Hybrid work model: 4 ways leaders can build trust

A hybrid work model combining remote and office work is becoming the go-to strategy as organizations move toward a post-pandemic world. Consider four tips to make hybrid work succeed
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The hybrid work model, in which employees spend some time in the office and the rest working remotely, is emerging as a leading post-pandemic strategy. Employees want to keep the flexibility they’ve had over the past year or so while getting back those elements of the office that they have missed. Employers don’t want to lose their best employees to competitors – a very real risk if they’re inflexible.

Some roles, especially in technology, financial, and professional services, are well-suited to combine office and remote work. Many employers are trying to align their talent proposition to reflect this while also striving to boost agility and productivity and reduce real estate costs.

Now that vaccination programs are enabling offices to reopen, employees need clarity about what hybrid work will mean for them. Firms that have embraced its potential benefits now face a new challenge - how to make the hybrid model work.

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Hybrid workplace model: 4 ways to make it work

Here are four tips for leaders:

1. Balance individual choice and organizational orchestration

The core challenge is how to balance the clarity and structure required for effective teamwork with the flexibility employees want.

Being with colleagues is crucial to employee performance and is the reason that many want to spend at least some time in the office. Working together, water cooler conversations, and other serendipitous interactions sustain relationships, grow networks, and enable knowledge-sharing. These are the factors that build organizational culture and effectiveness.

[ Read also: Hybrid work model: Qualcomm IT, HR execs share 6 priorities for leaders. ]

However, if  enough people are not in the office on a given day to create those interactions, this reduces the value of going to the office. Why be in the office only to spend the day online, talking to colleagues who aren’t there? If there’s no reason to be there, people will simply stay home.

Balancing choice and orchestrating coordination are best done at a team level. This gives clarity on how the whole team will work together, whether in the office or remote.

2. Experiment together

If teams don’t trust the process, they won’t trust the outcome. Everyone – from junior staff who are most keen on flexibility to seasoned managers who will have to manage teams in new ways – must feel heard as firms define how, where, and when they work. 

If teams don’t trust the process, they won’t trust the outcome.

This means managers must:

  • Listen carefully to employee insights and preferences and show that these have been considered
  • Test emerging designs with employees and engage with them at a team level to understand their needs
  • Invite teams to experiment, adopt the attitude that success depends on them, and show a willingness to learn from what works and what doesn’t
  • Align expectations, accept the fact that not everyone will get everything they want, and clarify that there is a sound rationale behind decisions

Success will come from the trust that is built through these shared responsibilities.

3. Be customer- and culture-led

Real estate, technology, and HR policies should enable – not drive – hybrid working.

This is a hugely exciting, once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine work and improve corporate culture and customer service, using real estate, technology, and HR policies to deliver the results.

The EY Global Work Reimagined Survey 2021 – which surveyed 16,000 people to understand the employee experience of the future – shows a new hybrid working culture already developing. Nine out of 10 employees want flexibility around where and when they work, and one-third want shorter working weeks. Employees generally want to work remotely two or three days a week, and the majority (54 percent) say they are likely to quit if they don’t get what they want. Millennials are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to say they will leave their current job.

Workplace policies must recognize and be led by these shifts to ensure that employee reward, development, and careers are not damaged by the changes that are taking place. Otherwise, teams will be caught between wanting to work at home and worrying that if they do, they will lose out. This will erode trust and make opting out a real possibility.

4. Support and trust teams to perform

The EY survey shows that two-thirds of respondents feel the hybrid work model will make their company more creative and that managers don’t need to be in the same space as their teams to be effective.

But leading in a hybrid world can be challenging – the survey also found two-thirds of team leaders have needed to work outside of standard working hours to find time to focus, compared to four in ten team members. Reasons for this include unscheduled calls and urgent requests, coaching team members, answering e-mails, and dealing with home distractions and childcare.

Leaders must also find new ways to manage challenges such as unproductive online meetings with inadequate agendas, back-to-back calls, and time management issues.

High-performing teams still need to be supported to remain effective – but providing this vital support has become more challenging.

Leaders must role-model new behaviors, not just talk about them. They should accentuate the positives of hybrid work, focusing on things like energy, coordination, and cooperation rather than the “stop” aspects of legacy team culture, such as never switching off, presenteeism, and exclusion.

It’s also important to make changes such as setting aside time for individual work, establishing email and meeting-free times, and limiting the length of meetings.

Creativity and flexibility are key

Hybrid work is still a new concept for many organizations. Successful implementation requires inspirational leaders who can create positive and rewarding experiences. They need to be self-aware, authentic, empathetic, visible – and equipped with the HR policies, technology, and real estate needed to make it happen. They also need to be creative to ensure that when teams do meet face-to-face they make the most of their time together.

Organizations of all types will need to develop guidelines for meetings, stretched workdays, collaboration, meeting fatigue, presenteeism, inclusion, and other factors. But it goes far deeper than that: The entire mindset of how organizations are run must shift towards multiple workplaces and flexible scheduling.

Anything less just won’t be enough.

[ Need to make more thoughtful decisions? Get 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide. ]

David Storey
David Storey leads the Workforce Advisory practice across EY EMEIA and is an experienced entrepreneur and advisor who has focused on strategy, organizational effectiveness and people challenges for more than 20 years.