By Helen Marshall
In February 2020, I had just headed into my second year of working fully remotely. Hired as (my then) company’s first fully remote hire, I was a bit of an experiment. Would working remotely full-time be a success? Would I fit in with the team? Would I be or feel part of the company culture? All these things were being figured out. But by my second year, the answer was largely: yes. There had been a few logistical hiccups (not being invited to meetings, or dialling into a room full of people where I couldn’t hear anything, for example) as well as cultural ones (it generally took a lot longer to feel part of the team). However, as the guinea pig, I felt like it had gone reasonably well.
Fast forward a month to March 2020, and the ball was suddenly flung into a very different court. As we know, the start of the pandemic saw massive shifts occur rapidly. Uncertainty, fear and panic took over, and no one really knew what to expect from one week to the next. People had to, and still are having to, find a new balance. For many teams, that has not only meant figuring out how to work differently with the same people they’d previously been accustomed to sitting next to, but how to begin working relationships with new starters, too.
Remote, and indeed hybrid work, has been around for years – and, somewhat cynically, the only reason people care about it so much now is that it affects so many more people. Typically, little attention was paid to the hybrid experience because most people were in the room anyway. As we seem to know, we now have a chance to avoid going back to ‘how things were’, just because they are quick and comfortable and embrace the opportunity to try doing things differently. But with that, there’s an extra level of responsibility for line managers and senior leadership to recognise that creating an inclusive culture means paying even more attention to treating everyone fairly – no matter their physical location.
DiversityQ released an article focusing on the potential disparity hybrid working could cause between those being seen in the office, and therefore being top-of-mind for quick favours and hashing out ideas, and those working remotely, and therefore more easily forgotten about.
‘Present privilege’, would see those people more often in the office in line for promotion above those working elsewhere, and they surmised many of the groups now more regularly working from home would include working mothers, disabled people, older employees, and other minority groups. The very people that diversity and inclusion policies aimed to protect in the first place (although just how well that was happening is a whole other question in itself). McKinsey & company released some interesting research underlining the importance diversity brings to successful businesses and how those with less focus on I&D strategy are largely lagging behind. It’s worth a read for those interested.
Of course, there’s somewhat of an assumption in Diversity Q’s research that management themselves are more likely to be in the office, which I’m not sure is wholly accurate, but let’s go with it. Managers need to take the time to get to know their teams and understand how they work. Establishing what works, how to bring your best self to the table, what you respond well to, and what makes people unique is important. I do feel like this is something that takes longer in a virtual environment. There aren’t any ‘in between’ moments where people are more likely to be themselves—for example, walking to a meeting room or making a brew. In a virtual setting, silence is often more awkward.
Honing in on the idea of being human and honest at work and not hiding behind short answers and meaningless small talk is something that is covered in Heather Gunnell’s HRD Connect article ‘We’re not machines: It’s time to humanise workplace culture‘.
Personally, I’ve noticed a difficulty in identifying ‘your people’ in the workplace. In knowing whom you can talk to with more honestly because there’s such a focus on being okay on camera. We feel almost duty-bound to say ‘I’m fine’ while smiling through gritted teeth. You have to force yourself in a very vulnerable place. Something to be conscious of here is that some people will feel much more comfortable more quickly, and we must recognise this. Ultimately, we need to speak about this more. This vulnerability also needs to be seen in senior leadership.
Many people have endured poor management in their working lives, so to see their leadership admit when they aren’t okay, that they’re feeling a bit frazzled, and that it’s not all roses all the time speaks volumes. It opens up the opportunity to admit that maybe they’ve been feeling a bit like that too.
Taking a step back
At the start of the pandemic, there was little to no talk about the working world shift for remote workers. Of course, working from home wasn’t a big deal for us, but dealing with everyone else’s adaptation was. Suddenly all that office chatter moved online. My diary went from having a reasonable amount of meetings to being jam-packed. Emails were constantly arriving. Instant messenger was always pinging. Projects that had previously required a few team meetings now had daily check-ins and different management methods. It was intense. For people who had never worked from home, I kept saying:
‘It didn’t use to be like this. It’s not normally this insane.’
Initially, I had felt a parity with my peers that I perhaps didn’t realise was missing and enjoyed feeling much more part of the team. But what soon dawned on me was just how much I had been missing out on being a remote worker. We didn’t need daily project meetings because most team members were chatting at their desks and between our ‘official’ online calls. I just hadn’t been part of that. However, it didn’t take me long to realise just how much it wasn’t necessary to do your job well. Cutting out the noise and focusing was one of the reasons I was good at my job, but not being able to anchor it to something bigger was also one of the reasons I ultimately left that role.
Engagement is falling
It takes time to come to terms with the fact that when you’re less human in your roles when you don’t make time for connection and really understand how people are doing, the focus then becomes the bottom line, and the work you’re producing becomes less tied to a bigger purpose. You end up less engaged.
In fact, in 2020, Achievers conducted some research to see whether individuals felt connected to their organisation in the face of the pandemic. The results showed that a third of British workers now felt less connected to their company’s culture and colleagues (despite the constant communication barrage – interesting.).
Ultimately you can only create work for so long without feeling part of a wider purpose, and in a hybrid world, that needs to be recognised upfront.
The individuality of you and your team
I listen to and read a lot of stuff about performance and leadership – and although the two go hand in hand in many ways, one thing I often come back to is that you can’t be a performative leader. The way you lead has to come from you; being a good human brings authenticity into what you do. It’s not an act; you have to genuinely believe in what you’re doing and show up consistently for your team. In embracing that, you also have to recognise that the people on your team are all unique, with different demands on their time and varying life circumstances. These all feed into how you show up at work and whether you perform at your best on a given day.
The prolonged level of uncertainty (which continues) reveals the psychological and physical impacts. In Brené Brown’s episode of Dare to Lead with Amy Cuddy’ Pandemic flux syndrome‘, they touch on the idea of ‘misforcasting’ in terms of how you think you should feel in the face of a given situation (like ‘freedom day’ after lockdown). And I think we’ve been doing that a lot in the workplace.
For those of us who have had face to face meetings or gone back into offices now and then, there’s an expectation that you should feel amazing. Whilst it is great for the most part, the anxiety, indecision, cognitive overload and exhaustion that goes with it afterwards needs to be spoken about more.
Empowering, supporting and motivating
More so than ever, individuals will be feeling and experiencing a range of different emotions and personal circumstances that feed into how they turn up at work. As a leader, recognising that is important. It’s not only about acknowledging these competing demands but allowing space for them and actively reaching out and encouraging people to keep in contact in a way that suits them (and you). Line management should focus on empowering, supporting and motivating individuals – no matter their physical location – and showing up consistently, being honest and remaining impartial when it matters.
CIPD has previously found that individuals feel their career progression is hindered by working remotely, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the same is true in a hybrid workforce. Microsoft’s Work Smarter to Live Better research also warned of the potential of a two-tiered workforce: those present in the office and those not, and it’s easy to see why this might be an issue if training and development opportunities are not purposefully delivered to suit a hybrid workforce.
A voice or virtual seat at the table
Providing the same opportunities no matter physical location seems straightforward, but extra attention should be paid to providing a voice or virtual seat at the table to those working remotely. Connective technologies certainly play a huge part here, but so does human connection and the effort to establish strong relationships. Ultimately, avoiding disparity should be a conscious effort until it becomes a subconscious practice.
Helen Marshall is Head of Learning at THRIVE and is passionate about creating content that is really useful ‘in the moment’, and becomes part of a client’s sustainable learning strategy. Always extending her research beyond the echo chamber of L&D, Helen aims to bring a fresh perspective to the challenges of the modern workplace.