Many of you will be enjoying a return to pre-pandemic normality. I am just loving the revival of freedoms that we took for granted two years ago – seeing family and friends, having the option to travel, not having my glasses steam up when I’m wearing a mask. All the usual stuff.

Returning to normal can be wonderful. For HR, it can be a mixed blessing. Yes, we don’t have to deal with constant crises. We can now offer flexible, hybrid working as the norm. We have made virtual hiring, onboarding and L&D happen.

But on the other hand, we are seeing an unwelcome return of too many of the old ways of thinking. For every company offering fantastic hybrid benefits, there are an equal number of managers who want everyone back in where they can see them. From having to trust people during lockdown to deliver outputs without micro-management, there are numerous sighs of relief as managers feel they can go back to micro-managing their staff.

I think it’s important for us in HR to take a step back and reflect – what did we learn during Covid? What did we learn about managers’ capabilities, the ability of our people to change and adapt, and what did we learn about ourselves? If we can consolidate on what we’ve learned, maybe we can avoid the slippery slope back to old ways of thinking and leading?

We learned that people can change really fast

Imagine having an HR project where the end result would be the majority of our employees working in new locations, with new technologies and in new ways. You can just picture the scale of the project plan, the amount of stakeholder engagement, training programmes and communications. And yet it just happened.

What’s the learning here for us? I think it’s about looking at people and change through a new lens. Instead of our mantra being ‘people don’t like change’ – we need to see change as something we do really fast – if the circumstances are right. ‘Right’ meaning that we make it easy for people to use, give them the space to find their own way of doing it, and have leaders role model the same new behaviours.

Personal choice matters

We all experienced the pandemic in different ways. For people like me, who are lucky enough to have the space, working from home felt like a wonderful relief after incessant travelling. I got to spend time with husband and my Mum (who was in our bubble). Yes, it got a bit tedious at times – not seeing friends, (not the spending time with my husband!) – but on the whole 2020 wasn’t too bad. For others, cramped living arrangements, home schooling and isolation made it all extremely challenging. The return to normal has been equally personal. Some can’t wait to get back to the office, whilst others can’t think of anything worse.

The learning for us in HR is that personal choice matters. One size fits all hybrid working policies are always going to be inadequate. The more that we can enable managers and their teams to have grown up conversations about what works for the individual, the team and the company – the more likely it is that we’ll meet the different needs of our people.

Moments that matter

Even the most introverted homebody will acknowledge that some things are better done in person. Whether it’s brainstorming ideas, celebrating as a team or connecting with someone new, there are times when virtual just isn’t as fulfilling.

We learned however, that it’s important to know which are the ‘moments that matter’? Rather than old-school thinking of 3 days in/2 days out – if we can discuss and agree the moments that matter – when we should be face to face – then we can really get the benefits of hybrid.

The processes that weren’t missed

Quite a lot of our HR processes weren’t missed during the pandemic. Suddenly, our annual talent reviews, performance rating exercises and annual engagement surveys seemed unnecessary or too difficult to do. We turned our long training programmes into bite-sized Teams sessions that worked really well and were so much easier to schedule. Virtual hiring or onboarding meant we had to get creative. We changed our overly complicated mentoring schemes into pop-up sessions. Leadership comms became less formal and corporate. Short and sweet pulse surveys gave us much greater insights at the right time. We got rid of the processes we had been loyally defending as ‘best practice’ since the 1980’s and the world didn’t fall apart. In fact our new approaches gave us credibility and showed HR can adapt at pace. The good news is that many of us are not going back.

We can trust our people

Finally, if we only learned one thing from the pandemic, it should be that our people can be trusted. Turns out they didn’t need the myriad of detailed and prescriptive policies to know how to show up, serve customers and do right by their colleagues.

We should be taking this new atmosphere of feeling we can trust our people and use it to recharge our employee experience. It’s time to take away the rigid policies and replace them with light tough principles that start from the premise of ‘we trust you to use your judgement and do the right thing’. If we take this learning of trusting our people, we can create an environment that is not just passive and compliant but agile and ready to thrive when and if the next crisis hits.

A few of the more traditional leaders I’ve worked with recently have complained about the younger members of their staff. They are upset at what they see as a reduced level of loyalty. In the old days, they say, we were like a family but the younger generation don’t seem to want or respect this. They are too quick to jump ship for another company or they lack the same level of commitment as the older members of the team. I’m not sure whether this is one of the typical generational stereotypes that often get thrown about or whether there is in fact a demise of the concept of our employer being a family. I really hope it’s the latter. We are not our employees’ family. We never have been. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s healthy.

For all of the nice stuff about being a family, the sense of belonging, the long term-relationships with colleagues we care deeply about, the loyalty and pride that we feel, there are several reasons why we should stop presenting the relationship with our employees in this way.

It’s dishonest

The thing about your family is that, even when times are tough, we don’t tend to get rid of them, even if we’d like to! We’re being dishonest when we welcome our employees to their new family because, if we have to – for financial or performance reasons – we’ll discard them. 225 million jobs were lost globally in the first year of the pandemic and whilst this will have been really painful for many company leaders, in the end, they still do it.

It’s unhealthy

Companies that present themselves as a family tend to engage in some practices that are unhealthy for both the company and the employee.

There’s a tendency to see a resignation as a betrayal. One boss I had didn’t speak to me for six weeks after I told him I was leaving. This is so short-sighted. Smarter companies recognise that people leaving is part and parcel of the employer-employee relationship and make it ok for people to do it. In fact, they go further than that. They nurture their alumni and ensure that they can come back – with new skills, fresh perspectives and experiences – that can add more value to both parties than if the person had stayed. Da Vita Healthcare, for example, regularly hire back people from their alumni. Around 15% of new hires have worked there before.

Conversely, it becomes a given that employees will stay with us, that long tenure is the ultimate goal. Think about what we celebrate. We give out awards or extra holiday for long-service, we monitor and reprimand managers with high churn rates, we devise retention schemes to keep people with us. Now of course, we should thank people for their loyalty. But equally, shouldn’t we prize those people who don’t stay forever? Who purposely limit their time with us because they value variety and new challenges?

I once worked with a guy who would only accept two-year contracts because he worried that if he accepted a permanent contract he would start to feel too settled and he would become wedded to his employer. He worried that he could become scared of the prospect of having to leave and find another job. And that this would drive unhealthy behaviours; that he’d be more concerned about clinging to his job than doing a great one. If we stop thinking about ourselves as a family where leaving isn’t ever talked about, we can have healthier conversations about the need to move on, to keep skills and mindsets fresh. Whenever I’ve worked with long-serving employees, there is always a high percentage of them who seem unhappy, resentful almost. Like an unhappy marriage where the couple are miserable but lack the confidence to leave. We need to have healthier conversations with our people about how leaving isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should openly talk about a healthy average time in role to prevent the relationship getting stale. I love the LinkedIn concept of Tours of Duty, where it’s not just acknowledged that you won’t stay forever, but positively welcomed.

Whilst seeing our employer as our family has some negative consequences, I’m not saying it’s a relationship that should be purely transactional either. Of course, there should be warmth and kindness. But being kind is not about pretending there’s a job for life and avoiding difficult conversations. Kindness means having those honest conversations and being truthful about the relationship. I think the ultimate kindness we can show our people is to work with them to make sure they can remain employable in the future, with us possibly, but more importantly, somewhere else. Both the employer and the employee have a responsibility to keep their skills fresh, but more importantly, that they don’t see their future as interminably linked to us. We can work together to ensure they retain the confidence and the appetite to leave.

Rather than relying on an HR policy to help you manage a team who are working flexibly, try asking yourself these questions to make sure you’re getting hybrid working right.

  1. Do I work flexibly – or am I always in the office? What subliminal messages am I giving about where it’s best to work?
  2. Am I being clear about the outputs I want and then giving flexibility about where and when the works gets done? Or am I still managing by overseeing tasks?
  3. Am I being inclusive enough, or are my meetings geared to people in the office/at home? Am I accommodating the different needs and personalities on our team?
  4. Am I having grown-up conversations with my team about hybrid working? Am I being flexible enough, or am I being too accommodating and not pushing back if it causes problems with customers or the rest of the team?
  5. Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development with the people I don’t see very often?
  6. Am I clear on the ‘moments that matter’ for my team? When should we be together face to face? Have I asked them when they feel it’s important?
  7. Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
  8. Do my team members have what they need to be able to work effectively from anywhere?
  9. Am I realising the potential benefits of hybrid to create a more diverse team?
  10. Am I being too inflexible about where my team work because I don’t trust some of them? Could I handle this in a different way, so I don’t punish the many to manage the few?

In this 5 minute video, we look at the most popular options for HR team structures and outline three key features of new HR team design.

If our organisations and our teams are going to survive and thrive in this new, disrupted world then we need a fundamentally new way of relating to our people. This video explores how leaders can do things differently using the EACH model – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. 

Right now, management teams all over the world are debating what they should do with the future workplace. Some, like DropBox are getting rid of offices for individual working completely. At the other end of the spectrum, some, like Goldman Sachs, seem to be denying that the last 18 months even happened and are urging everyone to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Most leaders though are taking a more progressive and rational approach and opting for a hybrid workplace. Whether that’s a 2/3 day split like at BP or even better – like O2, Mondelez, Standard Chartered – allowing for personal choice about where we want to work.

But what does this mean for managers who are trying to get the work done, keep customers and team members happy and still provide this level of individual choice? How can you make the future workplace – work?!

Got to work for all

As managers trying to juggle different – and sometimes conflicting needs and wants within a team – and still deliver – it’s tempting to look for some rule or policy that we can use to give us the answer. But the smarter leaders know that a prescriptive policy is NEVER going to cater for every possible situation. The best and really the ONLY way to resolve conflicting needs and wants is to talk it through as a team. If you treat people like grown-ups and share the dilemma – you can work through it together – through conversations. True, not everyone may get everything they want, but you’re treating them like adults and it’s more likely to be resolved amicably without applying a big one-size-fits-all approach.

Level the playing field

If you’re really going to make the future ways of working happen effectively, then it’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. It’s well-known that human beings tend to show bias towards the people we see more regularly and that remote workers can feel less valued as a result. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.

Retaining your culture

Managers I meet are worrying about how they can continue to retain their culture if more of their team aren’t in the office regularly – and I think this is a valid concern. What we see companies doing is being really clear on the key interactions with your team members that are best done face to face? – the so-called ‘moments that matter’

Managers at ABN Amro have identified 4 key moments that matter – being recruited, being inducted onboarded, dealing with difficult times and building social relationships. Once you’ve identified the key moments for your people that are best done face to face, then you can co-ordinate the team being together. Maybe have a think about the moments that matter in your area? Or better still, discuss and agree them with your team. Agreeing on the types of activity that play best remotely or face to face, rather than how many days a week tends to be more productive.

Leader’s checklist

And what about you as a leader? How might you need to work differently? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to hopefully help you move to a more hybrid workplace

  1. Are my meetings always about ‘tasks’ or do I create opportunities for social interaction?
  2. Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development?
  3. Am I celebrating enough as a team? How am I recognising individual team members?
  4. Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
  5. Do I Work From Anywhere – or am I always in the office? If leaders don’t actively work away from the office then it will be seen as something that in reality is frowned upon.

But more than anything, leaders can make this work by not seeing and framing Working from home as an indulgence. If we continue to imply ‘BUT, THE REAL WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ we’ll be back to packed commuter trains and cubicle-working in no time at all. Offering greater choice about where and when your teams do their work is a fantastic opportunity to provide the flexibility and autonomy we crave whilst providing the social interaction and structure too.

Right now many leadership teams are trying to work out what their future workplace will be like.

Will it be:

Getting to a decision can be tricky as there usually lots of personal agendas floating about! Based on our experience of helping leaders arrive at some conclusions, we’ve produced the following Do’s and Don’ts. We hope you’ll find them helpful if you are having this type of discussion.

Do’s

  1. Get them to acknowledge their personal preference at the outset. (It will be helpful to know, because they’ll tend to assume everyone wants what they do!)
  2. Avoid applying ‘old-thinking’ such as 2 days in the office and 3 days at home. This will probably end up not pleasing anyone! Instead, try and think about the ideal activities to be done face – ‘moments that matter’ to your sustaining your culture. And allow managers and to work it through with their team members based on what works for them.
  3. Keep your options open. Whatever your decision, you can always agree that you’re going to ‘suck it and see’. There’s no need to box yourself into a corner when things are still uncertain.
  4. What’s right for you and your culture. And think about how you can differentiate rather than following the herd?
  5. Reflect and remind yourselves how productive and agile people have been during lockdown. We’re still hearing some leaders talking about working from home as an indulgence! Maybe show them this short video around creating a ‘better normal’ before you start the discussion.
  6. Challenge sentences that start with assumptions about ‘everyone’ wants, eg: ‘everyone can’t wait to get back’ or ‘everyone wants to carry on working from home’. It’s always going to be less black and white than that.
  7. Think shorter and longer term. Of course, you’ll need to have your immediate response to recovering from the pandemic, but also use this opportunity to think about how you’d like it to be in the future when you might have more flexibility to look at things like office leases and employment contracts.
  8. Have conversations about how your choices can be helped to work, eg: an equally positive experience for remote and office based, keeping collaboration going, supporting managers to have better conversations, changes to meeting practices, etc).

And now for some ‘Don’ts …

Don’t (or try not to) …

  1. Make it overly-complicated, eg: detailed role-based decisions or specifying certain days, etc.
  2. Design around the lowest common denominator (ie: badly behaving employees or managers who are worried about having to make judgments and have conversations they might find difficult).
  3. Assume that the office is just for collaboration. Whilst important, there are people who might just prefer to work there (eg: people who don’t have much space or young kids, etc).
  4. Try and manage it from centre. One size can’t fit all. Allow managers and teams to work it out locally.

Lucy talks to Jason Larry, the Global Head of Real Estate at Mondelez about their approach to post-pandemic hybrid workplace.