3 Ways We Are Making a Hybrid Mess

Image credit: iStockphoto/vejaa

Two years ago, companies began the global remote working experiment as COVID-19 impacted lives. Companies adapted, employees adjusted, and mindsets changed as a result.

Along the way, we learned new rules of working and life skills. We had no meeting days; other companies mandated breaks between continuous calls. A few even gave all their employees no email days. We experimented earnestly.

Now, as countries across the Asia Pacific rush to make COVID-19 endemic, it’s clear that remote working was only a small step for mankind. The future of work is intrinsically linked to hybrid working. The problem is that no one has a clear definition of what it is.

The employee reinvented

Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index that combined feedback from 31,000 people in 31 countries, labor trends from LinkedIn, and productivity signals from Microsoft 365 offered a clue to this lack of definition: Employees coming into the office were not the ones who left it two years ago. Their expectations are now tightly tied to their viewpoints, experience, and lifestyles that evolved during the pandemic years.

The survey showed that 47% of employees today were more likely to put family and personal life over work after the pandemic. 53% were more likely to prioritize their health and well-being, rising to 55% for parents and 56% for women. These priorities are also constantly shifting, making it difficult for CHROs to predict and normalize what their individuals want.

When asked what they wanted from a new employer, 46% pointed to a positive culture (46%), 42% well-being benefits (42%), and 40% a sense of purpose and meaning. Flexible hours still mattered to 38%, while 35% wanted more than two weeks’ vacation time. There was no mention of salary increment as the top reason.

Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of modern work at Microsoft, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that hybrid working is all well and good if the reasons make sense to the employees. For example, an employee will want to commute as part of the hybrid working arrangement if the value of the office engagement is higher.

However, employers’ fears about loss of productivity when remote working are creating confusion on how much flexibility a company wants to give its employees. 54% of business leaders in the same survey said they fear their team has been less productive since moving to remote or hybrid working.

Yet, employees see it differently. In the same survey, 80% of employees believe their productivity remained the same or improved. So when employers use their fears as a reason to shape hybrid working policies, employees feel their experiences marginalized, and that their employers do not trust them.

Middle managers are critical

Middle managers are in an unenviable position. Their leadership is asking them to perform in a dynamic market distorted by tremendous macroeconomic forces.

At the same time, employees are calling them to be more empathetic to their needs. HR teams understand the new challenges middle managers face, and are rolling out retraining programs. They are also giving team leaders the skills and tools to watch for signs of employee anxiety and depression, making them armchair behavioral scientists when that’s not what they signed up for. 

It is clear from the Microsoft survey that employers need to do more about training middle managers. Being good at your job and hitting sales targets may be good enough to climb the corporate rungs before the pandemic, but not today.

One problem is that there are no essential best practices that CHRO teams can follow to train the middle management. One CHRO confidante (who wanted to remain anonymous) noted that many companies are simply bootstrapping programs as they go along.

Even if training is done right, middle managers can’t do much without influence. In the Microsoft survey, 74% of managers said they don’t have the influence or resources they need to make changes on behalf of their team. So, retraining should go hand in hand with empowering middle managers to do more.

Focus on relationships

A Forbes article by Tracy Brower, an author with a Ph.D. in sociology, highlighted that companies were still getting things wrong about hybrid working despite two years of experimenting with it. It also argued that the employees are becoming less tolerant of their employers' missteps.

However, one area the article highlighted that many overlook is relationships. The two-year social experiment on remote working showed that humans thrive on relationships. It is why employees are choosing hybrid working over remote working. It is also what binds a corporate culture together during hybrid working.

So, HR Departments will do well to understand that the social contract between employees and employers has evolved and not make the assumption that it remains the same. They should be investing in a building, encouraging, and driving relationships in the workplace, virtual or physical.

The focus on relationship building will matter tremendously for new employees who joined the company in the past two years. Many of these Gen Z workers have yet to experience comradeship in a corporate setting, let alone physically seen their mentors, reporting managers, and colleagues. The Microsoft survey showed that these employees need more help, especially in building relationships.  

If not, employees are not afraid to leave. 52% of Gen Z and Millennials are already considering changing employers this year (up 3% year-over-year), and 18% of all respondents quit their job in the past 12 months.

Winston Thomas is the editor-in-chief of CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends. He’s a singularity believer, a blockchain enthusiast, and believes we already live in a metaverse. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/vejaa