2021: What I learned about working remotely. Part 3.3 – Revisiting the Hybrid Model: Trust and Balance
I’m revisiting this 2018 assessment (of mine) of the hybrid model for working remotely to consider how the experiences of 2020-21 might revise that assessment and, more importantly, inform how such a model might be effective going forward.
In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the rapid move to remote working necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Part 2, I looked at the lessons learned during the pandemic work-from-home situation. In Part 3.1, I looked back at the original four arguments about working remotely and reconsidered the first one – the economic argument and the financial considerations for organizations and employees. In Part 3.2, I considered the teamwork argument and whether co-location is an essential element of teamwork, or not. I concluded that co-location does not guarantee an engaged or productive workforce, which leads neatly to the third and fourth arguments…
The trust argument: leaders are afraid that employees working remotely will not get their work done. They fear a lack of control over what employees are doing will mean failures in productivity. They do not trust people that they cannot directly supervise.
Without trust and confidence, no working relationship can be effective. Location is irrelevant without trust and mutual respect. Employers and managers must be able to trust that employees working remotely will be as diligent and productive as they would be onsite. This requires the presumption that employees ARE in fact diligent and productive onsite. In many discussions that I have had with managers and leaders on this specific argument, challenges with an employee’s performance pre-dated the pandemic situation. Remote work exacerbated, but did not cause, the challenges. Supervisors and leaders need more skills and capacity to pay attention to the work of their direct reports who are working remotely some or all of the time, and check the assumption that it is the work location that is causing any performance issues. At the same time, supervisors should recognize that, by limiting their employees’ options for flexible locations, they are also limiting their own – the argument “everyone must be onsite to be supervised effectively” means the supervisor must also be onsite to do the supervision. Hopefully, one of the lessons of the pandemic has been that managers can, in fact, supervise effectively and directly even when they cannot physically see their employees.
Leaders need to model good behaviours in the hybrid model by following the good practices learned through the pandemic. Effective use of virtual tools, daily check-ins and -outs, and increased attention and feedback to each employee should be things we’ve learned to use well, and those can continue. Leaders also need to avoid suggestions that those working onsite are more dedicated or effective than those working remotely, especially as we emerge from a period where many have been working remotely by requirement rather than by choice. A specific example: don’t refer to an employee’s time working remotely as “time off”; just like almost all of them have over the past year, employees working remotely are working just as hard as those onsite, and frequently are working much more (more on that in the fourth argument).
Employees have responsibilities in this trust relationship, too. With the flexibility of a hybrid model for work location comes the responsibility to keep your commitments to productivity, collaboration, communication, and accountability. To be trusted with the privilege of working remotely, we must be trustworthy. Just like we should in the pre-pandemic times, establish clear objectives and criteria with your supervisor, and then work to meet those. Don’t make your remote workdays always Mondays and Fridays (thus perpetuating the perception that this is time off) and don’t refer to your remote workdays as days off. And don’t use remote working as an excuse for failing to deliver – this undermines the trust of the entire arrangement and the promise of the hybrid model: that work can be as good or better with this flexibility and accommodation. Don’t fulfill the expectations of those leaders and employers who see remote workers as unproductive and untrustworthy. This privilege of remote working comes with a huge upside that many will be loath to give up, and rightly so. Especially as it contributes to…
Work-life balance argument: employees who work from home have a better balance, as they get to schedule and plan their work around their own styles and the demands of their life.
As predicted in this argument, employees have reported better balance through having greater flexibility in their schedule to better manage the competing demands of work, family, and life. They also reported (and, in my own case, experienced) a greater understanding of and appreciation by family at home of what their work actually entails, contributing to enhanced empathy and support from those family members. That balance was achievable because the work and the culture of the workplace respected the commitment and professionalism of employees to do the work, not just put in the hours, and the employees kept up their end of the bargain by delivering time and again, sometimes more and better than in the pre-COVID times.
This was not true for everyone, but certainly, for those that are now strongly desirous of a hybrid model, it has worked remarkably well. Ditto for the supervisors and managers that had already established relationships of trust with their teams – they knew they could rely on those employees to get the work done and not violate or abuse the privilege of working remotely.
For those for whom the balance was not better – those living alone, or far away from family, or new to the city, or highly social beings that thrive in the presence of others – the end of the pandemic period and a return to the worksite perhaps feels like sunshine at last after a long period of rain. Unfortunately, I fear that many of these will be disappointed to see, upon their return, fewer people (due to those opting to continue with at least some remote working days), more physical restrictions (small group gatherings, masks still required in some situations, no group lunches or shared lunchroom treats), and likely a greater sense of hesitancy by everyone, in case the pandemic isn’t truly over.
As discussed in part 3.2, just as not everyone thrives or manages well in a remote work arrangement, not everyone was thriving in the pre-COVID world of everyone on-site all the time. One of the key requirements of a hybrid model is that it is adjustable – that both time and location are flexible and that both employer and employee tweak that arrangement as needed to best manage the economics, trust, teamwork, and work-life balance in ways that contribute to maximum benefit for both parties.
Perhaps thinking of it as a flexible model, rather than a hybrid model, makes more sense. The individual work arrangements of time and location are flexible, and so the team and organization become a hybrid workplace.
This will be the last post in this series. I had expected to do a Part 4, as the pandemic came to an end and the hybrid approach became less a response and more of the norm. But the pandemic wears on. As we wait for the future to arrive, we can keep trying and tweaking our approaches to remote and hybrid working. “Returning to the pre-pandemic office” is not going to happen. Instead, hopefully we can take the best of what we’ve learned and create a new model of work that ensure everyone is safe and fosters value, teamwork, trust, and balance for everyone.
In the meantime, let’s all continue to be kind to one another.
What do you think? Is hybrid the way of the future, or should we “get back to normal”? What are the key lessons learned that should inform and shape our working world in the future? Please comment below or email me at email@example.com with your questions and feedback.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.