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.

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?

We’ve spent a lot of time recently worrying about what our post Covid workplace will be like. We’ve wrestled with much flexibility we should offer, should we change our contracts, should we go for set days at home or offer personal choice and how our office layout might need to change. Just when we thought we were getting somewhere, there’s a new dilemma on the horizon, how do we reduce proximity bias?

Now, as anyone who doesn’t work in Head Office knows already, proximity bias is an actual THING. If you are someone who has frequent contact with the leaders and spends more time in the office being ‘seen’, chances are, you will receive preferential treatment when it comes to promotion and are likely to be seen as a higher performing employee.

If we are serious about continuing to offer genuine flexibility around where and when people work – and why wouldn’t we be – then we need to tackle proximity bias. If we don’t, then you know exactly what will happen. For all of our commitment statements about offering flexible working, our leaders in the office will become a kind of siren, gradually drawing people back there with them.

So how to tackle this issue of proximity bias. First up, the basics. It’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. 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.

Next, help managers to manage through outcomes and results, rather than task supervision. One technique that might help is the so-called ‘tight-loose-tight’ management approach. This is where really tight and clear outcomes are identified up front – then the manager is encouraged to back off and loosen up around exactly HOW these outcomes are delivered – followed by getting tight again around accountability. The idea is to give managers the assurance they need that results will be delivered without them needing to observe the work being done.

Thirdly, we can challenge proximity bias at the point where a manager might be about to choose someone who they see everyday, over someone who works remotely. EY have implemented something they call ‘PTR’. This involves leaders checking with each other whether their choice is ‘a Preference, a Tradition or a Requirement’, ie: ‘did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference, or because the person traditionally in this role has always been based near to you, or because they genuinely meet the requirements for the role?’ It might not eliminate proximity bias, but it at least makes them pause and think.

And finally, the most significant thing you can do to reduce the bias of proximity – make sure your leaders are working flexibly too. If leaders are always in then we will continue to imply ‘BUT, THE IMPORTANT WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ then all of your brilliant flexible working plans will gradually fade away. Employees will know without being told that to be valued, to be recognised and to get on, then they have to be seen. You could adapt PepsiCo’s mantra of ‘Leaders Leave Loudly’. Leaders there make a point of letting their teams know that they are working from home or leaving the office early to pick up their kids or go to the gym. If our leaders role model the new hybrid, it will happen.