The new office of hybrid and fully-remote workers will require upskilling of employees for organizations that wish to succeed in the post-COVID world. Leaders who want to seize a competitive advantage when they return to the office will need to benchmark their training initiatives to best practices on managing hybrid and remote workers.
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In this piece, I related the best practices on doing so. These practices stem from research on hybrid and remote teams and on returning to the office after major disruptions. They also come from interviews I conducted with 61 leaders at 12 organizations I helped guide in developing and implementing their strategy for returning to the office and their post-pandemic mode of collaboration.
Our Future Is Hybrid
Hybrid and, to a lesser extent, fully-remote work will be the norm post-pandemic. Of course, that applies to the large majority of employees whose roles allow them to do at least tasks remotely. During the pandemic, surveys show (1, 2) two-thirds of all US workers worked remotely a significant portion of their time.
With the pandemic winding down, two-thirds to three-quarters of surveyed employers intend to have a mainly-hybrid schedule after the pandemic ends. Plenty of large companies announced a switch to a permanent hybrid model of two to four days of remote work after the pandemic. They include Citigroup, Ford, Microsoft, Siemens, Salesforce, Target, and many others.
A smaller, but still sizable, number of big companies – ranging from insurance giant Nationwide to tech firm Facebook to major drugmaker Novartis – decided to let many or all of their currently-remote employees work from home permanently.
That combination of hybrid and fully-remote work largely matches worker desires. A set of high-quality surveys (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) show that two-thirds of all employees want a hybrid schedule permanently after the pandemic. A quarter of all employees want a fully-remote schedule.
The latter desire is likely to be accommodated. Many of the companies that announced a primarily-hybrid model indicated they are willing to let a substantial minority of their workforce work full-time remotely.
We can thus anticipate that the large majority of the two-thirds of all employees who can do their tasks remotely will, on the whole, work most of their hours at home. For organizations to make this new permanent mode of collaboration work, they need to upskill their employees.
Upskilling Employees for the Hybrid-First Model Through Virtual Training
Hybrid work is a distinct third way, neither in-office nor fully remote work. You’ll want to train your hybrid workers on how to work effectively in a hybrid-first model. For those who remain remote, you’ll want to train them on how to collaborate successfully with their colleagues, both those working hybrid and fully-remote schedules.
Upskilling in Organizing Hybrid Work
Your hybrid workers must learn to divide their work activities. Previously, they spent their time either fully remotely or fully in-office. Now, they must learn to do different things at home and in the office.
The office will be, primarily, a place of collaboration: with their whole team, with individual colleagues, or with cross-functional teams. Secondarily, it will serve as a place to work on tasks on which they anticipate a frequent need to consult with fellow team members. These might include tasks that are more complex. It might also be tasks with which they’re less familiar than other team members.
Your staff must learn how to organize and plan their activities and communication differently than before to maximize their effectiveness both in the office and at home. At home, they’ll work on their individual tasks. They’ll also prepare for and communicate about collaborative tasks before coming to the office.
Given how infrequently they’ll be coming to the office, each in-office hour will have more at stake. Failing to prepare effectively for such in-office activities will not only undermine their productivity, but also that of their team members.
Changing the way we work takes a great deal of energy and effort. The lockdowns caused an ad-hoc, emergency shift to remote work. As a result, many employees – and companies – developed suboptimal patterns of collaboration. By providing company-wide guidance on best practices for hybrid work, and training your employees on doing so, you’ll help upskill them and thus set them up for success for your new permanent set-up.
Upskilling in Virtual Communication and Virtual Collaboration
If you haven’t done so yet, make sure to provide training in effective virtual communication and in effective virtual collaboration. Too few companies provided such training during the pandemic. They perceived remote work as a temporary response to an emergency. Given that you’ll be shifting to hybrid work permanently, with some workers remaining full-time remote, it’s time to upskill your workers in this field.
It’s notoriously hard to communicate successfully even in-person. That’s why many experts made a good living before the pandemic helping leaders and teams improve their communication. Quality communication becomes much more difficult when in-office teams become virtual teams. One of the biggest problems stems from much more communication shifting to text through collaboration apps such as Slack and Microsoft Teams. As a result, much of the nonverbal communication is lost, leading to a huge increase in miscommunication.
That’s especially challenging since a key purpose of nonverbals is to communicate our emotions. You’re probably not surprised to learn that moving to virtual work has sorely endangered our emotional connection and mutual understanding.
Phone calls and videoconferences help address these problems to some extent. Still, even videoconferencing doesn’t convey nearly as much body language as in-person meetings. When you have 8 people in small boxes on your laptop screen it’s hard to read their body language well. Also, you only get the body language of facial expressions, and miss the 90% of the body that’s not on camera.
The same applies to virtual collaboration. In the office, face-to-face interactions help employees notice problems and nip them in the bud. You pop into each other’s office, or run into each other in the hallway, or share a meal in the cafeteria. You might talk briefly about the project you’re working on together. You’ll catch potential problems while getting on the same page about next steps toward solving them.
Unfortunately, this just doesn’t happen in virtual settings. There’s no natural way to have these casual interactions that are surprisingly vital to effective collaboration and teamwork. There are particular challenges around people-related problems. Body language and voice tone are especially important to noticing brewing conflicts. Thus, we may miss them in virtual contexts: challenges in virtual communication thus contribute to virtual collaboration problems.
Training in effective virtual communication and collaboration helps address these problems. For instance, training in emotional and social intelligence as adapted to virtual settings will help employees communicate and collaborate much more effectively.
A case in point: they need to ask intentionally how other people feel, not just how they think, about their proposed ideas. Previously, in the office, people’s feelings came through easily through body language and tone of voice. Of course, that doesn’t happen in virtual work environments. It’s important to teach people to “read the room” deliberately in order to improve virtual collaboration. Many other techniques exist for effective virtual communication and collaboration.
Upskilling in Work/Life Balance
- Burned out
- Unable to disconnect
- Obliged to respond to work messages outside of work hours
Unfortunately, some team leaders encourage such behaviors. It falls to senior leaders, then, to reinforce the boundaries. That includes regular public reminders to employees to stick to preset hours and discouraging the sending of any form of communication after hours. It also includes communicating to mid- and lower-level managers that you won’t tolerate them encouraging burnout to meet their goals.
Ask them to speak privately with and discourage any employees who regularly work more than full-time hours. Establish a wellness team empowered to contact employees who regularly log on to your collaboration technology or send emails more than a couple of hours after the workday ends or begins. The only exception should be an unexpected emergency that shouldn’t happen more often than once per month.
Note: if employees are underperforming, it doesn’t mean they should simply work more and violate these boundaries. It might mean they need more professional development in how to work effectively. It might also mean that they’re overloaded with tasks that should be handed off to someone else, or even postponed if some are not high priority. It might even mean they’re no longer the right fit for the job. What you don’t want is someone burning out and resigning, and then have no one left to handle their mountain of tasks.
The pandemic pushed leaders to revamp pre-established management practices and shift to remote and hybrid work. While leaders increasingly recognize the hybrid and remote future of work, the abrupt transition offers a serious challenge for employers and employees alike. Leaders saw a decline in workplace collaboration and morale as many employees faced burnout and poor communication and collaboration. Such circumstances cause companies to lose their competitive advantage. To address these issues, leaders must focus on upskilling all their hybrid and remote workers to survive and thrive in the future of work.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
How have you facilitated communication among remote and hybrid employees?
What measures have you taken to upskill employees in virtual collaboration during lockdowns?
How do you plan to address the transition to the future of work based on this article?
Image credits: Anna Shvets
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a world-renowned thought leader in future-proofing, decision making, and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. You can contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and gain free access to his “Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace” and his “Wise Decision Maker Course” with 8 video-based modules.