Building Engagement and Communication in a Hybrid World.

By Deirdre Murray, Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with PEOPLE RESOURCES

“We will not go back to normal, normal never was. Our pre-Corona existence was not normal, other than we normalised inequity, greed, depletion, distraction, exhaustion, confusion, hoarding, rage, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.”

Sonja René Taylor, Author and Poet

It’s been a tough year! The anniversary of Covid-19 on our planet was a major milestone for many people and met with a sense of disillusionment and grief on the year that has passed and the many close family and friends lost. However, like any new disease, its continuing to evolve. We’re learning from emerging health data; there are stop-start moments that require us to put the brakes on and new, inspiring innovations in science that move us forward in a positive way.

Most people thought that Covid-19 was just going to be for a few months. It was a bit of a novelty at first. It allowed the often frenetic pace of life to stop for a while despite the hardships; a camaraderie of supporting heroes on the frontline and helping our families, friends and neighbours cope with this new  disturbing reality. Employers have experimented with remote working on and off for years, but who would have ever imagined a year ago that we would be part of the biggest social global experiment in trusting people to work from home? With this new reality, the challenge for many employers is do we continue to trust employees in providing a good day’s work for a good day’s pay? We all remember Marissa Meyer, former CEO of Yahoo, who insisted pre-Covid, that remote workers come back into the office. Some companies are even setting up tracking systems to check how much time employees are on screen time. Hubstaff, a tracking system for measuring remote work experienced an 400% increase in demand for its product in the UK, (HBR, February 2021). This spells disaster for engendering trust.

Now as the world is opening up much more with the advent of effective vaccines, we will have to remodel how we communicate in this new world of work.  Hybrid is here to stay. A recent Pew Research Study showed that 71% of people are still working from home and 40% will continue to work remotely until year end 2021. Individuals and families have physically moved to be nearer their parents, others are choosing to move out of the big city and avoid the high rental market, as the draw of proximity to the workplace is no longer the imperative that it once was.

Studies show that on average, over 50% of employees want to continue with remote working. In some businesses, companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Spotify, Amazon and Twitter are so well set up in terms of their software, that they can easily facilitate remote working on an ongoing basis and that this will be the new norm for new starts in the “war for talent”. Andrew Hewitt, Consultant with Forrester in the U. S. expects that 60% of employers will offer a hybrid model, with 30% on site and 10% fully remote.

Many argue that as soon as restrictions lift, people will run towards each other, as we are so starved of connection. You can see this happen already as restrictions are gradually lifted. This new hybrid world will require a complete rethink about how we connect and communicate in a global world. Court sessions, schools and universities have changed their systems dramatically to cope. Many had set this up previously but can now choose to continue this as required, indefinitely. It facilitates access to global connection and learning, it promotes greater ease on getting third parties together in timely virtual sessions and it encourages an array of global speakers to conferences, where normally it might take a year or two to nail down a lead speaker in the diary.

In any organisation, strong connections and collaborative innovation are paramount. Two key aspects underpin this: namely, “low affinity distance,” (Lojeski, 2015), where employees have shared cultural values, high interdependence, and can connect emotionally with one another due to a strong team bond, and secondly, where they feel psychologically safe to experiment and to speak up. As we open up the economy, employees need reassurance that they are entering a safe space, and that health and safety Covid protocols are being observed.

At the same time, employers need to devise new ways to communicate in a changed environment. They will need to re-examine their communication strategy to a three-fold approach: In-Company, Hybrid and Remote. A proportion will be in situ all the time, many for healthcare or manufacturing reasons. Others will be working in a hybrid fashion, coming in as required for key team project launches and meetings. Others will work remotely as the nature of their work facilitates this on a permanent basis or because they choose to work remotely for personal reasons.

Some might say, “what’s the problem if we just continue to communicate as we’ve always done?” Businesses are about forging relationships. Unfortunately, virtual communication negates the sense of fully connecting: remote workers miss out on the “water cooler” moments, the impromptu conversation with the boss, the casual serendipitous ‘collisions’ in the corridor, the “meeting before the meeting” conversations which often take place. Those on an online forum miss all the connecting conversations and often fully remote workers are the last to hear what’s going on. Some firms, such as Facebook and Atlassian are investing heavily in designing systems to help remote workers stay connected in a casual way just as much as formal meetings, to help them build trust and a sense of belonging. Zoom fatigue is real. Therefore, Atlassian are even designing avatars so employees won’t have to stare in to a screen all day long.

The future workplace will be a place for focused collaboration. The routine, non-interdependent  aspects can easily be done remotely. For employers, the key is staying nimble. They need to decide the who, why, how and when of physical meetings, virtual meetings and connecting conversations. Habitual, long-drawn out meetings have to be reduced to timely, purposeful, agenda-based discussions with the key players, as well timely follow up and dissemination, particularly across global time zones.

Whatever communication strategy is used, there are fundamental aspects that must be addressed to sustain employee engagement. Companies like Microsoft and Reddit are giving employees much more flexibility on how they work.

The critical aspect is to ensure purposeful connection as shown below:

  1. Connection: Setting up regular, timely meetings that are purposeful, are attended by those who need to be there and key outcomes clarified at the outset. Communication must be clear, concise, communicable, credible, and consistent. How often do we communicate our message in a simple and straightforward way that avoids it being misinterpreted as a result of jargon and legalese? How can we lead with compassion and an understanding of the challenges that each individual is experiencing?
  2. Accountability: Mutual accountability is essential in ensuring ongoing commitment. Setting clear goals and expectations for the team ensures that roles and responsibilities are established and avoids unnecessary duplication, reinforces mutual accountability and diminishes mixed communication.
  3. Collaboration: Defining a clear “why” – a defined purpose and outcome of the communication; when and where it is critical for team members to come together personally, for example, for a key project launch or to focus on creative problem-solving or a brainstorming scenario.
  4. Celebration: Remembering to celebrate key achievements both personally and professionally, no matter how small. Hunting the good stuff. We spend too much time on looking for what’s gone wrong as opposed to what’s gone right.

Taking the temperature among employees and understanding the need for clear purposeful communication and showing flexibility, while at the same time reflecting the needs of the business, will ensure that a powerful communication strategy can be put in place that builds ongoing connection, accountability, collaboration and celebration.

About the author
Deirdre Murray, Founder and Director of PEOPLE RESOURCES, partners as an Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with leading multinationals and public sector bodies across all sectors. She works with leaders and teams to maximise their potential through focused and timely coaching and leadership development.”

Deirdre is co-author of “Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – A Leadership Imperative!” Her second book “Communicate with Impact – Communicate and Influence Successfully,” is out now. She is a regular motivational speaker at conferences, seminars and on radio broadcasts and provides journal entries for leading business magazines.