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What to do about the ‘them and us’ of a hybrid workplace

Consultancy 4th February 2022

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 in the end, 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 — and a colleague gets three.

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 around a table. They’re chatting and sharing jokes. What are they whispering about?

Employees 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 ways of dictating. And 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.

Hybrid working — given the flexibility and the time and cost-savings it offers — is here to stay. Unfortunately, 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 Teams 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 basic sense of purpose. Meanwhile, the potential for friction and misunderstandings accumulates, ties between people and the opportunities for clarity, real conversations and resolutions become fewer.

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 is attention to the state of workplace conversations, remotely or otherwise; what channels are being used, what support services are available for anticipating and managing conflict; making sure 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.

In the hybrid context, access to mediation and approaches like neutral assessment becomes more important than ever. If people have fewer opportunities for informal contact — the few minutes of catch-up after a team meeting, bumping into each other in a corridor, sitting together over lunch — then there need to be other informal channels for dealing with issues, avoiding the sudden collapse into formal disciplinary processes and tribunals.