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How to re-build trust for a hybrid workplace

Consultancy 17th March 2022

Hybrid workplaces are here to stay. Latest figures from the Chartered Institute of Management (CMI) suggest 80% of organisations are sticking with at least some of the home working arrangements made necessary by the pandemic crisis.

Many employees have enjoyed the flexibility and greater sense of independence and control. The CMI itself argues that hybrid working should become the norm, the best practice option — because ultimately hybrid has led to improvements in productivity and even financial results.

All sounds good in principle. But beneath the headlines about the uptake of hybrid are some real concerns among managers who have to deal with the day-to-day implications: a whole new era of management. There’s a reason why so many organisations are still calling for staff to go back to offices. The most obvious challenge for HR and managers generally is around what hybrid does to workplace relationships. There’s little evidence from the past 100 years or so to suggest that organisations have ever found a perfect formula for office dynamics, to ensure there are no clashes in personality, niggling grievances or full-blown conflict. The way the best employers have dealt with the inevitable, and in many ways just healthy, day-to-day conflicts, has been to build a culture of trust.

When employees feel able to be open about their worries, to have a real conversation about their personal situation, then there are always opportunities to avoid formal processes, disciplinary action and tribunals. They trust their manager and their employer to listen without having pre-conceived ideas, making snap judgments that damage the employee’s standing in the organisation.

Unfortunately, hybrid working puts all of this informal network under strain. There’s less face-to-face contact, and when it does happen, there’s more pressure on time. The rapport needed for trust and openness is undermined over time. People who are only in and out of the office can feel isolated and divided from those who are together, communicating and sharing their experience every day.

HR needs to think again about relationships, conversations and re-building a culture of trust that works for the new context – the hybrid environment that’s not going away:

  • creating opportunities for more conversations as part of routines, digitally and face-to-face, and not allowing staff to become complacent and fall into disconnected routines — it’s happening more and more now the novelty of remote working has gone;
  • making managers have higher levels of conversation skills: listening skills, self-awareness, empathy are needed to a greater degree when dealing with people remotely;
  • ensuring there are informal systems to catch grievances early and deal with conflict, via methods like mediation and neutral assessment. There are now far more reasons and chances for concerns and minor conflicts to go under the radar, to fester and escalate;
  • and, ultimately, in order to secure the basis of trust, review standards and approaches to workplace investigations.