Moving to hybrid: the 6 types of manager

As organisations start to seriously consider not just whether hybrid is desirable but how to make it work in practice, it is time to think about the stakeholders. And right at the top of that list, is people managers.  Before the pandemic, managers were just one of the barriers to flexible working acceptance and availability.  But where are we now and what are managers currently thinking? 

I’m suggesting that there are six types of manager when it comes to flexible and hybrid future working models. When it comes to planning for whatever comes next, we need to take into account each one of them.

The ‘Get Back to the Office’ Manager

A die-hard micro manager, the last year has been very difficult for this particular manager.  They have hated every aspect of working from home and cannot wait to reclaim their office and all that they associate with it.  They need separation between work and home, and assume that everyone else works the same way that they do.  Even if the company is saying hybrid, this manager is telling his team on the DL not to ask as it won’t apply to them.  Everyone in this manager’s team needs to join them on the 9-5.

The ‘Had a Revelation’ Manager

Formally flex reluctant and quite likely to have turned down a flexible working request or two in their time.  Previously worried about ‘setting a precedent’ or whether people would spend their working hours watching daytime TV, this manager is now the ultimate convert. They love working from home.  They have totally recognised the benefits.  They are converted. They are ready to implement new ways of working. Yesterday.

The Reluctant but Accepting Manager

Has read the all headlines and the surveys.  Isn’t personally a fan of flexible or hybrid working. Would really prefer everyone comes back to the office for most of the time.  Will follow the policies and processes.  If they have to. They might sigh a bit while doing it though.

The Flex Denier

Has seen the headlines about what employees want, but isn’t convinced it applies to their business.  Doesn’t believe that people will really leave their job to go work some place more flexible.  At least no one that works for them anyway.  Thinks that organisations are taking it a bit far, and all this hybrid stuff will blow over in a few months. Won’t move too fast.

The Hybrid Cynic

Knows people want it, knows the organisation wants to implement it, but just doesn’t believe that it can work in practice.  Concerned about the implementation.  The ongoing management.  The operational impact. How to make it fair, how to communicate, how to make sure that the jobs get done.  Will find the barriers, and may be a blocker. Likely to encourage their team to be in the office as much as possible.

The ‘What’s All the Fuss About’ Manager

Worked flexibly BC (Before Covid). Encouraged their team to do so.  Understands the benefits. Didn’t understand why some people were so against it.  Sees the move towards hybrid as natural and sensible. Will advocate, encourage and support.

This blog post is slightly tongue in cheek.  Slightly.

But each of these opinions and viewpoints exist to some extent in every organisation, at every management level in the hierarchy. The successful implementation of new ways of working depends on having a strategy for each of these perspectives, and the actions that will follow them. We need to hear fears and concerns, share benefits and businesses cases, challenge constructively, monitor and measure…. and perhaps occasionally move around the barrier.

We need to talk about presence

For many knowledge workers, work has largely been remote for more than a year now.  ‘Being seen’ in the current context mostly means appearing on a Zoom screen.  The somewhat less healthy side of being seen is of course the late night email, or the out of hours response to a Team message. 

Presenteeism has been a problem forever.  According to this research by Deloitte, presenteeism cost UK employers between £27bn to £29bn every year.  In that context, they are focusing on the costs of people attending work whilst ill, but it’s not the only form of needing to be seen that causes problems.  There’s leavism too – employees feeling like they need to keep in touch and deal with work matters when on some form of leave, whether that is holiday, TOIL or family leave. 

There’s also another form of presenteeism. A particularly problematic form of presenteeism, especially when it comes to inclusion and wellbeing. The one that is about face time in order to get on and progress. Needing to be seen in order to be thought well of, rewarded or recognised.

In flexible working research we often talk of the ideal worker norm. The right sort of chap (because it often is easier for men to comply) who puts the time in and does not have any of this pesky family or life stuff to call him away from his office based endeavours. Ideal workers can be seen; remote and flexible workers, not quite as much.

We are all talking hybrid right now.  And this ‘face time’ form of presenteeism is going to present us with new challenges.  All too often we conflate presence with performance.  We assume that those who are at their desk, putting the hours in, are doing good work. Unconscious biases are at play in how we judge the performance and attitudes of the people we work with.  Proximity bias is just one of them; our tendency to favour what we are closest too in time or space.  With proximity bias, there is the potential for managers to favour or default to those that are in the office, and exclude those who are working from home or working different hours. Maybe those in the office will get more information or access to better projects or opportunities. Maybe they will just be assigned ‘ideal worker’ status.

Pre-pandemic research has identified the problems that can arise when employees don’t get enough face time.  When they are not as seen or as present as others. This research was often undertaken in the context of completely remote employees, geographically distant from the main office location. The data shows that managers are influenced by who they can see, and unconsciously assign positive traits to them.  This is magnified when that visible presence takes place outside of normal working hours.  These workers are seen as more committed, dedicated, dependable. I especially like this quote from one of the research papers:

You only need to be observed at work.  No information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it’.  (Elsbach and Cable, 2012). 

What does this all mean for the potential future of hybrid work?  Bottom line, you get credit for being in the office.  There’s a risk therefore that those who are physically present in the workplace more regularly will be judged more favourably, especially when it comes to reward and recognition. New data out this week from the ONS also demonstrates this.  They found that people who mainly worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other workers between 2012 and 2017 and people who mainly worked from home were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus compared with those who never worked from home between 2013 and 2020.

We may end up with a number of inclusion issues in the future as a result of these particular biases and beliefs.  Those who cannot come into the office as much (possibly including those with caring responsibilities or employees living with disabilities) will lose out. So will those who request or need a very fixed hybrid pattern (such as parents, to accommodate childcare routines).  Being in the office might become a sign of dedication and commitment – with the accompanying rewards.

What is the answer to this? Unfortunately there is no simple or quick solution.  We can educate managers on the potential for unconscious bias when assessing the performance of remote and hybrid staff.  We can also monitor reward, recognition and promotion programmes to identify any issues that might be occurring.  Finally, we need to manage performance on contribution, outcome and results – and put this at the centre of manager training.  Where possible, include 360 degree or peer to peer feedback in performance evaluations too (but noting that bias doesn’t just reside with managers, but colleagues too). 

And finally….. if getting seen is the key to career and financial rewards, employees who work from home regularly should probably consider sending emails late at night, putting in some visible hours over the weekend, and responding promptly to messages and notifications, wherever or whenever they are, in order to demonstrate their commitment. 

Oh, wait……. 

The big talent shift? Another blog post on flexible and hybrid work.

There’s been a lot of talk about shifts this last year or so.  The shift to homeworking.  The predicted shift to hybrid.  The unprecedented (of course) shift to online meetings.

I think we should expect another.  The big talent shift. 

I’m going to go old school theory for a minute.  Henry Mintzberg in ‘Power In and Around Organisations’ said that every participant within a system has three options at any one time.  These options are:

Exit – leave

Voice – stay and change the system

Loyalty – stay and work as expected

So if we aren’t happy with our workplace lot, we can resign and go someplace else that might be better, advocate to make a change which may or may not work out, or stay and put up with it. 

In the past, there was a problem with adoption of flexible working.  The tech was there.  Remote working was perfectly possible.  The experts had been predicting it for decades (Charles Handy was talking about it in 1983, pondering at the same time why British Rail didn’t also put ‘terminals’ on trains).  Despite the many ‘the future is remote’ predictions, the innovation adoption curve was progressing at a snails pace.  We were stuck at the early adopter stage.  Employees who wanted flexible working therefore had the same three choices Mintzberg proposed.  Stay and put up with it.  Argue for change (good luck with that). And finally, leave. But the companies offering flex were then still few and far between, and the options elsewhere limited).  So most people went for the stay and put up with it option, perhaps hoping that one day they’d work for a more enlightened manager that might just step outside the 9-5.

Reader, like so much else since March 2020, this too has been disrupted.  Every day, another company is stating that their future is remote.  That their people will only need to come into the office for some of the week.  The ‘leave’ option just got much, much more realistic.

According to new research from McKinsey, 30% of respondents to a recent survey said that they would consider looking for a new employer if they were required to return to the office full time. This isn’t the only research looking at the possibility of future moves.  New data from Microsoft indicates that 41 percent of the global workforce is likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with 46 percent planning to make a major pivot or career transition.

For me, this is part people wanting more flex, and part people wanting a whole different life.  I’ve blogged about this before.  How living through something so huge, so significant – and what the academic literature calls a ‘crucial life experience’, changes our intrinsic motivations.  How we may be fundamentally changed after the event, seeking new purpose and meaning from our lives and our work.  

I believe these forces may combine.  The personal desire for something different, the realisation that remote is not only possible but preferable, the possibilities delivered by remote in terms of where and how we live, plus the increasing availability of flexible working.  Together, these may lead to more leavers and movers.  A sizeable talent shift.  Even in the face of general uncertainty and economic instability, employees making new choices and deciding staying and putting up with it, is no longer an option.

Those companies that are not seriously considering remote or hybrid strategies, face a serious talent risk.

This is just one more thing for HR and business to add to the list of things to consider in the weeks and months ahead.  Retention, engagement, talent acquisition – and what these look like in a post pandemic, more flexible, world. 

Blurred lines? Another post on flexible and hybrid work post Covid-19

I have seen a lot of talk about blurred lines of late. How the pandemic enforced homeworking has blurred previously clear(ish) distinctions between work and home. Although before Covid-19 there were plenty of people that had worked from home at least some of the time, those that worked remotely permanently were in the minority. Homeworking had never taken place on the scale it has since March 2020.

Although we are all living through the same pandemic, we are experiencing it differently. How, or to what extent it impacts upon us varies, both personally and professionally. Work life balance is just one example of this. For some, the absence of a commute has led to overall work life balance improvement, with more time for exercise, family or life in general. For others, the grind of trying to balance work and family (especially for those undertaking home-schooling) has led to significant wellbeing and balance issues.

The idea of blurred lines between work and home is nothing new. Technology has been driving this trend for years, ever since office equipment went portable and we all got ourselves a smart phone. The potential of homeworking to lead to reduced work life balance is nothing new either – prior to the pandemic research suggested that it could lead to work extensification (longer working hours, with a tendency by employees to work during what would have been their commuting hours) as well work intensification – employees working harder at home as they felt that they owed their employer additional effort as some sort of thank you for flexibility.

Laptop On Bed Near The Balcony
Image from pexels.com

There are a number of factors at play right now, related to these blurred lines. One is that we have more people working from home, many of whom had never worked from home in the past. This means that they had little knowledge of those work life balance techniques that can support healthy homeworking. We also have to contend with a huge rise in online meetings, leading to what we now refer to as ‘Zoom fatigue’ (interesting research on that here). Thirdly, many of us do not currently have a commute to support the mental transition from one state to another (work to home, home to work). Even though commuting can long and stressful, commutes also serve a purpose. They provide a gap, a space, in which we can decompress. We also use them to engage in other activities; reading, listening to music, calling a friend. This is lost when the transition amounts to closing a laptop. Finally, we are back to tech again. Working tech is ever present in our homes. Frankly, before the pandemic lots of people didn’t use all the tech that was available to them. My working from home days in the pre-pandemic world used to be meeting free because many colleagues had never heard of Zoom or used MS Teams chat. Increased skills, more channels in use and more people using them – this all leads to increased interruptions including those outside of so-called normal office hours.

When it comes to blurred lines, these are more of a problem for some than others. There’s some interesting research into work life balance (here’s an example) that talks about the different types of working styles and preferences. At one end of the spectrum there are those that need significant separation between the work and non work aspects of their lives. We can assume that those folk have found this last year long and hard, and the great work from home experiment may well have led to increased levels of stress. At the other end are the integrators. Those that generally have the work and non work stuff combined most of the time anyway. They might have their work email on their personal phone, check emails on holiday or be relaxed at swapping between work and family activities. These individuals may well have been much more comfortable with enforced homeworking.

So when we talk of blurred lines, we should not assume that this is something everyone is experiencing.  We should also note that there are many issues at play when it comes to working from home, and the idea of blurred lines may itself be blurred by mixing the concept with related challenges such as too many online meetings and too much tech. 

As many businesses contemplate a more flexible future, these issues need to be in the mix.  We went to work from home in an emergency, without many of the things that would have been planned for and organised if remote had been a intentional business strategy.  Helping people understand how homeworking can lead to poor wellbeing outcomes (for some) and how to avoid those outcomes, how to manage transitions and boundaries, and how to effectively and mindfully switch off – these are skills that we now need to retrofit.   

We should also remember that working from home does not necessarily lead to blurred lines, and blurred lines do not necessarily lead to reduced wellbeing.  Like most work stuff, it is contextual – and very personal. 

The foundations of hybrid working

I’ve been thinking about hybrid working. Again.

In this post I am going to collect my thoughts about what needs to be in place organisationally for hybrid to flourish. This is of course in addition to having a policy or set of guiding principles. I have written about that here.

I’ve collected these thoughts into this model.

In the centre, trust.  When it comes to hybrid working, this is the heart, the bedrock. Without it, hybrid will never truly deliver.  Before the pandemic too many people believed that remote working was not possible.  That the outcome would be reduced productivity our outright skiving.  We have learned differently this last year. That does not however mean that the desire for control within organisations has disappeared.  We should trust the people we work with unless we have a very good reason not to – but this is often not our default position. From the days of Taylor we have monitored and measured. We’ve been Theory X and not Theory Y.  It is time to trust.

Supporting the centre….

  1. Communication.  With intention, with purpose. Moving beyond watercoolers.  Tailored to the needs of each team – agreements on when, where, how and what to communicate. Default online for meetings.  A shared responsibility for everyone.
  • Technology.  Hybrid is only viable if employees are equally effect in the office or at home.  Ease of connection to between people in different places.  It’s not the specific platform that matters, but making the most of it, and managing it too.  Helping everyone to use it fully. Absolutely must include asynchronous tools.
  • Outcomes based performance.  Not rewarding presenteeism.  Assessing performance with data, based on outcomes, results and contribution. Frequent conversations, clear objectives, regular feedback.  What we should have been doing all along, basically.
  • Inclusion. Making the most of hybrid to support inclusion.  Challenging flex stigma and bias. Including everyone, wherever they are.  Focusing on fairness.
  • Energy and wellbeing.  Managing boundaries and balance.  Considering digital wellbeing and healthy screen habits.  Helping people to work productively, using their energies and the right time, and in the right place. 
  • Meaningful face-time. Being intentional about going into a workplace – not carrying a laptop just to do virtual work in a physical location, but using this time for collaboration and relationships. Redesigning spaces to facilitate collaboration and support different forms of work.

Together, these elements create a new culture.  One in which hybrid working can flourish…. And we can make change for the better.  If I may paraphrase my friend Neil Usher… hybrid isn’t going to be easy. But it will be worth it.

Where hybrid goes wrong (and how to stop it)

When it comes to hybrid, we are all learning as we go.  There are few precedents of ‘true’ hybrid to follow, although there are plenty of experiences of 100% remote and folk who worked the occasional Friday from home in the old days (by which I mean before March 2020).  As the good practice emerges, what potential problem areas should we be mindful of?

Communication

Problem: People don’t know what they need to know, when they need to know it.  Those in the office have more access to information than people working remotely.  Knowledge isn’t being shared.

Solution: Hold all meetings online so that everyone can attend and contribute equally.  Include asynchronous tools in the communication mix – create online spaces or groups for collaboration and discussion.  Make it clear that communication is a shared responsibility for everyone.  Set team communication principles (how we share our location and presence, what channel we will use for what, when and how we will meet).

Wellbeing

Problem: Wellbeing declines during periods of working from home.  Employees work longer hours, don’t take breaks, get Zoom fatigue or spend too much time on screen.

Solution: Provide training on maintaining effective work life balance, boundaries and healthy digital habits.  Send regular messages to employees about maintaining wellbeing when working from home.  Train managers on wellbeing too – and encourage them to be good role models.  Challenge that everything has to be a meeting – this is another reason to embrace asynchronous tech tools.

Technology (you are on mute!)

Problem: Some people are still finding it difficult to use the technology needed for hybrid working. The right technology isn’t available – or there is tech overwhelm.  Too much Zoom, too many notifications and multiple channels.

Solution: Don’t assume that everyone knows what they are doing now they have been working from home for a year or so.  Some people will have learned the minimum to get by, assuming they will go back to the office and face to face interactions.  Go back and do the training (or repeat it). The specific platform isn’t what matters, that will just change anyway as stuff moves on. It’s about helping people to use what there is.  Encourage teams to pick specific tech for specific tasks (e.g. Zoom for meetings or Slack for discussions) – and don’t let them proliferate.

Isolation or Exclusion

Problem: Some employees, especially those who are working more of their time from home, are finding themselves excluded from conversations or meetings, or simply lonely. 

Solution: See all the suggestions on communication and collaboration.  Ensure everyone has a voice, and don’t hold mixed meetings (partially face to face and partially remote) – they don’t work. Don’t call face to face meetings at the last minute (some will find them harder to comply with) and train managers on ensuring that hybrid working is inclusive. Challenge bias and negative language about hybrid work and hybrid working.

Reduced collaboration / relationships

Problem: There are no water cooler conversations taking place.  Relationships will suffer, connections are weakening.

Solution: Move beyond watercoolers (did you ever invent a new product there, or just make awkward small talk while waiting for the other person to move?).  Create time for people to get together regularly and make the most of that time. When people are in the office don’t just have them working in offices sending emails but set time aside for deliberate, intentional time together.  Support new starters with buddies and mentors. Where appropriate, build in some informal social stuff too.

Uncommitted Managers

Problem: Managers who want people to come back to the office pronto.  They believe people who want flex aren’t as committed to their jobs and send messages to ignore company policies about requesting hybrid working (or just turn them all down).

Solution: Start with a statement from the CEO / Senior Team – share your strategy for future flex and hybrid. Make sure that any new approaches are clearly communicated across the organisation.  Set out a policy or guiding principles for hybrid working, including a definition and eligibility criteria.  Include oversight in your operational plans and monitor requests (and their outcomes). Train managers in the new approaches – and make their responsibilities clear.  If you feel brave – declare roles (all or those that can) as suitable for hybrid, removing the request issue entirely.

Concern about the worst case scenario

Problem: Hybrid might not work.  It may have to be removed, or contractual changes reversed.  It will cause operational issues that cannot be overcome. Employees will be disappointed.

Solution: Treat hybrid as a trial, experiment or pilot.  Don’t change terms and conditions of employment and encourage employees not to make request for formal/permanent changes – yet.  Monitor successes and challenges – adapt and change your approach as necessary. Issue any policies, principles and guidance as interim documents and be clear with your people this is shared learning experience. 

Skiving

Problem: When people are working from home they will not do any work and watch Homes Under the Hammer instead.

Solution: Tell them not to watch Homes Under the Hammer. Introduce monitoring software that demonstrates you don’t trust your people. (Note: don’t actually do that. There is no evidence that people skive when working from home, in fact evidence suggests that productivity increases). Challenge this language when it arises, in every form.

There will be more problems to come from hybrid working (or our plans for it) – ones that we haven’t thought of yet or will only become apparent when these new ways of working we are planning for truly begin.  Be prepared to experiment and learn as you go.  Encourage feedback, share learning and address new challenges as they arise.  This is the key to successful hybrid working. 

Hybrid. When it’s a necessity not a choice.

Everyone is talking about hybrid working. 

It’s the subject of most of my working conversations these days – as well as my blogs.  Many organisations are thinking about their long term strategies for flexible and hybrid working, and starting the process of making plans.

Here’s the thing.  Whatever your long term strategy, you are probably going to get hybrid whether you want it or not, at least for a while. 

The government has set outside its roadmap for the end of lockdown.  Although the dates are fluid, there’s an indicative date of 21st June where the ‘work from home if you can’ recommendation will end.  I don’t think any of us expect that on that day we are all going to troop back to the office en masse, packing back onto trains and buses and tubes – but it may be the beginning of a slow, phased return, at least for some.

We are going to go hybrid by necessity rather than design.  This is both potentially good and potentially bad.

Let’s start with the good.  We can use this period to learn about what works and what does not.  There are few precedents about hybrid working – the ‘how to’ is yet to emerge.  We can adapt and experiment. It will also to some extent, force the issue with reluctant line managers who are personally opposed to flex because of their own prejudices or preferences. 

Now the problems.  This won’t be ‘true’ hybrid. Some people may not be able to come back to the workplace at all if they still don’t have childcare or remain vulnerable.  We don’t yet know the full implications of Long Covid; continued working from home may be an adjustment that some people experiencing ongoing health issues need.  We may well end up with a situation where some people are still fully at home and others mostly in the office.  There are real inclusion risks in this.  If there are going to be communication issues, this is when they will first show up. Managers are going to potentially be faced with the need to adapt to whole new ways of working a year after being faced with the need to adapt to whole new ways of working.

When it comes to this particular form of (hopefully interim) hybrid, we are likely to get what we expect.  Those who think hybrid isn’t a good idea and will cause all sorts of problems and issues, will probably find this to be the case.  This will handily provide the evidence they need to ask everyone to return to the default working model post pandemic.  Those who think hybrid is the future and is going to be awesome will likely have their beliefs confirmed too – possibly because they will put in the effort to make it a success. 

We know how to do fully remote, even though it was mostly learned in an emergency.  We certainly know how to office because we did it for long enough.  But hybrid is another huge shift.  We can’t just prepare for the long term stuff (although that is also essential), we need to think about getting it right in the immediate term too. Otherwise any short term problems may undermine future plans and intentions.

Manager briefings, support for communication, working out who will be in the office and when, ensuring homeworkers aren’t excluded from the conversation, training and tech.  The time to start planning, for both immediate and long term hybrid, is now.

And just in time… here comes a new guide to hybrid from the CIPD with some ideas. 

It’s not about working from home

We have all become familiar with the headlines in the last year.  That post pandemic, a significant number of employees want to work from home for at least some of the time.  Employer responses to the so-called ‘great home working experiment’ have been mixed.  From telling people that they can work from home forever to saying it is an aberration that must be corrected, we have seen both ends of the spectrum and a fair bit in in between.

Hybrid is the new thing replacing the last new thing.

But what is at the heart of this desire for working from home, really?

It’s not like working from home has been easy.  For many, especially working parents, it has been anything but.  Working from home was, especially in the early stages, an adrenaline fuelled emergency.  Learning new ways of working whilst living with the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, amidst the backdrop of constant, fear provoking news and restrictions.

As the pandemic continued, we endured.  From overwhelm to burnout.

Isolation. Zoom fatigue.  Back backs from the dining chairs. More school closures.

Bereavement.  Ill-health.  Long Covid.

Tiers and tears.

Opening up and locking down again.

The crushing complexity of a whole long year.

And still. 

Amidst all of that, we have found many benefits in working from home.  More time for exercise or cooking, quality time with family or significant other, avoiding stressful and expensive commutes, freedom from the 9-5, increased productivity.  The benefits we have found have been many. 

This is what stands out for me, every time I see another headline, another survey, another reference to hybrid.

Just why do we want to work from home, behind those initially identified advantages? I think that there a couple of things at play here.

The first, is perhaps that this is just a signal of how broken the default working model was BC (Before Covid).  Not just the Monday to Friday 9-5, but the reliance on the physical workplace – even if we went there to do mostly virtual work.  The way that we conflated (and still do) presence and performance.  How being seen equaled getting ahead.  Our hard wired beliefs too, about who is a good worker, the right sort of chap (a full time, long hours sort of chap of course).   The desire for hybrid is a push back against these ideas.  The sudden realisation that we had been conned all along.  That we didn’t need to go into the office all the time and for so many of us, so much of what we needed to do could be done from anywhere or any when.  Although we haven’t quite nailed the latter half of that sentence just yet.

But there is something deeper going on too. If you will forgive a little academic geekery, I have become fascinated by this paper (unfortunately not open access). My lay person’s summary of it goes a bit like this. When we go through a traumatic or other big life experience, it fundamentally changes us. It has the power to influence our values, our actions, how we think. It can force us to revaluate what we believe to be true. To deeply reflect. These crucial life experiences can lead to a turning point in our lives and our motivations. In particular, they change our intrinsic motivations – those things that we do because they are satisfying to us rather than because we may receive a gain in return.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink identified three basic intrinsic motivators; autonomy, mastery and purpose. There we see flexible working again. Because flex isn’t just about hours and location but choice. Choice that the office does not provide.

In the past few months I have heard about people leaving their secure job in the midst of economic uncertainty.  Starting a new business.  Deciding on a fundamental change of career.  Going back to studies. Deciding to hell with the office politics and their unsupportive manager and resigning.

I have a theory that we will see more of this.  More people in the months to come re-evaluating their working lives.  Rethinking those beliefs about work that we held to be true for so long.  Making big life stuff decisions and changes.

We want to work from home more; that is almost certainly true.  But I believe that this is a symptom.  It is how the desire to live and work differently is showing up in a practical action.  Something that is controllable, in the midst of much that is not. 

It is bigger than working from home.  Bigger than securing hybrid working or a little more flexibility.  It’s about purpose and about wanting more. More balance, more life. 

And for those of us in HR, when in the months to come, we look to devise our responses to the demand for flexible working post pandemic, we would be wise to reflect on this along the way. Hybrid working on its own will not solve all the problems of the old ways.

We need to think bigger, and better.

Flexible working post Covid-19: defining hybrid

There is no single approach to hybrid working.  As I have already talked about on an earlier blog post, each organisation will need to decide where it stands on the flexibility spectrum.  But it will need to go even further than that. Unless your workforce is homogenous and fairly small, you are going to need a category type approach that reflect different forms of hybrid working.

For example…..

In most organisations there will be some employees that can’t have hybrid working at all, and potentially many other forms of flexible working aren’t available to them either.  These are the roles that need to be undertaken in a specific location at a specific time. 

There will then be roles where there is room for some hybrid.  A significant amount of the work needs to be undertaken in a particular location (in non-pandemic, work from home if you can times).  Maybe employees can work from home on an occasional or ad hoc basis, but probably no more than once a week.

There will be roles where people can remotely without any need for pre planning or scheduling, and that lend themselves to total autonomy.  Conversely, there will be roles where this just won’t work for operational reasons, and instead will require structure or rotas about who is in and who is not.

Some roles will lend themselves to a 50/50 spit.  Others where the employee can work the vast majority of their time remotely and only come into the office one day a week or even less. Maybe there are even roles where a need to come into the workplace differs across the month or year. 

Finally, there will be roles that can be 100% remote and employees within them can truly work from anywhere.

If you want an example of a company who have already figured out their flexible working categories (which they call personas) check Zurich’s approach here.

When thinking about what you need:

  • Start by defining your broad hybrid categories.  What type of roles do you have? When do you need people in the workplace?  When and how do your people do their work?
  • Then figure out what specific roles at your organisation fit into those categories.  Include a broad range of examples to help people make sense of it and see how hybrid might work for them. 
  • Talk to your people to test your definitions and examples.

And then…. Challenge bias. 

Before the pandemic we had a whole load of assumptions and beliefs about homeworking, and this included (sometimes arbitrary) lists of roles that we thought could not possibly be done from home.  We need to make sure we don’t take this old thinking into a new future.  It would be all too easy to dismiss working from home as ‘something that happened during Covid’ and put employees into categories that are unnecessarily restrictive. 

The learnings from the last year are still emerging.  Hybrid (at scale) is also going to be about learning as we go.  Whatever categories you define may need to evolve, and the roles within them may flex over time too.

After categories comes a need for policies and principles….. I’ll blog about that subject very soon.

Flexible working post Covid-19: hybrid working policies

As I have already discussed in recent blog posts, it is now fairly well established that many employees want a more hybrid or blended approach to work in the future, with some time spent in the office and the remainder at home.  This will of course mean different things to different organisations and individuals.  There is no one single way to ‘do’ hybrid.  Even within one workplace there may need to be different forms and approaches depending on job role or operational requirements. 

If you are thinking about introducing hybrid working in the future, it is likely that you will need some sort of policy or a set of guiding principles setting out your intentions and providing information for both employees and people managers.

Organisational policies will need to reflect their specific context and circumstances but there are some areas that every policy needs to consider:

  1. Your own definition of hybrid working. Does hybrid mean a 50/50 split? Does it mean people can work from home on a Friday? Can it be used in conjunction with other forms of flexible working?  Does it mean that employees can decide for themselves each and every day where to work, or is this something that needs to be managed at a team level?  Start with defining what hybrid means for your organisation with your particular context.
  2. Eligibility. Who can have hybrid working?  Is it potentially for everyone, or are there roles where it just isn’t an option?  It is likely that in many organisations there will people that can work remotely and people that cannot.  Where people can, there will be further layers within this too.  Some roles may lend themselves to being almost entirely remote whereas others will demand a greater onsite presence.  Who will decide which role falls into which category?  Setting this at an organisational level will help to ensure consistency and fairness.  One option is a ‘job families’ type approach with clear descriptors. 
  3. Hygiene factors.  A policy or guidance should set out the organisation’s approach to the practical stuff.  Are you going to contribute to household expenses like heating and lighting?  Are you going to pay an employee’s broadband costs?  Will you be providing desks, chairs and screens?  Where an office or permanent workstation is also provided in the workplace an organisation may be reluctant to accept double costs. There are no hard and fast rules here, as long as health and safety requirements can be met. Once again, different approaches may be needed for different role types or teams. 
  4. Clear expectations. When it comes to hybrid working, everyone needs to know what is expected of them. When and how do people need to be contactable?  What are the requirements about when people have to come into the office?  What are managers expected to do around considering requests and managing performance?  Clarity at the outset will help to ensure new ways of working are successful. 
  5. Safeguards against bias.  Before the pandemic we know that people who worked flexibly were subject to a range of stereotypes, bias and stigma. I am sure that many readers will have known managers who turned down flexible working requests for their own reasons, including because they simply didn’t want people to work in that way.  Ideally, decisions about flexible working should be made by the employee’s immediate manager as they are familiar with the role requirements. However, there also needs to be oversight of decisions, especially when the organisation takes an informal approach to managing requests.  Without oversight employees may be unfairly denied the opportunity to work in a hybrid way.

The very varied nature of hybrid working mean that for the most part, the best approach will be to determine organisational wide principles, with teams empowered and supported to implement them as they see fit and for their particular needs.  There is much still to learn about hybrid working – keeping any new principles and ways of working under review is one more key to success. 

Flexible Working Post Covid-19: myth busting

The World Health Organisation has called this period ‘the great homeworking experiment’.  I call BS.  Experiments are planned for, controlled, organised. They usually also have an end date.  This is anything but an experiment in the true sense of the world.  It has however undoubtedly led to learning and reflection at both individual and organisational levels.  This learning, especially about remote working, has led to many organisations thinking about a more flexible future – and in particular how to meet the now established demand for blended and hybrid working. 

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring what is required if we really want to embrace flexible working post Covid-19.  In this post I will be exploring the role of myths and beliefs.  Since many of us went to work from home in March 2020, some of the old myths about work have been dismantled – namely that for the most it needed to take place at a specific location.  Other myths are unfortunately are being re-written for a new world.  I devoted a whole chapter to the myths and beliefs about flexible working in my book on the subject – I had hoped we might have moved past some of them, but my twitter feed and email inbox tells me we still have much more work to do. 

Here are the new and revised myths that I am hearing now. 

If we allow hybrid working, everyone will want to work from home on a Friday

Some people will want to work from home on a Friday.  Some will not.  This is a management and leadership responsibility.  Hybrid working doesn’t mean you have to create some sort of free for all where no one turns up to do the face to face stuff and no one communicates about where they are going to be and when.  This isn’t about creating a flexible working Wild West. You have to put the systems in place to make it work. This is part of the process and can easily be addressed and prevented. If we start from here, we are also suggesting we don’t trust our people to know and do what needs to be done.

It will set a precedent

Yep.  This is still being said.  This exposes a fundamental misunderstanding about people management, and about inclusion and fairness.  We don’t need to treat everyone the same. This isn’t some sort of legal get-out clause.  It doesn’t amount to equality.  This is the worst possible reason to refuse flexible working.  Lots of people might want something?  Great. There’s a lesson in that. So why not explore it?

And in other news.  People have been working from home for ten months at the time I am writing this.  I think this cat is out of the bag. The precedent has been set – in a good way.

I won’t know what people are doing and if they are performing

Over the last ten months or so I have spoken to many HR people.  I have presented at conferences, had conversations on Twitter and been to virtual networking events. I have not met a single HR person who says that their business is dealing with a tidal wave of skiving.  One or two performance issues maybe.  Some from people who were underperforming before all this.  But feet up on the sofa watching Homes Under the Hammer?  Not so much.

If you are unable to tell if someone is doing their job or not without watching them do it, this is a fundamental failure of leadership and management. 

Do better. Seriously. This myth deserves a hard no.

Too much remote working will have a negative impact on company culture

If cultures are weak, if efforts are not made to maintain relationships, if we ignore values and meaning and purpose, then maybe.  Culture does of course shift and evolve – it is not a static thing.  After all, culture is often described as ‘the way that things are doing around here’, and the way that things are done has for almost every organisation everywhere changed in some way during 2020.  But remote and hybrid working by themselves will not fundamentally kill strong organisational cultures.  Culture should be part of any remote and hybrid working plan.

It won’t work for our organisation / team / department

This has probably been said about every new invention ever. Six or seven years ago businesses were using this myth to explain to me why they didn’t need to use social media.  It is evidence of status quo thinking.  Sometimes, a fear response.  Fear of something unknown, different, maybe requiring new skills.  Same is safe.  It can be a route to mediocracy….or even extinction.  Two choices – hang back or get ahead.

You can’t build relationships effectively when everyone is remote

I have some colleagues I am currently working with closely that I have never met in real life.  They are entirely Zoom based relationships.  We are working together perfectly well – although I very much look forward to the day when we can finally go for a coffee in person and I can find out how tall they are. Relationships are about people, not places.

It benefits employees more than organisations.

This myth is a real problem.  Employees of course will see the personal benefits first and foremost.  They will see the financial savings, the reduction of draining commutes on shoddy public transport, more time for self or family.  The organisational benefits are also significant.  Inclusion, the gender pay gap, talent attraction and retention, employer brand, employee engagement – should I go on?  The case for hybrid working is not made everywhere yet.  Many managers want to reassert the old ways.  Clearly articulating the benefits of increased flexibility is part of the solution to this particular challenge. It also needs to be in the flexible working plan.

Everyone wants to work hybrid now

This one is a new myth.  It’s also not true.  Lots of people want to go back to the office and never work from home ever again.  That’s okay too. 

Some organisations will have their own myths. This stuff is often hired wired to our fundamental beliefs about work. What is is, how it should be done, what it means to be a good employee. Tackling myths means unpicking beliefs too. It also means changing our language, and calling out behaviour. Can we start with ‘only part time’?

If you want to embrace flexible working, myth busting needs to be on your plan. Start with the myths detailed here for many are universal, and then look out for the specific ones that arise at your place.

Finally, for anyone who wants to read more about the stigma or myths that existed around flexible working pre Covid, this academic paper is a good place to start. 

Flexible working post Covid-19 part 2: commitment and determination

This is the second in a series of blog posts about hybrid working post Covid-19, and how we might make it a reality.

Everyone wants hybrid working, so the surveys tell us.  The vast majority of people who have these hopes for a more flexible future have now been working from home for nine months – and there is no sign of them going back to the office any time soon.  It almost seems inconceivable at this point that we would all head back, five days a week.

But the signs are there, that we just might.  Employees may want flex – but are employers (and managers) really prepared to let them have it?

Prior to Covid-19, there was a lot wrong with office life and the way that many people worked (and commuted). The technology was available to support something else entirely, but most people weren’t using it.  All too often employees who wanted flexibility didn’t get it.  Sometimes that was down to organisational culture, sometimes the attitudes of individual managers. Do we really think this working from home interlude has changed things forever?

In the last few weeks I have had some interesting conversations with people, both in person and on Twitter.  I’ve heard of some frankly baffling examples.  Managers insisting their team spend all day logged into a Zoom call, complete with cameras on. Employees who have worked from home successfully throughout the pandemic being told they can ask for a trial of homeworking post Covid-19.  Others being told that, even though the organisation is talking about increased flexible working, it won’t be apply to their team so don’t bother asking. 

We would be naive to think that the micro-manager has had a revelation in the last year. Instead I believe they are just waiting – waiting to reassert the old normal at the earliest opportunity.  I am yet to hear from any HR professional that they are dealing with a tidal wave of skiving but if we had suddenly figured out that people work hard even when we can’t see them, there wouldn’t be so many discussions about remote monitoring software and ensuring productivity. 

Organisations who want to introduce hybrid or flexible futures have a couple of key issues and risks to consider:

  • Manager attitudes – at all levels.  Some managers and leaders will be fearful of change, of losing control, of what this might mean for their personal future.  Managers of hybrid and flexible teams need different skills – as well as the will to develop them. Some might not wish to do so.
  • Status quo bias (no, not the band). The preference for the way things are (or were a year ago).  Doing the same stuff is easier that doing new stuff.  If everyone goes back to the office there is no need to think about new policies, manager training, tech strategies, communication methods……  It involves much less effort.
  • Drift. Companies may start off with good intentions but will fall back into old habits and established neural pathways.  There will be just one meeting on the day you are normally remote that you just simply must attend face to face – and a few months later, everyone is back, every day.

These aren’t the only barriers that organisations will find themselves facing – but they are perhaps the most significant to reflect upon and plan for.

My first blog post in this series talked about strategy being the starting point – deciding just how flexible (and hybrid) you want be.  The next step is being determined to see it through.  Commitment in the face of the ‘it won’t around here’ attitudes, unwilling managers, and outdated beliefs about work.  So if you do want to introduce hybrid and flexible working post Covid-19, overcoming objections must be part of your plan.

Flexible working post Covid-19 part 1: the flexibility spectrum

This is the first in a series of blog posts about flexible working post Covid-19.  We all know that employees want to retain elements of flexible working (homeworking in particular) in the future.  The idea of a hybrid or blended approach is popular; employees spending some of their working time at home and some in the office, ideally with personal autonomy around how this works in practice.  

Today, many knowledge workers are still working from home and will continue to be for some months to come.  When this whole mess is finally over there will be two challenges for business.  First of all, how do we set up these new way of working?  Secondly, once they are in place, how do we make a more flexible future work in practice, ensuring effective management, engagement, communication, creativity and team working?

There are a wide range of considerations issues to work through – but the first decision for an organisation is deciding exactly where they want to be on the flexibility spectrum. 

Imagine a straight line, drawn on a page.

At one end is a formal flexible working policy setting out how flexibility will be managed.  At the other, total employee empowerment on working patterns. 

Let’s start with the formal stuff.  Many flexible working policies do nothing more than state the law. 26 weeks to make a request.  Three months to respond (including an appeal where one is offered).  One request in a rolling 12 month period.  And so on.  Sometimes there is a list of the different types of flexible working available.  Pretty much always the list of reasons a request can be turned down. Often these policies are accompanied by forms to complete, for the employee who wishes to make a request.

This approach has been around for years, but rarely amounted to true flexibility for employees.  Prior to Covid-19 the pace of flexible working adoption in the UK was described as glacial.  There were great companies doing great things around flex – but they remained in the minority.  The problem with formal flex is…. It just isn’t that flexible.  It is still process driven, manager controlled, operating within a structure that has time and hours worked at the centre. 

If post Covid-19, all organisations do is follow this same approach, with perhaps a few tweaks or an extra category or two, real change will not result.  Employees will not get the new deal that they crave.  These organisations run a very real risk that they will lose their talent to others who have taken a bolder step.

Let’s turn to the other end of the spectrum.  There, we see total empowerment.  Employees with complete freedom to choose when and where they work as long as they fulfil their job description.  What is sometimes described as a Results Only Working Environment, in which employees are judged only on their achievement and contribution.  There is no ‘can I work from home tomorrow please’, revised terms and conditions, forms to complete. There is no parent / child dynamic. 

This is the place of the truly brave.  For many, when they hear of such working environments, their first thought is ‘that wouldn’t work around here’.  For those who are curious to learn more, I recommend reading ‘A Year Without Pants’ by Scott Berkun and ‘Work Sucks and How to Fix’ It by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson.  The total empowerment approach cannot of course work everywhere; some work demands a physical presence or a specific time window. But it is more possible than many people believe.  A year ago if we’d asked the same people whether their organisations could be run remotely, the same people would have said no.  And yet here we are.

The first decision for any organisation to make is this: where do you want to be on the flexibility spectrum?  How ambitious are you going to be?  How much change will you make?

Everything else flows from there. 

What policy you need, what systems, manager training and accompanying structures.  How to performance manage, reward and recognise, collaborate and create. 

There are some organisations who will be satisfied to stay at the formal end. They will keep their policies, and their own particular version of the new normal might amount to allowing employees to make a request for the occasional work from home day.  Others may be wondering why they need that corporate, city centre head office and be thinking about a remote first future.

From this decision, we can decide what comes next, what needs to be in place.  In the next blog post in this series I will be exploring the necessary policy and principles to support flexible, blended work.  

But for now, back to that imaginary line.  Where will you stand?

Not working 9-5

Remember that old joke about going to a meeting that could have been an email?

Well, we’re still doing it.

Nine months after many of us went remote, although it might feel like we have adopted whole new ways of working, in many respects all we have really changed is where work is currently taking place.

The how – not so much.

All those unnecessary meetings are still happening, it’s just that they are now on Zoom or Teams. 

Progress meeting, project meetings, status updates, actions and minutes and agendas and apologies. The office bureaucracy remains.

Although the last nine months have often been referred to as a great homeworking experiment, we are not experimenting as much as we should. We have introduced location flexibility because we were forced to, but adaption and experimentation hasn’t gone far enough.

From training courses to the Christmas party, since March 2020 we have embraced the virtual. What we haven’t yet embraced, is asynchronous working.

Some work has to be done at a specific place. Some work has to be done at a specific time. Prior to Covid-19 many organisations would have told you that lots of the work of their employees had to be done in the office – but they have had that particular bias unconfirmed. Now we turn to the next one; that to work effectively we must do so at the same time.

Sometimes, conversation matters. Sometimes, to collaborate and create we need to come together, discuss, engage and share. But sometimes, we can just get on with stuff when we want. We don’t have to work 9-5. It is a tradition, a hangover from the days when we all needed to all turn up at the factory gate at the same time because that widget we were making, we made together. Instead, we can, if we want to, work around not only our other commitments and responsibilities but our own personal rhythms, timezones and patterns.

My own research has demonstrated to me just how freeing working from home has been for some people. I’ve had people tell me how they have realised that they work better in short bursts and with small breaks rather than the office standard 3.5 hours followed by an hour lunchbreak. Others have discovered their preferences for a very early start or how their productivity and creativity comes to life late at night.  We are each of us different in our styles and preferences but the 9-5 assumes that one size fits all. It doesn’t. But despite this, the plethora of articles about employers undertaking remote surveillance to make sure people are working at an any given moment tells us we are still wedded to the arbitrary idea of the working day. 

Just like with location flexibility, the technology that can enable us to work asynchronously is available and has been for a long time. Similarly, it isn’t usually availability that is a barrier to use, but will and skill. If we have all figured out how to have a remote meeting, we can also figure out how to collaborate and share at different times as well as in different places.

There is a course a note of caution. In a society that so often glorifies busy and in which the immediate response is the expectation, working at different times to others may risk elongating the working day. Working asynchronously should not mean more work, but instead smarter work, more tailored to the employee work, and ideally, fewer just for the point of it meetings. In a culture that truly understands working anywhen, employees know that there isn’t an expectation that they respond or work when others are working but only when they are. In asynchronous cultures working outside of the 9-5 does not mean work extensification but freedom and autonomy.

There has been much talk in recent months of organisations adopting more flexible futures post Covid-19. Long term success of flexible working must include an element of both time and schedule flexibility as well as location. Otherwise, that so-called flexible future that everyone desires will just amount to a full day spent on Zoom from home instead of the office.

So back to that online meeting. Instead, could it be a MS Teams chat, a Slack update, a podcast, a blog post, a shared document or a social media update? 

Or you know….. an email after all?

Four quotes

As we near the end of this most extraordinary year, the festive season is almost upon us.   The break from work will be a welcome one for most, but there is no doubt that this will be a very different holiday period than the ones we have known in the past. 

Christmas can be a difficult time of year even in so-called ‘normal’ times.  Christmas 2020 brings a whole other layer of complexity and new challenges to navigate.  Much of my work this year has unsurprisingly been focused around wellbeing.  Supporting employees, training managers so that they can do the same, raising awareness about mental health. 

Wellbeing remains on my mind.  If you are thinking about it too, I’d like to offer you four simple quotes upon which I have been reflecting in the last few weeks.

Image: pexels.com

It’s okay not to be okay.  This is a well-known saying about mental health, designed to take the stigma out of poor mental health, sending the message that there is no shame in this illness.  But this year, right now, it has never felt more true.  There is almost no one untouched by Covid-19.  If you are struggling right now it is not only okay to feel this way, but a totally normal reaction to living through a long period of extreme stress and uncertainty.  Maybe you don’t feel that you have had it as bad as others, and shouldn’t feel so tired or so stressed.  Please, do give yourself permission to feel just exactly how you feel.

Self-care isn’t selfish

If you’ve attended a wellbeing event on self-care on resilience I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase too.  It is perhaps nearly reaching cliché status. It is however, oh so importantBecause when we are busy dealing with all that Covid-19 has delivered to us, as we attempt to balance and keep all of the plates spinning, the thing that might just slip along the way, be put to the bottom of the priority list, is us.  Our own wellbeing.  The stuff that nourishes us and helps us to recover and recharge.  Without this, burnout awaits.  Taking a little time for you, is not a nice to have, it is a necessity. 

This too, shall pass. 

And it will.  Although the end may not be as close as we would like, it is in sight.  The days will come again where we will socialise, and hug, and meet without thought (or mask). There is hope, there are better days to come.  We will get through this. 

And finally….

A less well known quote, but one that I return to often.  From the then Managing Director of the New Economics Foundation (it is their research that forms the basis of the popular 5 Ways to Wellbeing framework).

Wellbeing is not a beach that you go and lie on.  It is a dynamic dance, and there is movement in that all the time.

Our own wellbeing is not something that we can ever stop focusing on and working towards.  We are never ‘done’.  It’s not a qualification or a date in the diary. It is something that we need to focus on and work towards and strive for.  Every single day – and especially now.

Not even the half of it

A significant chunk of the workforce has now been working from home for nearly eight months.  We have all become familiar with the headlines suggesting that employees don’t want to return to the office in the future (full time at least) and how employers are fundamentally re-thinking their estates strategies.

Work will never be the same again.

Apart where it already is.

Pre Covid-19 the adoption of flexible working had been described as glacial.  The eight hour day, five days a week, 9-5 ish model was already decades out of date.  A hangover from when we really needed to be in the same place at the same time to get the work done.  Technology had made different ways of working possible – we just hadn’t used it.

The pandemic forced us to finally acknowledge you really can work from anywhere, and this wouldn’t result in the majority of office workers watching Homes Under the Hammer instead.  But what else has really changed?

What used to be a face to face meeting is now an online one.  If anything, the barriers to arranging meetings have reduced even further.  We don’t have to wait for people to get in the office or finish the agenda because someone has to rush for a train home.  Your laptop is in the lounge and there’s nowhere to go so there’s nothing stopping you jumping on a quick Zoom.  Perhaps the most welcome difference between online and IRL is that it is easier to multi-task during the boring bits. 

We’ve seen other headlines and reporting too.  How the micro manager, far from having a revelation about how to lead, is doubling down, forcing people to be at their desks all day.  Checking start times, setting up remote monitoring and watching MS Teams for a green light. 

Turned-on Laptop on Bed
Image from Pexels.com

I’ve said this many times during the last eight months.  The current situation is not flexible working. It’s not even the half of it.  Because flex is more than remote.  It is about schedule flexibility too.  At one end of the flex spectrum is a flexible working policy with a flexible working application form in order to apply for a contractual change to working hours that may be heard in three months (don’t forget your right to be accompanied).  At the other end, truly empowering your people to work anywhere and any when.  To work when it best fits their personal rhythms, when they feel most productive, and around their other commitments and responsibilities. 

We can embrace the other half of flex.  Technology doesn’t just gives us the ability to have location flexibility but schedule flexibility too. We can go asynchronous.  MS Teams, Slack, Yammer…. we have the tools. They are already on our corporate networks or are free to use.  The biggest mental shift we still need to make is that work will only get done if we do it together, whether that is in a meeting room or Zoom one.  But (most of us) aren’t on a production line in a factory.  This isn’t the 1980s.  So it’s time we stopped working like it is. 

PS.  My book on Flexible Working is published on 3rd December.  It’s available for pre-order here and the code AHR20 will get you 20% of.

Six months

Tomorrow, it is six months since I transitioned to working from home.  Like many, I still haven’t been back to the office.   

Those early months were all about crisis.  Getting through and making do.

But, and despite government urges to the contrary, for those workers formerly known as office-based, there is no sign of a full time return.

So what next?  Now that adrenalin has passed and the long haul beckons? 

Most of us have now got some sort of routine sorted out, even if it isn’t completely optimal.  The kids are back at school (for the moment) even if that isn’t entirely normal either. We’ve mostly got to grips with the tech. There are now other areas, possibly somewhat neglected in these hectic months, which demand our attention.  One of these areas is an old HR favourite: employee engagement.

How connected are people feeling, now?  How engaged?  To the organisation, the mission and vision, the team, their manager? Without the place itself, the social interactions, the familiar daily rituals and habits.  In almost every employee engagement survey I have ever seen, respondents rate the people they work with as a central factor in their own engagement.  Does this hold true when we only see them through a screen?

What too, about the daily micro-frustrations of working from home (a term I have shamelessly stole from Professor Sir Cary Cooper). Not having a decent printer, the noisy neighbour, not having access to that file you need that’s still in the filing cabinet in an office you can’t access. The ergonomic issues of still not having a proper place to work.  Is this too having a negative impact on day to day engagement and job satisfaction?

Then there is all that hygiene stuff.  The bottom rungs of Maslow’s ladder.  Do employees feel safe and secure?  Do they have those basics to work effectively? Are their social needs being met by this prolonged break from the old routine?  Fast forward to a more modern thinker, Dan Pink. He argues that what really motivates us isn’t money but autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Some of us might have more autonomy right now than we had before – but are we still getting opportunities to learn, develop and progress our careers?  Do we still like we have a purpose beyond all this pandemic stuff?

During early lockdown people described themselves as more productive whilst working from home, away from the distractions of the office. Wil that sustain? And what to of creativity and innovation in the longer term?

There are more questions here than answers.  We do know that the last few months has for many people been a deeply reflective time.  For some, this is behind the desire to work more remotely in the future – a headline which has now become familiar by its regularity.  For others, a deeper reflection about what they really want out of life.  Although I have no empirical evidence, I am hearing story after story of people resigning their positions, changing jobs, starting something new. 

Is this a result of personal reflection… or is this a an engagement issue?  A loosening of the connections, a statement about how their employer has handled Covid-19, or just too many micro-frustrations?

There is no single definition of employee engagement.  Neither is there any broad agreement about whether it leads to positive business or even what drives (or detracts from) it.  But there are some similar themes whatever you read about the subject.  The critical role of leaders, organisational vision and mission, purpose and meaning, organisational integrity. 

There could just be a perfect storm of poor employee engagement building.  Reduced social connections, increased stress and anxiety, poor work life balance, blurred boundaries between work and home, furloughed employees, the impact of redundancies or cost cutting, reduced development opportunities, too much change all at once. These are the factors that will influence how people feel about their work and who they work for.

I’ve written already about the ‘what next’ for organisations post Covid-10.  There’s a need to learn from this last six months, to focus on employee mental health and determine a future strategy about flexible and remote working.  I’d argue that the other critical priority for the months to come is sustaining engagement and retaining connection. 

There’s no quick fix or simple solution. It is more than a Zoom team quiz, a virtual get together, a regular leader’s update. It also can’t be the things we did before, as those strategies are for a world that is no longer available to us.

It is time for us to re-think how we engage with our remote workforce, for the long term.

The flexibility spectrum

The results are in.  Lots of people want to work from home a lot.  

Survey after survey (including my own research) have shown this.

Although we still recognise the benefits of the office for collaboration, creativity and relationships, there is a clear desire from employees (the office worker type at least) to spend less time there and more at home.  Even with the complexity of working through a global pandemic, many employees have still found a range of personal benefits from more homeworking, from productivity, to saving money and improving wellbeing. 

So now what?

Some organisations are already starting to think about what the future means for them.  Creating their new normal if you will pardon the 2020 cliché.  For some this is an opportunity to rethink their estates strategy and spend less on real estate.  For others it’s about meeting this new employee demand, considering it from the perspective of talent acquisition, engagement and retention. 

There is a decision to be made for those organisations: where do you want to be on the flex spectrum?

At one end, there’s having a flexible working policy and process.  Employees can make an application.  Have it duly considered.  A decision in the statutory three months.  The possibility of a trial period. A day a week from home but please remember to check with your manager to confirm the day before.  Within this approach the default office model (M-F, 9-5 ish) remains dominant. 

At the other end, there’s something else entirely.  Not just flexibility of working hours or locations but true personalisation.  Allowing someone to decide in the moment where and when they can best do the work that they need to do that particular day.  Empowering people to work in a way (and at the times) that align with their personal energies and rhythms – when they best feel productive.  Employees working around their other commitments, trusted to do their best and judged and rewarded based on their results and not on being seen in the office. 

We talk of blended, hybrid working practices. This is one possible future.  Some days in the office, some days out.  But again, at the heart of this approach is still the default model. Can we go further? 

As ever, context matters.  What works for one organisation, sector or role type won’t work for another.  Experimentation might be necessary to work out just what the best approach is.  But making that decision, figuring out – strategically – where you want to play is the starting point.

Either approach, both ends of the spectrum can deliver benefits both organisationally and personally. The latter, for many workplaces is a much bigger leap. Will feel more risky, pushes harder against typical organisational ills such as presenteeism, leavism, micro-management and heavy meeting cultures. 

The time to think about this stuff is now. The time to listen to what your people really want from their work and their workplaces, is now. 

We can go back to the default.  We can find a compromise between home and work.  Or we can make an even bigger shift. 

If we are brave enough. 

PS, my book on all of this flexible working stuff comes out in December.  An excellent Christmas present for all the family. 

Working parents. Between a rock and a hard place.

When the country went into lockdown in March, there is no doubt that this provided challenges to almost everyone. For working parents, these challenges were significant. For those who had to combine work and childcare, work and homeschooling, this has been a time of stress, anxiety and guilt. Guilt about not doing their best at work, guilt at no doing the best for their kids. Stress from trying to do it all in complex circumstances. Overwhelm from the sheer volume of stuff to do.

The response to lockdown from schools has been highly variable. Some provided a great deal of support and guidance, others very little. Some children returned, however briefly, to school before the summer break but most did not.  We are now five months on and the schools are preparing to go back – but the situation is far from normal.

Here’s what is currently facing working parents:

  • Schools are opening – but not in the way they were before lockdown and even small changes are impacting working parents. One example – staggered starts and end times to the school day. Just one more thing to navigate if you are taking more than one child to school.
  • Wraparound care isn’t opening or opening at normal capacity. Parents might have the school hours back but they don’t have the vital before or after school support that they need, limiting the hours that they can work.
  • The prospect of future school closures if there are cases in the school or locally loom large.
  • Pressure from government messaging that people should be returning to work (by which I assume they mean the office, given that many have worked longer and harder than ever before during recent months).

The flexibility that many organisations provided during lockdown cannot realistically last indefinitely. This week I have been sent a copy of new guidance (from an employer that I won’t name here) stating that from 1st September their pre Covid-19 Homeworking Policy now applies in respect to children – parents cannot now wfh and be caring for children at the same time. The company expects them to have childcare in place – or apply for reduced hours. It might look harsh, but there is an economic reality to be faced for many businesses and they need their people to be productive. In some cases, erroneously, managers and organisations feel that this involves being present too.

What will be the outcome for those working parents who still cannot find childcare, who may once again have to homeschool children whilst working in the event of a school closure, and who cannot meet those employer demands to have childcare in place or return to the office? The picture is bleak.

If one parent in a household has to give up their job or reduce their hours, there is a good chance this is going to be the female of the species. We already know that women have been taking the brunt of the childcare during this period – and are starting to face the worst of the economic consequences. The systemic gender issues in our society mean that the chances are it’s mum who has already gone part time, earns less or otherwise limited her career in order to balance work and family. It isn’t a stretch to assume this trend will continue in the difficult months to come.

There is no end to the potential issues. Long term career implications, stress and anxiety, exhaustion, financial implications of reduced hours or incomes, the mental health and education effects on the children themselves. Lost jobs, lost opportunities.

So what can be done? There is no easy answer – and certainly not one that will keep all parents in their jobs and all parents earning their normal salary.

Recognising that many organisations have critical business challenges as result of Covid-19, I still believe that they must do what they can to support their working parents during this difficult period. Here are just a few things that can be done:

  • Support career breaks or sabbaticals from working parents who may want to take some time off.
  • Provide additional special leave, even if it can only be unpaid, for working parents who need to take time of work in the event of a school closure. Don’t count this as absence for the purposes of internal policies.
  • Support requests by parents for temporary reduced hours working – with the option to return to full / contractual hours in the future. Don’t hold people to lengthy application processes for this – provide quick decisions. Don’t force parents into a permanent change.
  • Allow employees to work flexi-time where roles permit. Let them work their hours when they can work their hours if you can.
  • Provide ongoing wellbeing support, including mental health support to all employees. If you can, target some events at parents or provide a space for them to network and share – and simply support each other.
  • Promote messaging about flexibility and empathy to people managers – they need to know they have permission to make individual arrangements and should be focusing on outputs not hours.
  • Take steps to ensure that any absence or short term reductions in performance / output do not have long term career implications. Monitor other policies such as disciplinary, attendance, reward, promotion and performance review to ensure fairness and consistency.

This is not a time for slavish devotion to formal policy.  This isn’t a time to shame those who simply cannot return to normal or who have some additional challenges.  This is a time for empathy, compassion, flexibility.  It’s good for employee engagement, retention, motivation.

It is also simply, the right thing to do.

Employee wellbeing – through COVID-19 and beyond.

Most of us are now thinking about the return to the new different. Whether this is a return to work for those employees on furlough or a return to workplaces for those of us that have been working from home for these last few months, change is on the horizon.

Wellbeing needs to be on all our agendas right now. I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late, reading and researching. I’ve collated here, for those who might find them useful, what I believe are the important factors for us to consider – and share with your leaders and managers with key roles to play in facilitating this return.

Disclaimers first. There’s lots of stuff on mental health here. I’m not a mental health professional; this is a distillation of stuff that I know from and have read from a range of sources. I am drawing on academic research and papers, so some points are somewhat simplified.

Now onto the helpful stuff.

We have each of us been living though a shared situation but we have experienced it very differently. From isolation to overwhelm, busier than ever to furlough. There will be people that have copied well, others that are not coping at all. We cannot assume what category people will fall into, what their particular concerns will be, what they will need in the week and month to come.  Mental health professions are telling us that during the last few months many people have experienced poor mental health – and these effects are likely to be long lasting.  Check out this report from Mind Charity.

When it comes to experiencing potentially traumatic events, people tend to fall into one of four groups.

1. People that will be fine
2. People that will need some support but recover reasonably quickly / well
3. People that are ok now but will become not ok in the future (delayed responses)
4. People that will not be at all well and will need lots of support.

It isn’t that straightforward to say how many people will into each group. There are a number of factors at play here from personality type, demographic factors, availability of resources to the proximity to the experience. So for example, if there’s a traumatic event (like a pandemic) you might be more likely to fall into group 4 if you have actually become ill rather than just been worried about being ill.

Broadly, the majority of people will probably be fine (group 1) – possibly up to 65%. Again, we just don’t know. We cannot know a person and then guess where they will fit.

Lessons for HR? We need to prepare for what each of these groups need, from some basic wellbeing support for those people in group 2 to those in group 4 who may need long term support. We also need to make sure whatever we put into place is available long term – not just for the next few months.

Generally wellbeing interventions fall into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. Simply, primary is about tackling the source and preventing poor workplace wellbeing. Secondary is the wellbeing stuff that many of us do in the workplace – mindfulness, fitness classes and training and learning. Tertiary is the stuff that supports people who are ill (occupational health, EAPs, counselling). HR also needs to ensure that we have all of these available. Regarding primary interventions we can’t necessarily tackle the main source of stress (the pandemic itself) but we can reduce stressors of returning to work through good, timely communication, trained managers and effective health, safety and hygiene. Right now, we need to ensure that we are considering wellbeing initiatives at every level. We can’t tackle all of the primary (the source of the problem is outside of our control – but our response is not). We can address the particular sources of stress relating to returning to the workplace or the source of stress for particular employees such as working parents or people in BAME groups. We then need to have proactive wellbeing support to enable people to boost their wellbeing – and support for those who are currently unwell or will become so.

What about those employees who have been on furlough? Again, we don’t know. There’s no research that we can look at because it’s never happened before. We can however draw (to some extent) on research into unemployment and its impact on wellbeing. There are of course key differences (people on furlough have continued to have income even if reduced and there has been an end point even if it was not exactly known throughout).

Work, for some people, is associated with meaning and purpose in life. Furlough has challenged this. Just like with trauma, people react differently to being unemployed. Some of the factors around wellbeing and unemployment are less relevant but still possible (fears about re-employment or financial worries – noting that people may have had reduced incomes or be worrying that furlough will lead to longer term unemployment). Unemployment is linked with poor mental health and poor physical health too. This is often greater for those who have high levels of work-role centrality – e.g. their sense of work is highly linked to their sense of self. People’s response to unemployment isn’t homogenous and neither is the response to furlough likely to be either. There’s a whole range of factors that will impact how much someone’s wellbeing is impacted from their ability to be able to use coping strategies, retain some sort of structured time use and routine, financial implications and the duration of the unemployed period.

Onto quarantine now.  We’ve never before quarantined a whole country – so we are back to not really knowing the long term implications of it.  But there is research into other quarantine situations like SARS and Ebola, and it has been associated with stress, anxiety and increased substance misuse – some of it long lasting.  One thing that does need to be in the secondary and tertiary support mix – help for people who have struggled with substances during COVID-19.  Make this about wellbeing, not discipline.

As HR professions or people managers we are unable to make any assumptions about how people will be or what they will need. We can make an educated guess or two. If someone has been seriously ill as a result of COVID-19, they may be more likely to fall into the group that needs more wellbeing support. If someone has been bereaved the same might apply. But as we cannot assume; our only option therefore is to engage on an individual level to find out whilst making sure that organisationally we have the right tools in place.

I believe it is critical that managers are provided with tools and information.  Many organisation train managers on mental health – but we need to help them understand the specific implications of COVID-19, and how to support staff now and for the months to come.  I attended a CIPD webinar last week where one of the speakers commented that (for furloughed employees but I think it applies wider too) returning to work isn’t a one off event, it is a process.  Improving wellbeing and mental health post COVID-19 and lockdown is similarly a process, and possibly a long term one too.

There’s one more thing to add. For some, a potentially traumatic experience leads to deep reflection. It challenges what we believe to be true, what we think we have always known. This can lead to a desire to change, to new motivations a new life course. We should expect some of our employees to be in this space too.

And finally.  Not everyone has seen a negative impact upon their wellbeing.  For some respondents to my recent research, the last few months has meant less stressful commuting, more time for exercise, a chance to eat better food and have the opportunity for hobbies.  Although I am not sure many of them were also home-schooling……