For some, it was a moment of realisation that greater flexibility was possible, for others it was affirmation that on-site working was preferrable – and as we move on from the challenges of lockdown and its impact, hybrid working has emerged as a regular feature of the working landscape.
With the prediction that 70% of teams will be working remotely by 2025 (LHH), it’s likely that this emergent way of working is here to stay – but it does pose some new and interesting challenges for leaders and managers. The recent IMD LHH CRF Report 2023 found that hybrid work was generally well received by organisations, but for many is thought to produce a lack of socialisation and weaker group identity. Despite meetings being up on average 150% per person since March 2020 (Microsoft) a recent Gallup Report found that, of the global working population, 77% are actively disengaged. So there is emerging evidence to suggest that being physically together or inhabiting the same physical or digital ‘space’ is not sufficient to build engagement and connection.
We asked some of our clients and connections about ways that they are trying to build and sustain engagement within hybrid teams. “For us it’s about considering how we socialise in different ways” said a client in the engineering sector. “We’re thinking more about how we can build connections and rapport within teams and across the group, without the assumption that we all have to be together physically for that to happen. It definitely takes more effort – but we have to make sure we’re still investing in relationships and continuing to strengthen our culture across teams both onsite and remote-working where we can.” Another connection in FMCG added “We’ve adapted workstreams and processes so that we can include those working remotely and in the office equally. Sometimes tech can be challenging, but it can also be an enabler – and more often than not it’s a mindset shift that’s required to make it a success – the practicalities can easily be overcome.”
For other organisations, returning to site-based working has been a deliberate choice and a few of our clients have been overseeing a mandated return to the office. One of our Retail clients in India believes that was the right choice, and that collaboration and co-creation happens best when ideas are cross-pollinated in person. “In person presence enables more organic conversation which scheduled virtual meetings do not allow for. We’re currently asking employees to return to the office and then work flexibly from there, 2/3 days per week. As long as they come for some time and meet others – the purpose is served.”
Another senior leader within retail (EMEA), had some reflections on the challenges and dilemma brought about by a mandated return to site. “We are facing a big backlash because we have asked people to come back. However being in the retail industry, it’s also about our ethics and values. Our colleagues in store do not have a choice, they have to always be present physically – so the least we can do, as one team, is to show up a few days a week in solidarity, in support of the work that we do.” There have been a number of headlines about organisations that have requested their people return to the office and reporting hasn’t always been favourable – so it was interesting to hear a different take on why mandating a return to the office has been the right choice for some organisations.
Both retail clients said that returning to the office was not about policing productivity, or dealing with a perceived lack of accountability – but more about collaboration and creation, especially for generating new ideas – as they both believed that ‘connecting dots’ can happen more effectively on site, through ad-hoc conversations and exchanges – in their broader view, virtual spaces are often too rigid and too ‘controlled’ for these innovative ideas to flourish.
Reflecting on my own experience for a moment before I close… Before the pandemic, the Steps UKE team were largely based in the office in London and, though we worked globally, were quite UK centric in many ways when it came to processes and systems. In many respects lockdown ‘levelled the playing field’ and certainly brought us closer to our global colleagues as we connected more intentionally and used technology to enable better working practices. Over time, our colleagues were so used to remote/hybrid working that we took the decision to become a ‘Work from Anywhere’ organisation. We still have an office in London, but global colleagues can live and work from anywhere now – which has been so well received and is a real benefit for those that want to balance their personal and professional lives in this way.
It’s not without challenges of course, and as someone that worked in the office for nearly 12 years before these changes, I often find myself talking about how vital I think it is that we preserve our culture (the ‘One Beating Heart’ as we call it at Steps) and I nostalgically refer to memories and experiences from when we were in the office together as a UKE team and the camaraderie that went on. I think that comes from a place where I want everyone to feel that team warmth and a sense of belonging, yet on reflection it occurs to me that some of my colleagues have only ever known Steps as a hybrid ‘Work from Anywhere’ organisation. They’ve only ever worked remotely rather than in an office and, for some of our international team, there has never been an office ‘hub’ in their territory either – they have always worked across multiple locations. So, while I’m telling these stories about times past in the office, the irony – and risk – is that, in my keen intent to preserve our culture and to keep colleagues engaged and feeling part of the team, I’m actually not being inclusive at all because I’m referring to a collective experience of which they’ve never been a part!
So, all this to say, I think I agree with the stats. Belonging and engagement are not things that solely exist when working in an office or when working remotely. Where you are located has very little bearing on how you feel about work and how connected you feel to your team and to your colleagues. For some companies, having people in an office is the right thing to do because of the values and principles that they hold to – and for some, there is scope to work more flexibly across locations and time zones. Ultimately, regardless of whether people are remote, on-site or combining both, it’s all about behaviours – because they set the tone and the tone becomes the culture. Critically (and note to self here!) – culture is not something you can cling to and fight to defend in some way – sometimes you have to let it redefine itself, mean different things to different people and evolve, so that it can grow and sustain in new ways.
Presentation: Claire Jordan, ‘LHH Team Effectiveness’, City HR Forum, London
Research: Team Effectiveness – Corporate Research Forum (crforum.co.uk)
Research: Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work (microsoft.com)
Research: State of the Global Workplace Report – Gallup