create a team routine around those decisions

If you have a team WFO day, start out by making sure that’s a largely meeting free day so people can connect or use it for a big brainstorm and collaboration session. Start it with a coffee safari to encourage people to walk and talk broadly before getting into task-based conversations. This simple action will help us remember forgotten smalltalk skills, and rebuild trust organically – essential for reconnecting.

I’ll end on a question – have you recently started a meeting with a dose of smalltalk and maybe a laugh or two and then gone ‘right, we better get back to work’. As a leader, both of those things are the work now, so treat them with equal importance.