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People leaders are the key to hybrid work success — here’s why

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From the world’s biggest companies to city governments, more organizations are trading their pandemic-era remote work policies for hybrid arrangements, where employees split their time between home and headquarters.  

For many businesses, the move is motivated by a desire to strengthen culture and collaboration. But hybrid work can be tricky, and employees can struggle with work/life balance and disengagement.

“We definitely see higher turnover and lower engagement when transitions back to the office don’t deliver on the promises that businesses make,” says Stephanie Neal, director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER) at the leadership consulting firm DDI.

Because of their strong influence on employee engagement, people leaders are uniquely positioned to steer the return to the office. By building and maintaining trust with their people, leaders can help ensure that hybrid work benefits both organizations and employees. 

Why Trust is Critical

According to research from DDI, hybrid employees are 4.4 times more engaged when their managers maintain trust. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose employees’ trust during the shift to hybrid work.

“When a company brings people back to the office, it can seem to the employees like you’re saying, ‘We’ve been trusting you to work at home, but now that’s over,'” Neal explains. “It can feel like a breach of the trust that was there.”

If employees don’t trust leaders’ motives, they are unlikely to buy into the shift to hybrid work. Without buy-in, hybrid work is destined to fail. 

Neal stresses that building trust takes constant, consistent effort. It should start long before the return to the office and persist long after. 

“Trust absolutely needs to be there before you ask people to change their approach to work,” she says. “And once people are back, leaders must understand that it’s going to be a continuous process of having conversations with people about how they are feeling about the change in work.” 

3 Ways to Foster Trust During the Return to the Office

To maintain employee trust during the transition to hybrid work and beyond, Neal recommends that leaders focus on empathy, communication, and accountability.

Empathy

When businesses return to the office, they are asking their employees to make significant changes to their daily lives. People will respond to that change more positively if the organization accounts for their unique situations.

“The number one thing I would suggest to leaders is to think about each person’s individual scenario,” Neal says. “How do you ensure that people feel comfortable with the change and that it meets them where they are?”

For example, employees with children may need to make new childcare arrangements. Women and people of color may have concerns about hostile office environments. Young employees may feel unprepared for the demands of office etiquette. 

“Leaders need to demonstrate that they care about their employees’ wellbeing in this transition,” Neal says. “Try to be as flexible as possible about how the change is done. Make it responsive to people’s needs. For example, don’t say that everyone must always be in the office for the same days or same amount of time if you can help it.”

Communication

Organizations put a lot of effort into communicating the big-picture details of the return to the office, like why it’s happening and what the business hopes to gain.

But they shouldn’t stop there. Once hybrid work begins, organizations should keep communicating about the initiative’s progress. Otherwise, employees may feel left out of the loop, which can erode engagement.

“If you tell people you’re coming back to the office to increase connections, you should keep employees informed about that,” Neal says. “How are connections improving? What changes are you seeing as a result?”

Even if organization-wide communications slow down, people leaders can be transparent about how hybrid work efforts are evolving for their own teams.

Accountability

Organizations often make the case that bringing people back to the office will help teams thrive. Problems arise if that turns out to be an empty promise. 

“If you bring people back and don’t actually help them connect and collaborate, that is a trust-breaker,” Neal says. 

While leaders may not be able to control how well the organization keeps its word, they can create opportunities for their team members to collaborate. 

Leaders should take care to avoid “productivity theater” — that is, making employees put on a show of being more productive when they’re in the office. The focus should instead be on giving people chances to do things they couldn’t do working from home. 

How Leadership Development Helps Businesses Prepare for the Future of Work

Getting hybrid work right is only the beginning. 

“The return to the office is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of how the world of work is changing,” Neal says. “Having leaders sharpen their skills now can only help, especially with even bigger disruptions like the rise of AI.”

Unfortunately, many leaders aren’t getting the development opportunities they need. Only 27 percent say they are very effective at leading hybrid teams, according to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023.

As organizations prepare for the future of work, leadership development should be a key priority. The Global Leadership Forecast found that leaders who get the chance to develop their skills are more likely to say they can engage and retain top talent, prevent employee burnout, and operate in ambiguous environments.

Those are leadership outcomes that every business needs — hybrid or otherwise. 

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