How to boost engagement in a hybrid workplace

‘There's this real danger of turning ‘us’ into ‘them’ and if leaders aren't perceptive of that, it can blow up’

How to boost engagement in a hybrid workplace

If anyone thinks going from the office to remote work was a challenge, they should brace themselves for the hybrid model, says Merge Gupta-Sunderji, founder of Turning Managers Into Leaders.

“To me, hybrid just doubles the complexity, if not more, because now you've got two sets of people that you need to work with. And now it's not just ‘Let me change my practices’, it's ‘Let me have two sets of practices that work together.’”

And when it comes to engaging people in this setup, the biggest challenge is that there's a real tendency for this us-versus-them mentality, she says.

“Those who are remote feel like they're out of the loop. The people in the office get access to more resources, to more information… And then the people who are in the office, there's this belief that ‘Well, I can't get hold of them, they're never available.’ So there's this real danger of turning ‘us’ into ‘them’ and if leaders aren't perceptive of that, it can blow up.”

Communication, communication, communication

To avoid people feeling left out, management and leadership need to be on the human aspect that’s at the centre of all this, in addition to real estate and technology, says Darryl Wright, associate partner for people advisory services at EY Canada in Toronto.

“You've got to be very clear. Retention is an individual and specific thing, and so is engagement. And that's where empathy comes in… I would see empathy training and empathy awareness being held up significantly to be able to drive engagement.”

The logistics of getting people back into the office in some way, shape or form should definitely involve the leadership teams aligned, especially as some CEOs in the U.S., for example, have spoken about having people back full time, which could prove a challenge when it comes to engagement and retention, says Wright.

“[It’s about] spending time getting alignment at the top of the house just to get the philosophy wrapped around the hybrid workforce because it's all about engagement and experience at the moment.”

On that note, there could be tension as people return to the office. That’s because, for much of the pandemic, he says, “there's been a lot of default to employee preference because [of the] human impact… and [now] organizations have to rebase or reset their preferences. And I think that's the critical discussion.”

Organizations bent over backwards, and rightly so, to accommodate people because their health and safety was paramount -- but that’s now changing with the vaccines and loosened restrictions, says Wright. Employers should now convey how they’re managing things in a responsible manner with all the appropriate risk mitigation stuff.

It's about being very specific, deliberate and articulate about what you want to do takes the guesswork out of it, he says.

“That's where leadership plays a strong role in how you communicate back into the employee group by saying, ‘Look, we've looked at this thing, we're going to experiment, we're going to pilot, work with us, we'll engage you, we’ll get an employee listening tools on the increase, pulse surveys.”

Leadership in a hybrid model

Leaders should also take the time to deliberately establish a set of new norms and standards for the hybrid approach, says Gupta-Sunderji.

“You may discover that 80 per cent of them are the same as before, but go through an exercise with your team of saying, ‘OK, we're now in a different world, let's do an exercise and figure out what are our team norms and standards? What are the ways we're going to operate with one another? What are some of the expectations we can have of one another?” she says.

“At the end of it, you've got this a common understanding of how [you’re] going to operate with one another, even if you've got a great culture to start off with.”

Another important tip for engagement? Have every manager hold one-on-one meetings with every single one of their staff members, in person or virtually, each week. Managers may complain, but it’s their job to make that connection, says Gupta-Sunderji.

“It's not just for you to get caught up, it's so that they feel like they're part of the team, it's so that they know what's in your head.”

Collaborative tools

Of course, technology will be key in connecting people at home and at the office.

While there’s been lot of innovation around bringing people together in a room in a virtual way, using different meeting style and facilitation staff to bring people into the conversation in an equitable way, says Wright.

“Because people are worried about what we call ‘talent parity’ – ‘If I work at home, is my career and my advancement in my career going to be stifled? And will those people that are in the office surrounding leadership, will they be seen to be the ones that will be up for promotion and get all the kind of juicy projects?’ So employees are worried about the whole talent parity story, and it goes back to engagement.”

Employers that are being deliberate about establishing hybrid workplaces are focused on online collaboration tools, with great tools that include the obvious ones such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or a great one for brainstorming called Miro, says Gupta-Sunderji.

“You actually use Post-it notes, you can move them around, everyone's working on that board at the same time.”

Another important way to boost engagement? If there’s ever a meeting where just one person is out of the office, hold it virtually for everyone, she says.

“You're going to get people in the office say, ‘Well, there's 10 of us here, why don't we just get into the boardroom and turn around the boardroom table, and we can beam everyone else in?’ Don’t, because what happens is that that us-versus-them mentality, it gets accentuated, because there's side conversations that happen and the people who are not in the room will feel more isolated.”

Focusing on deliverables, work styles

For employers that are still focusing on effort rather than outcome, this new hybrid reality is going to fail, says Gupta-Sunderji.

“You don't know when an employee is working remotely, you don't know when they're doing it, how they're doing it, you just know what the answer they got to. So you've got to focus on the deliverables, you've got to focus on the outcomes, you can't focus on the process or the effort. So in terms of your expectations, now, they also have to be deliverables.”

In bringing people back into the office, EY Canada has taken a data-driven approach based on work style and activity. Working with departments and functions, it came up with 24 different personal and work demographics to get a cross-section of which people have a higher or a lower propensity or viability to work remotely. For example, single parents or people who are also caregivers, says Wright.

“Once you've made those decisions, you say, ‘Well, what are the touchpoints for that type of persona? What does that persona like? How do they like to be engaged? What are the motivators for those people? What are the detractors for those? And that drives engagement.”

Line managers are then trained up against those personas, he says.

“And we then enable them. And then we say, ‘OK, in the new way of working, this is how you would activate this type of persona. And this is what you must be careful of as a detractor,’ because that links back to experience and engagement.”

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