Great Disruption, the Sequel

April 28, 2021

Recently, I was speaking with a client in the early stages of bringing the majority of their remote workforce back to the office. He said something that resonated with me and probably would with other strategic communicators: the “pandemic has leveled the playing field” between employees who were always in the office and those who were always, or nearly always, working remotely.

His company had plenty of people clustered in office buildings around the country working the typical pre-pandemic ritual of commute, work, commute, family time, check email, sleep, repeat. Over the past year, those employees transitioned to working from home – which morphed into living at work – and are now beginning the transition back to commuting to an office when they’re not working from home.

This return to the workplace is the second big disruption of work patterns in a year, and it is proving to be the more challenging of the two. As we’ve said before, shutting down was the easy part – coming back is going to be hard. 

In addition to issues of vaccination and Covid safety protocols, there is the need to balance two almost mutually exclusive desires of employees: flexibility and in-person interaction. According to research conducted by Microsoft for its 2021 Work Trend Index, 73% of workers want flexible remote working options while 67% of workers are “craving more in-person time with their teams.” That means at least two out of every five employees want both. In other words, they want to work when and where they want, but still spend significant amounts of time with their colleagues. 

Getting this balance right, or at least trying to, will be a significant challenge for all firms seeking to create an effective hybrid workplace. And we should be clear: the hybrid workplace, though still a work in progress, is here to stay for most employers. 

However, this new working arrangement presents three huge challenges to strategic communicators, beginning with their own teams.

First, work times will become increasingly asynchronous, as will the processing and responding to stimuli (e.g., emails, Slack messages, meeting requests). This was already a feature of remote working as employees adapted to the realities of working outside the office, operating a school and/or daycare center, coordinating with a spouse’s work schedule, and managing their unstructured time. As we come back to the office, those working in the office are probably going to respond faster as a group than those who are remote.

Think about it this way. A person in the office in the midst of unstructured time is in the office, close to their work computer and likely not dealing with a lot of distractions. A person in the home in the midst of unstructured time may be doing a variety of things and may not be so quick to respond. And who’s in the office and who’s at home may vary from day to day, even morning to afternoon on the same day. 

However, with some thought, these problems can be overcome, maybe even turned into advantages. Some ideas we have come up with to help manage this asynchronous communications dynamic on your team are:

  • Separate time-sensitive discussions from less urgent conversations and provide specific deadlines for action. 
  • Use collaborative tools such as Google Docs or Microsoft Teams so that your employees can best contribute when they’re at their most thoughtful or productive.
  • Make information available to your whole team at the same time but temper expectations for everyone to respond at virtually the same time.

Whatever boundaries that existed between work and life bled away during the pandemic. For our teams’ well-being, strategic communicators need to express the expectation that at least some of them should be restored.

Second, managers will struggle to maintain a sense of belonging among their hybrid teams, especially among younger or newer employees. According to Microsoft’s research, 60% of Gen Z employees and 64% of employees on the job for less than a year described themselves as “struggling” versus “thriving.” One of the key reasons for this is the near-complete breakdown of informal communications networks that bind employees together.

Among the victims of remote work are the watercooler conversation and the reliable “stick your head in someone’s office” approach that worked so well before the pandemic. Hybrid working will not fully restore these informal networks. To the extent that they are restored at all, the benefit will flow mostly to employees who spend most or all of their time in the office. If the pandemic leveled the playing field between in-office and remote workers, then the end of the pandemic may make it even more uneven than before.

Strategic communicators will need to find ways of keeping everyone engaged and feeling part of the team despite a wider variety of circumstances than when everyone was remote. It will be very tempting to rebuild informal networks among those in the office, so care must be taken to ensure that your remote team members stay in the loop. 

Some tips for managing this gap in sense of belonging on your team:

  • Keep meeting on Zoom or your preferred platform even if a significant proportion of a meeting’s participants are in the office. This keeps the playing field more level among everyone because all team members are having the same experience.
  • Continue online networking events to maintain the connections among your remote team members and your mostly in-office colleagues.
  • It is easier to lose something in translation and harder to course-correct when teams are meeting in a hybrid environment. Don’t assume everyone in the room and on the call heard everything correctly. Memorialize assignments, expectations, and deadlines, and share them as soon as possible after the meeting.

And keep in mind, the stakes are fairly high. According to Microsoft’s research, 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year and 46% say they’re likely to move because they can now work remotely. How you manage your hybrid teams will influence who stays and who goes.

Finally, clarity in written communication has never been more important. I spoke with a client’s CEO several months after the pandemic began, and he said he never realized how important internal communications were until everyone on the team was scattered. 

People in the office can easily obtain clarifications of intent and expectations from each other right after a meeting ends. Body language is more readily understood in person. Nuance and tone may be lost in translation by the remote team members. The best way to combat this is to communicate clearly and directly.

The importance of internal communications – following our ABC mantra of “Always Be Communicating” – remains high, perhaps higher, in a hybrid workplace.

Some tips to help ensure communications are clear:

  • Assume your team members, especially those who are remote, are not on the same page. The less context and clarity you provide, the more your audience will have to manufacture them. When communicating something important, act as though one or more of the recipients wasn’t at the meeting or doesn’t know the full story.
  • Likewise, team members will assign their own sense of urgency to communication if none is provided. State the urgency of the information or request upfront to separate the ASAP, from the “by later today”, from the “when you get to it”, from the FYI. 
  • And be clear if attention – even reading it – is needed during non-working hours. If it can wait, it should.

The hybrid workplace has the potential to transform work for the better, but strategic communicators – and managers across the organization – need to adapt their expectations and messages for a hybrid workforce. The old communications networks will not be rebuilt for some of your team, so building new ones is critical to keeping the team together, happy, and productive.

Filed under: Blog | Crisis Planning

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.