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The double-edged sword of hybrid working

The return to the office was never going to happen in full. Too many upsides have been discovered to return to the way things were: greater flexibility and increased productivity, and reduced commuting costs and real estate needs. It seems that, for those who can, a blend of office-based and remote working is becoming the norm. The upsides make for a great narrative to support this shift to hybrid working, but what of the less-than-positive impacts?

The return to the office was never going to happen in full. Too many upsides have been discovered to return to the way things were: greater flexibility and increased productivity, and reduced commuting costs and real estate needs. It seems that, for those who can, a blend of office-based and remote working is becoming the norm. The upsides make for a great narrative to support this shift to hybrid working, but what of the less-than-positive impacts?

There’s a reported increase in fatigue and difficulties of ‘switching off’ from work, and of a lack of connection with colleagues and the wider organisation. There’s a widening gap between the experiences of generations, ethnic groups, and people of different backgrounds, as opportunities for a space for effective homeworking differ – and a potential problem of visibility from simply not being around the office.

We see hybrid working as a double-edged sword.

Hybrid working needs the focus and skill of the HR and talent leader and managers alike to make it succeed, and to avoid a slip backwards into solely office-based, in-person, location-centric working. In short, HR needs to unleash the benefits and minimise the not-so-greats. We believe that good talent management practices and sound technology solutions have a significant part to play.

The first aspect of this double-edged sword is the use of video technologies. Sure, it provides a face-to-face connection of sorts, the ability to have meetings back-to-back and brings people together regardless of their location. But the ‘work from home when you can’ mandate created what is now known as ‘Zoom’ fatigue – caused, not by that single named technology platform, but from using any of these now essential business tools. We all know – experientially and through the results of research already carried out – that virtual meetings are more exhausting than in-person meetings, and there are clear reasons for this.

It’s because when we interact, we constantly strive for synchrony in the interplay of talk, gestures, movement, eye contact and timing – and this is so much more difficult on virtual platforms. These platforms constantly flood us with cues and information, which our brains tire from trying to process.

There is also research that shows us that our brains are activated differently when engaging virtually, and learning on platforms such as Google Meet and Webex affects our GPS neurons (that code our navigation behaviour), mirror neurons and others that are involved in attention, empathy, and intuition. It results in higher cognitive loads and that can lead to reduced creativity, reduced social and professional identity, more complex team dynamics and an impaired capacity to learn virtually.

But, if virtual connection in groups is the cornerstone of hybrid working going forward, what does this mean for L&D activity and broader leadership skill development?

Talent leaders need to act in three key areas. The first, is to train managers and team members on how to manage and interact with video technology, how to behave as part of a geographically dispersed team and how to engage and collaborate at a distance. Importantly, people need the tools to work effectively as a team.

Secondly, we must revisit how learning will take place going forward. We have had many conversations with L&D leaders about whether the 70:20:10 ratio from the popular learning model of McCall, Eichinger, and Lombardo still applies, and whether it is valid in hybrid working environments. After all, if we get an estimated 20% of our learning through social interactions and observing others at work, what does that look like for people who work predominantly remotely? We may also wonder how social learning may differ if we have fewer in-person interactions.

There are real challenges for learning providers in terms of making hybrid-learning events workable, to ensure that those engaging remotely are not excluded from the ‘in the classroom’ networking and peer-learning opportunities. We need to think about what this means for new entrants into the workforce, making sure that they have opportunities to learn how to influence, engage in meetings, build rapport and relationships, and collaborate with their peers.

Thirdly, we need to reimagine how talent is engaged, led, and managed using technology. We need to build on what works and make sure it remains valid in the hybrid world, and also to provide team members with the tools to develop and grow, both as individuals and as a team.

Talent management software that enables the request for, and giving of, performance and development feedback makes a significant difference to the cohesion and performance of a virtual team, and the development of individual team members. We’ve witnessed a surge in use of our 360 and performance review software as teams get to grips with working together, but apart.

And this leads us to the next aspect of the double-edged sword of hybrid working: visibility. As some choose to return to the office, they get back to the water cooler conversations, the impromptu chat at a desk and absorbing the information that we pick up by simply being around others. Those working remotely with time-allocated calls and messaging app conversations, may be missing out.

But it’s not just about missing out on information, but about being seen, being visible and being front of mind and, for many organisations with a lack of objective succession planning or succession management process, this can severely limit career progression. Research backs this up.

Spookily, publishing their research just ahead of the pandemic, organisational scientists, Ioana Cristea and Paul Leonardi looked at the impact of proximity on workplace opportunities and behaviours. Their research showed that workers who had a higher amount of ‘face time’ with their line managers (being located in the same workplace) are given better, more interesting, higher-profile, more developmental work assignments; are promoted more frequently; and did not appreciate the level of extra effort that those working from home had to expend in order to achieve the same results as co-located staff.

So, what must HR do? The first thing is to simply be aware of the issue, and to put in place actions to mitigate bias from not being in the room. Secondly, make sure that everyone has equal access to the tools that can showcase their progress and goal achievement. Performance reviews and manager check-ins can be recorded within instant access, always-on software to make connection and update part of working practice. This enables individuals to seek and gain input from others across the wider team, provide input for signposting next steps for goal achievement, and flag areas of development need.

Importantly, even when not in the office, working alongside the line manager or hearing about company goals informally, goal setting and goal alignment is easy to achieve. It means that even those rarely in the office can be sure that what they do, contributes to the bigger vision of the organisation. Thirdly, succession planning needs a rethink. Organisations must find a way to increase objectivity and the use of combined, multiple-source information. We’ve been working with organisations to deploy our succession planning software to achieve this and to create greater confidence in their more resilient talent plans.

Hybrid working allows people to work remotely. But it may also bring about a feeling of disconnection from the team and the organisation. HR leaders can mitigate this through a refocus on employee engagement and experience to bolster belonging. Engagement tools provide a snapshot of the current perceptions of the organisation, the location of hot spots of lower engagement and the action that needs to be taken.

Hybrid working provides us with the opportunity to reimagine how we work. It is a chance to design and create a new model that works for organisations and their people, by offering the positives of greater flexibility, location-free team working, improved environmental impact, and increased productivity. But it is a double-edged sword and HR leaders need to take action to build connections, enhance learning and showcase potential. Talent management software has a facilitating role to play.

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