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MAINTAINING THE HUMAN CONNECTION – GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE – Issue 219 – JANUARY 2023 | Article of the Week

For too long, the debate around home working centred on productivity, when the focus should have been on the wellbeing and social benefits employees can gain from a healthy workplace culture. The great resignation, the quiet quitting – and the quiet firing – have become buzz phrases surrounding the modern workplace and typify the current climate of conflict. All this considered – along with the cost-of-living crisis piling on more pressure – trying to address this “us vs them” stalemate is complex.

For too long, the debate around home working centred on productivity, when the focus should have been on the wellbeing and social benefits employees can gain from a healthy workplace culture. The great resignation, the quiet quitting – and the quiet firing – have become buzz phrases surrounding the modern workplace and typify the current climate of conflict. All this considered – along with the cost-of-living crisis piling on more pressure – trying to address this “us vs them” stalemate is complex.

Any business leader who has had to grapple with the practicalities of the post-pandemic workplace will know that these divisions become particularly apparent when discussing the intricacies of hybrid working. As a global logistics company, our employees were given key worker status early on in the pandemic and we found that 75 percent of our workforce wanted to return to the office and, of course, we supported the remaining 25 percent that wanted to stay at home. For some organisations however, coaxing office workers back into traditional workspaces has been a much more significant challenge. The discussion around where employees should spend their working days has become toxic and it’s hardly surprising, given the number of business leaders and politicians who have made headlines for their less-than complimentary views on homeworkers. Indeed, the loudest arguments for in-person work can feel utilitarian and polarising. But there are so many positives to in-person work that have nothing to do with productivity. How many friendships, relationships and marriages started in the workplace? How many incredible ideas started with an informal chat across a desk? Without these connectivity hubs, we’re missing out on many excellent opportunities to collaborate and form bonds.

Away from the click-bait commentary, studies around home workers and their productivity have been split. Some suggest that employers are finding increased productivity benefits from their remote workforce and others point to studies that show we’re still less productive at home. In our operation, we have technology which enables us to see when our home workers are logging in and out of their computers. This tells us that home workers clock up the same hours as office workers – they just do them at different times. This preoccupation with productivity distracts us from a far more critical question when we mainly work from home, as to whether our social and wellbeing needs are being met. Labelling those who champion a return to the office as ‘baddies’, whilst presenting hybrid working as the best option for all, we oversimplify what an incredibly nuanced situation it is. Hybrid working can be a lifeline for parents trying to balance family and work, but I also know of parents with babies and toddlers, who have found working from home incredibly stressful. Home working can be ideal for middle managers and team leaders, who are more likely to be in comfortable houses with spare offices. But what about the young recruit who has just joined the team? Do they have a designated, warm place in their home where they can work, or are they working in cramped conditions and opting to go without heating to try and cope with increasing energy bills?

The problem is that, while hybrid working might meet the practical needs of a particular group of workers, it’s unlikely to meet the social needs of the majority. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humanity’s need for love and belonging sits just above our need for food, water, and safety. But with hybrid workers spending less time in the office, those who venture in for a couple of days a week often find that they’re working in spaces which lack any authentic atmosphere. In a hybrid framework, it can be challenging for recruits to make friends in the workplace and learn from more experienced team members. Crucially, it’s harder to assess team wellbeing across the board. It all comes down to one very simple truth, individuals who are happy, content and feeling positive, outperform those who are experiencing negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and loneliness. I call this being ‘above or below the line’ and on a scale of one-to ten, if you feel that your emotional wellbeing is below a five, you are below the line. Employees who are below the line are less likely to be enjoying work and less likely to feel connected to their colleagues. This simple measure is a crucial part of our company culture and we’re always aiming for team members to feel their wellbeing is at least between a seven-to-nine.

As a leader, it’s crucial to focus on the self-esteem of your line reports and to pay attention to each individual’s state of mind. Is a typically chatty employee suddenly withdrawn or snappy? Is their body language telling you something they haven’t expressed in words? As humans, we have peaks and troughs of emotion throughout the day and we need to spend consistent periods of time with people, to see how they’re coping with their workload and how they are genuinely feeling. There are so many indicators which make it evident whether a colleague is above or below the line and these hints are far harder to spot when you are only meeting online or chatting through an instant messaging service. Once a manager spots an employee experiencing more negative than positive emotions at work, they need to quickly and efficiently help that employee address how they are feeling. That requires a lot of specialist training, but all the training in the world will not help if people are isolated from their teams, because of too much home working or ineffective hybrid working. It’s hardly a surprise that the number of ‘quiet quitters’ is purportedly on the up and that just nine percent of UK workers feel engaged or enthusiastic about their work. There’s little doubt that, in a pre-pandemic work environment, supporting employees experiencing negative thoughts and feelings was easier, before they reached a breaking point.

When most work is conducted online, it’s unrealistic for senior executives to nurture their teams, that’s why we need meaningful in-person time. People learn by experiencing the behaviour of others, replicating that in their style to develop their skills and relationships. Senior executives who spend quality time with their teams are far more likely to be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their team members to offer them personalised support. In this new world of hybrid work, HR leaders should be thinking about how we can make in[1]office days as valuable as possible. Can you organise days when specific teams, or your entire team, come in, for example? Can team leaders avoid packing their office days full of meetings so that they are more available for their immediate line reports? Then there’s the big one, organised fun. It has a bad rap for jingoism, but connecting personally with colleagues can make a huge impact. I’ve seen teams struggling to connect completely, turn a corner, just through playing a round of crazy golf together. Love it or hate it, planning when workers can let their hair down and connect can help bring joy back into workplaces. Social interactions at work are vital as they help us feel more engaged and passionate about our jobs. But we’re out of practice and we need our HR teams to find ways to cut through the inevitable awkwardness that some of us may feel being thrown back into ‘the real world’. Beyond gimmicks and one-off reward schemes, businesses need to make employees feel trusted and valued as individuals. The role of responsible HR leaders is not to impose one-size-fits[1]nobody policies. It is to understand the emotional needs of the workforce and cultivate a culture which reflects and enhances ‘above the line’ behaviours. By doing this, they can increase engagement and support their workforces to transition successfully and happily into a new working era, where there is the potential to experience considerable benefits for all.

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