After centuries of working in an employer-sponsored workplace, many have started to settle into a new way of working. This includes a shift to at least partly remote work. Most of us experienced at least a temporary government-mandated stay at home order; some of us have chosen to continue it as we reach the three-year anniversary of the pandemic onset. But experts believe that a hybrid work schedule will be the ‘new norm’. In London, reports say that now 40% of residents work in a hybrid arrangement. Most of the conversation has been around how do employees settle into this shift – time management, setting boundaries, remaining productive and the like. However, employers must help manage this shift, and while it came on suddenly and unexpectedly at first, it is time for leaders to help teams adjust.
Work has almost always been defined by the employer. Hybrid work will be no different.
Although the Great Resignation and general shortage of employees helped solidify the shift to a hybrid work model, that doesn’t mean that employees can or should rebuild how organisations operate now. In the past, labour activists helped implement child labour laws, or holiday pay, or limits on hours per day of work. But ultimately it is companies and other institutional actors that created the environment and definition of workplace. Urban planning and mass transport helped create suburban lifestyles. Pubs and (later) gyms near business centres lured us out at the end of the workday. At the office, we shift between the arguments for windowed private offices and open floor plans to increase productivity and creativity. How we work, and what we expect from our work environment is largely determined by organisations and leadership teams.
What does leadership look like with hybrid work? For more than 200 years those in the professional services sector have gone to an office to perform their duties. Until the last two decades, most work ended when an employee left the office. Only since the digital era, and in particular, the smart phone, did it become so commonplace to continue to work from home after leaving the office. And around the same time, fully remote work began to – modestly but steadily – increase. Employers accommodated these changes slowly, and often on individual basis. Historically, professional women were more likely to seek part time or partly remote opportunities as they bore the majority of parenting responsibilities. But unfortunately, those women also sacrificed some of their professional success because being out of sight led to being out of mind.
Over time, we have thankfully come to see the advantages of offering employees the freedom to work partly from home for a wide variety of reasons – including just a personal choice to do so. As it has become more the norm, employers have learned to implement changes to how they operate on a much larger scale. In-person meetings have been reduced in favour of tele- and videoconferencing. Virtual interviews, virtual onboarding and online team building exercises are all far more common. In other words, we have begun to use technology to help facilitate remote work, as opposed to asking the odd remote worker to accommodate an in-person culture.
This shift has been more widespread and rapid than perhaps any other. What is so unusual for companies about the last few years is the pace at which we have shifted our work culture. The pandemic forced upon everyone a sudden and comprehensive shift without warning from the government nor input from the private sector. Under the circumstances that was completely understandable. However, now it is time for leadership teams to try to catch up to the new norm we find ourselves in. This is uncomfortable; organisations have historically learned to plan for the future and them implement it. They seek out consultants and assemble teams to take on this kind of endeavour. When you think about the 1990s when the ‘world wide web’ was first coming online, companies took time to decide when to accept digital signatures or allow email as official correspondence. But this time, the thing that companies want to plan for is already here; leadership teams must look through the rear-view mirror to find their future.
Employers need to move from catching up with the change of hybrid work to leading it.
For the last few centuries, we have always revisited how to work, how to balance our work demands and what both the company and the employee needs. And processes that make our lives easier – whether it was the assembly line or the internet, also come with new challenges. We have solved perhaps, a need for office space especially during extreme situations like a pandemic. But most employers still have that space, and we are going to keep using it, at least part of the time. What we have learned already (and saw most recently during pandemic shutdowns) is that humans are affiliative, with psychological and emotional needs that make us wired to connect, in person. Just because we can operate wholly remote, doesn’t mean we should. It is a bit like cars: they can go 200 km/h but using that automation at full throttle puts humans at risk. The solution to a faster horse required yet another fix to limit our speed. Sigmund Freud said, ‘If there had been no railway to conquer distance, my child would never have left town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.’ And now, we need employers to help dial down our fully remote capabilities, to a hybrid version that also meets our needs for collective workspaces. The reality that they must do this after the fact, makes it only more urgent.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.