Last month I talked about why remote work is here to stay. This month, I’ll suggest some of the issues your leadership should be paying attention to as you move past the pandemic and want to create a hybrid work experience with remote and in-office employees.
COVID-19 created a crisis for those served by human services organizations and for their staff. Remote work was both appealing and a salvation. A year later, the stresses and strains it caused have taken a toll. Microsoft recently published its 2021 Work Trend Index: Annual Report titled “The Next Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?” The information in the report resonates with the experiences of staff across our industry, particularly as they have dealt with changes or loss in their own lives and been on the front line (remotely or in person) with those traumatized by the pandemic.
Here’s some of what Microsoft found using Office 365 and Teams data as well as discussions with employment/business leaders. Productivity is high; staff is exhausted. The exponential increase in noise, what one of the experts in the report calls “digital static” occurs because the speed and frequency of online communication, creates unnatural communication that is harder to process and interpret. The spontaneity of chats, emails, notifications, and use of shared documents causes workers to lose focus, concentration, and to feel increased stress and anxiety. Work days are now overloaded with unplanned contact, disorganized or disrupted workflows, and no demarcation between work and personal time.
Teams have become more siloed and have less informal conversation within and across departments. This leaves some staff feeling unmoored from the organization, their managers, and their work. Younger employees just starting careers, women, and minorities experience this most keenly. And leadership isn’t aware of it – leaders (61%) say they are “thriving” and connecting better with their teams; but 37% of the workforce feels overburdened and over 40% is considering jumping ship and need more flexibility to create a better work-life balance.
Gallup, which surveys employee engagement, asks “Do you have a best friend at work?” in its internationally used employee survey. Despite some raised eyebrows, it has high predictive value for productivity, engagement, and retention as well. As they explain in a January 2018 article (“Why We Need Best Friends at Work”), their research shows that cultures that promote trust, belongingness, and inclusion have happier and better performing staff and bottom lines. The power of this item is especially high with women, two-thirds of whom say relationships at the office are a prime reason for working outside the home. Thus, the research points to the need to find a remote work approach that builds relationships, promotes flexibility, and reduces the “digital static”.
It’s also clear that the majority of remote workers want a hybrid experience to better balance work and personal life. Organizations that are able to manage this effectively and structure the work environment accordingly will have a significant advantage. Worth considering are:
- Designing meeting spaces that allow for better visual contact among those in the room and on a digital platform.
- On-boarding and management support for those early in their career to build work-related skills and networks within the organization.
- Ensuring that new employees, or those who are quiet in meetings, are encouraged to speak up, including the use of facilitators to support those who tend to feel excluded or seem reluctant to speak up.
- Setting up situations, forums, opportunities for social connection that cannot happen in an on-line meeting. Less noise and more relating can help engagement and the bottom line.
As human services leaders consider their plans for future hybrid work environments, those who take a moment to think about what they’ve learned over the past year of remote work will be best equipped to succeed in the future.