Employees hating hybrid?

5 strategies for senior leaders to overcome resistance


Published on: March 2022

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

Dust off your blazer and get out the heels from the back of your closet: It’s time to return to work. Whether you’ve been encouraged, advised, or ordered to come back to the office, you may not be thrilled by the idea, particularly if you’re like 76% of Americans who say they prefer working from home (up from 60% in 2020), according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps this doesn’t reflect your own sentiments, but if even half of the people on your own team feel this way, it presents a set of interesting challenges, particularly for senior executives, who are accountable for delivering results. Hence, this question: How do you continue to strengthen performance or maximize productivity when half of your people don’t even want to be in the office? Consider the following:

Keep it simple

It’s easy to make things overcomplicated as you consider options for leading in a hybrid working model and get lost in discussions about which days of the week to come into the office or what type of camera to use for a video meeting. This isn’t to gloss over the details that come with designing a thoughtful hybrid strategy and approach, but the fact remains: The same important concepts about good leadership are equally true in a hybrid setting.  Revisit what you already know about leading through change, inspiring others, or providing outstanding communication, and continue to demonstrate the strong qualities that got you to where you are today. After all, it’s much easier to return to work when it’s led by high-performing leaders.

Preferences may be driving your decisions, not strategy

In our work with organizations implementing hybrid strategies, we’ve seen how the preferences of executive leadership dominate a return-to-work approach, even when that approach is counter to the latest research on workplace productivity, employee sentiment, or other factors. In fact, we have found that leaders unconsciously assume that people around them share their mindsets and preferences around where and how work gets done best. But when we actually assess people´s preferences and mindsets, they are extremely diverse. For instance, consider your reaction to the following statements:

  • I can build close human connections as well virtually as in person.
  • Office-based teams form tighter connections than virtual teams.
  • If we don’t radically rethink the function of the office, we’re at risk of losing good people.

There is no right answer here, only responses that reflect a set of beliefs and preferences, so before you roll out a strategy or plan for your own team, take time to identify your own preferences and those around you. Create transparency about those preferences by sharing the information and discussing together, so employees recognize how your return-to-work strategy isn’t just a disguised plan of your own personal whims, but rather, a thoughtful approach that took multiple factors into consideration.

Authorship is ownership. Some of us bristle at being handed a plan and told, “Do this,” without any say in the matter. To get buy in and commitment to a hybrid model, you’ll want to engage your employees in a co-creation process first, so they are part of shaping the approach. Even if you work in an organization that has already developed a return-to-work policy, take the time to engage your employees in an inspiring conversation about the future before you get too far down the path of implementation. Bring your team together and ask: in 12 months, what do we aspire to achieve in a hybrid model? If we achieve this, why would that matter? Create a picture of the future, together. Make it concrete so others see the future as better than today and want to be part of making it happen.

The more clarity, the better

In our work with high-performing teams, we know the best ones have clearly defined ways of working together, and these operating agreements govern daily interactions, meeting protocols, and more. In hybrid, you’ll want to clarify how you’re going to work together now, so take time to update how you’ll make decisions, communicate with each other, or how to raise issues, including behaviors to improve or stop altogether. For instance, consider the use of the ‘chat’ function in virtual meetings, and whether it is being used privately to avoid candor and raising issues to the group. Take the time to evaluate the effectiveness of your meetings. Are they a format where your team has productive discussions that create clear outcomes? Is your meeting engagement low because everyone is multi-tasking and checking their email? Don’t overlook these elements as you return to work – they make a huge difference in maximizing team productivity, performance, and strengthening culture.

Make growing trust a high priority

Good companies and leaders already understand that trust is foundational to creating high-performing cultures, and this doesn’t change in a hybrid model. You’ll often hear leaders talk about trust as a “two-way street” or how “trust must be earned,” and while that may be true, here is the key concept for hybrid leadership success: If you want more trust, give more trust.

In our research on teams, we know trust can be strengthened in different ways. For instance, grow relational trust, which addresses vulnerability and how leaders discuss failures, admit mistakes, and share lessons learned. (We loved the story about a team that has a “swing and a miss” standing agenda items at their town halls.) Another aspect of trust comes from demonstrating an alignment of purpose, which means this: I have your best interests at heart. In a hybrid model, if your employees believe you have their best interests at heart, congratulations. You’ve developed a hybrid strategy and approach that does more than just maximize performance and productivity. Even better, you’ve created a stronger, thriving workplace with a powerful culture that employees believe in. That’s a workplace that many of us would happily return to.

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