It’s no secret that many companies are struggling to find the right balance between remote and hybrid work policies. After over two years of forced remote work, announcements and retractions of return-to-office dates, remote local hires who have never stepped foot into the office and remote countrywide hires who will never be expected to work on-site, many hope there is light at the end of the tunnel. They just don’t know if it’s sunlight or a train headlight.
For organizations that decided to maintain a remote workforce for any number of reasons, it’s sunlight. Many of them hired employees in distant locations and communicated that employees will not be required to work on-site in the future. Most importantly, they re-evaluated and adjusted their policies and culture to support those decisions. Some companies who previously struggled to recruit talent to their geographic location found it easier to attract talent from around the country. And for companies who have been operating remotely for years, like management consultants who were always on the road visiting clients anyway, there’s no real issue.
Sometimes, it’s a train
The bigger issue is when there’s misalignment between the organization and its workers on where work should be performed. These companies are communicating expectations for workers to return to the office anywhere from two to five days a week, and the workers do not like it. Apple’s transition plan requires corporate employees to work on-site at least three days each week. In response, some workers formed a group called Apple Together to advocate for greater freedom to decide the best face-to-face schedule with their respective managers.
Goldman Sachs is requiring all employees to return to the office, with CEO David Solomon calling work from home an “aberration.” Their employees are pushing back. They’re threatening to resign and complaining that this conflicts with Goldman’s stated values of putting people first and their number one ranking on Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies.
Is there a solution?
There’s no right answer to this epic work location question—other than that leaders need to quickly figure out how to adjust. All the reasons used to argue against remote work more than two years ago are no longer valid. What is important is the need to adjust organizational culture to a remote or hybrid environment.
Some leaders are reluctantly moving forward with a remote or hybrid workforce while trying to reinforce workplace culture when they have limited time with their in-person staff. These leaders felt used to casual coffee or hallway conversations, the chance to observe employees in action and multiple touchpoints throughout the day to understand how work is progressing. Some of them thrive on the energy of being around others, either because they need face-to-face interactions or because it validates their own roles.
But it’s still a time of conflicting expectations, and everyone needs greater clarity on the way forward.
Getting back on track
There are several steps companies and their leaders can take now to provide clarity for their employees.
First, discuss your values at an organization-wide level, and a team level.
Your values are publicly expressed strategies and goals about what you believe in and tell others about the organization. And given those values are still appropriate, the underlying assumptions of how those values are accomplished and how people get work done may need to be adjusted. For example, collaboration may still be a value, but how you actually do it may shift. Generally, these operating principles of culture are so subconsciously embedded that people don’t think about different ways of accomplishing them.
Second, reflect on what concerns you most about hybrid or remote work.
What do you observe about your team when you’re together? Are there other ways of gaining the same information? Do your face-to-face interactions serve your ego (ouch!) more than they serve the team? Changing leadership patterns and learning new skills aren’t always easy, but they may be necessary. Your ability to do so is indicative of your growth as a leader.
Do you worry about how productive the team is when they’re remote? This is the time to learn to manage for results, not busywork. Do you worry if they’re taking care of personal tasks instead of working? Maybe they are, but maybe they’re also working at 5 a.m. or 10 p.m. Two years of a pandemic taught us to juggle in ways we were never able to before. Plus, the flexibility to get things done when they need to be done may outweigh all of that.
Third, engage your teams in identifying different ways of living out your values.
Have a frank discussion on what does or doesn’t work well about remote or hybrid work. (Hint—they’re already talking about it among themselves, so you might as well know what they’re saying.) Talk about the in-office norms that you miss, or that have been difficult to replicate remotely. Discuss as many examples as you can to enable clarity and get to the root of everyone’s concerns. Agree on the activities the team will engage in face-to-face.
Fourth, talk about how to build relationships in a remote or hybrid world.
Relationships are the basis for trust and the currency for getting things done. Since those casual interactions will not be as frequent, purposely design opportunities for people to interact and communicate on a variety of work and non-work topics. Make it clear that these are productive moments and a critical part of each person’s role.
Finally, invest in learning different tools or technologies.
This is how you can support the future of work. This may require learning new skills, new approaches to work and thinking differently about what it means to be productive.
Leading a remote or hybrid team is the new normal. It’s time to learn to do it well.