A special feature from Joanne Gray at The Progress Lab

A recent BBC report suggests that 86% of the UK’s biggest employers will embrace a mix of home and office working as their future model of work1.  This aligns to another study of almost 5,000 UK working adults commissioned by the University of Nottingham and Stanford University which suggests that hybrid working that combines two days a week at home and the remainder in the office is the most commonly expected working pattern for knowledge workers post-COVID2.

Hybrid working is certainly not a new concept; workers have been negotiating flexibility to allow for better management of work / life commitments for some time, but pre-2020 flexibility was very much regarded as a perk of the job and reserved for the indispensable few, particularly those in more senior positions, whereas going forward hybrid working is predicted to become the new normal, expected by and available to the masses.

Without a doubt hybrid working models bring a whole host of opportunities to do things differently and to challenge some of the outdated organisational norms that have endured since the advent of the industrial revolution, which are simply no longer fit for purpose.  But, as with any seismic organisational change, leaders and managers need to go into this with their eyes wide open, by acknowledging some of the potential drawbacks and pitfalls and finding ways to mitigate them.

It is well evidenced that creating equitable and inclusive work experiences for employees is associated with higher levels of motivation, creativity, job satisfaction and well-being3,4.  But hybrid working if managed poorly, has the potential to fuel inequity within teams, creating division and the formation of in-groups and out-groups, exacerbated by some people in the team working more from home and others working more from the office.

Inequity and a lack of inclusivity can result from a number of factors, including unintended manager biases, unequal access to developmental resources and support, and individual differences.  Let’s consider each of these factors and reflect on what managers can do to level the playing field.

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Out of sight, but still front of mind

Previous research looking into the well-being and inclusion of remote and office based employees found that those who were working mainly from the office experienced higher levels of inclusion than their counterparts who mainly worked from home5.  Some of this can be attributed to biases, either in relation to visibility norms and the (mis)perception that being physically visible within the organisation demonstrates dedication and ambition6, or proximity bias, which is when managers favour whoever is closest in time and space, whilst undervaluing those in remote locations.

Clearly, the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ has the potential to create inequity for those employees who opt for a greater percentage of their time working from home, so more than ever managers will need to be more aware of the consequences of their biases.  De-biasing strategies are designed to force us out of unconscious pattern recognition and move us into a more deliberate, objective mode of thinking – these include taking the necessary time to pause and reflect in order to challenge your own viewpoints and assumptions whilst remaining open to the perspectives of others.

Helping others grow

As employees we have some basic psychological needs to keep us motivated at work, these include access to resources to help build our competence, knowledge and skills in order to do our jobs effectively.  Studies of remote & hybrid workers from professional and public sectors reported greater feelings of professional isolation, highlighting that not being in the office environment was negatively associated with developmental activities, such as informal networking with co-workers, informal learning of work-related skills and sharing of information7.

A sense of belonging is also critical to our motivation and well-being; as we’ve discovered over the past year, remote working has the potential to fuel a feeling of social isolation and one of the side effects of this is a decrease in employee engagement, which can lead to disconnection8 and can have a negative impact on team dynamics and performance.

Positive actions by managers in providing equal access to developmental resources has the potential to help build a culture of trust and support for hybrid workers.  These actions include putting great communication centre-stage; providing opportunities for team connectedness and higher levels of participation; and setting clear motivating goals along with the provision of regular constructive feedback.

Making sure no one is left behind

You may have come across a poem published during the pandemic, highlighting how we have endured the same storm, but not in the same boat – everyone’s experience has been different.  This notion of individual difference is vitally important for managers to consider when thinking about hybrid working.  Some individuals are certainly better equipped to work from home than others and that goes beyond the physical set up of office equipment at home.  From a psychological perspective, it has been suggested that hybrid working rewards individuals who can think and act adaptably, can navigate complex, dynamic environments and who are pro-active in asking for, finding out about and claiming resources, this skill-set has been coined ‘hybrid competency’ 9.

But these attributes come more readily to some than others, so it will be important for managers to ensure those individuals without these skills are not disadvantaged going in the ‘new normal’.  Managers can help build ‘hybrid competency’ amongst their team members, whether that be through role modelling, coaching, mentoring or more formal training and of course keeping lines of communication open and creating a safe space for everyone to speak up.

The role of supportive managers

Being a supportive manager is more important than ever before, particularly in building trust and psychological safety as enablers to creating inclusive and equal work experiences for all, regardless of where employees locate themselves.  But this requires a genuine desire to be a more people focused leader, who exercises high levels of self-awareness and an awareness and appreciation of others, which in turn requires effort and deliberate thinking.

If you’re a people manager, what are you going to do differently as we head into this new way of working?

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About The Author

Joanne Gray, is an Independent Practitioner with a special interest in leadership development and motivation. She is currently undertaking her Professional Doctorate in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck University, you can find out more by visiting her website.

  • The BBC questioned 50 big employers, ranging from banks to retailers, to get an idea of when workers may return to the office. The firms contacted by the BBC covered 1.1 million workers in the UK.

  • Taneja, S, Mizen, P and Bloom, N.,Working from home is revolutionising the UK labour market, 2021.  https://voxeu.org/article/working-home-revolutionising-uk-labour-market

  • Panicker, A., Agrawal, R.K. and Khandelwal, U., 2017. Contentious but Not Optional: Linking Inclusive Workplace to Organizational Outcomes. Drishtikon : A Management Journal, 8(2), pp. 14-28.

  • Randel, A.E., Galvin, B.M., Shore, L.M., Ehrhart, K.H., Chung, B.G., Dean, M.A. and Kedharnath, U., 2018. Inclusive leadership: Realizing positive outcomes through belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. Human Resource Management Review, 28(2), pp.190-203.

  • Morganson, V. J., Major D. A., Oborn, K. L., Verive, J. M., & Heelan, M. P. (2010). Comparing telework location and traditional work arrangements: Differences in work-life balance support, job satisfaction, and inclusion.  Journal of Managerial Psycholgy, 25, pp.578-595.

  • McDonald, P., Bradley, L. and Brown, K., 2008. Visibility in the workplace: still an essential ingredient for career success?. The International Journal of Human Resource Management19(12), pp.2198-2215.

  • Cooper, C.D. and Kurland, N.B., 2002. Telecommuting, professional isolation, and employee development in public and private organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior23(4), pp.511-532.

  • Charalampous, M., Grant, C.A., Tramontano, C. and Michailidis, E., 2019. Systematically reviewing remote e-workers’ well-being at work: A multidimensional approach. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology28(1), pp.51-73.

  • Mortenson, M. and Haas, M., 2021.  Making the Hybrid Workplace Fair

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