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Why hybrid workplaces need better conversations

Why hybrid workplaces need better conversations

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For Arran Heal, hybrid working means more disconnections and greater potential for misunderstandings and grievances. To help combat these issues, he argues that new skills are needed to ensure better workplace conversations and a continued sense of belonging.

23rd May 2022
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There’s a new ‘them and us’ – not bosses and workers, but those employees in the office or other central premises, and those working either entirely or mostly remotely.

More physical disconnection over the course of the pandemic was always likely to lead to psychological divisions, but our new world of hybrid working opens up many different opportunities for grievances and conflict.

If everyone was working virtually from home there would be far less of a problem. But the hybrid mix means angst on both sides.

Some people will be wondering why they haven’t been given the option of working remotely; others, why they’re only allowed one day a week, whereas a colleague gets three. 

There’s a new ‘them and us’: those employees in the office, and those working remotely. 

For those who are at home, there are worries about what they’re missing out on, and whether their manager is still giving them the same attention as others. When they join a Zoom call they see the rest of the team together round a table; they’re chatting and sharing jokes; what are they whispering about?

Employees who are used to working from home over the past two years have become used to greater autonomy and choices about when and where they work –  more interested in outputs than inputs. 

This has implications for power relationships, and the extent to which line managers can go back to the old forms of control. 

Is remote working affecting productivity? 

At the same time, there’s still the nagging doubt about productivity and whether staff are really putting in the same level of effort and concentration when surrounded by the distractions of home or a co-working space.

Managing the office-home divide

Management skills and approaches haven’t yet caught up with the new realities involved. Many organisations continue to think virtual working is just a case of making sure their video streaming platform is working – not how it’s being used and how virtual relationships are built and maintained over time. 

It’s all new. HR and management are only just starting to come to terms with how working relationships are changing, and what that means for performance, productivity, motivation, and a basic sense of purpose. 

Meanwhile, the potential for friction and misunderstandings accumulates. Ties between people and the opportunities for clarity, and real conversations and resolutions also become fewer.

Many organisations continue to think virtual working is just a case of making sure their video streaming platform is working.

So far the response from HR has been around legal implications and compliance, reviewing work from home policies and who’s entitled to what. But what’s really needed for hybrid 2.0 is attention to training, learning and development.

HR and L&D professionals must consider the state of workplace conversations, remotely or otherwise; including what channels are being used, and what support services are available for anticipating and managing conflict.

They must also ensure that line managers and staff in general have the conversation skills to face up to more testing, perhaps awkward, situations where there are gripes and anxieties.

What this means in practice

Training staff in higher levels of conversation skills is essential. This involves enhancing their listening skills, situational awareness, self-awareness, curiosity and empathy (all the kinds of qualities that are needed to a greater degree when dealing with people remotely).

In particular, companies must help their employees with tactics for dealing with ‘difficult’ conversations, how to anticipate them, prepare and approach them in a constructive way.

Another method that could be employed is to set up an internal mediation service run by trained staff that provides a more personal and informal outlet for dealing with conflict, and provides more employees with universally useful listening skills, a better understanding of workplace dynamics, and helps them to understand how to appreciate different perspectives.

It is also important to create an environment in which the company and employees think about diversity and inclusion differently; one in which they do not rely solely on awareness training around issues to be aware of, or try to fix ‘proper’ forms of attitudes and behaviours. 

Employees need to feel able to be themselves and be appreciated as individuals rather than clones.

Employees need to feel able to be themselves and be appreciated as individuals rather than clones – an essential part of diversity and inclusion – but they need to have the people skills to present themselves and deal with others in mature ways.

Possessing good people skills and encouraging a genuine sense of community, is now more important than ever. Within this skillset, being able to respond in the right ways to grievances and conflict is vital. 

Digital working routines might reduce everyday contact and opportunities for a personality clash, but miscommunication, isolated bubbles of thinking, impersonal responses, and flare-ups, are far more likely and insidious in their effects.

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