Over the past year, many companies talked about remote working and COVID as if they were problems that would be resolved when the health situation returns to normal. Here we are almost two years into the pandemic and it's pretty clear that the Omicron variant has ensured that a return to the physical workplace en masse is not going to happen soon.
Onsite, Remote and Hybrid Workplaces
Even when it does, the likelihood of a full return to the physical workplace seems remote. Research contained in Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2021 report, in fact, indicates that most companies will be using both onsite workers and remote workers to get things done. It showed, for example, that as of September 2021, 45% of full-time U.S. employees were working remotely all or part of the time. The rate was significantly higher, at 67%, among workers in white-collar jobs, contrasted with 48% in education and 35% in healthcare.
It is also worth noting here that following a steady rise over the last decade, employee engagement decreased globally by two percentage points, from 22% in 2019 to 20% in 2020. Leaders will need to address this decrease and the business impact on workplace culture, employee retention and performance.
If communications are one of the key elements regularly cited in research when workers are asked about workplace satisfaction, then the question arises as to what will happen with communications over the next year. How, for example, will workers communicate and more importantly how will enterprise leaders communicate with three different types of workers and teams, remote, onsite and hybrid, and more to the point, how will they manage such diverse kinds of teams.
Related Article: Advancing the Digital Maturity of Internal Communications
Work Processes and Technologies
Lars Hyland is chief learning officer of San Francisco-based Totara Learning, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology.
He says that managing dispersed teams like this is possible, but only if the company invests in the right processes, supporting technology and tools, and demonstrates a true cultural commitment to communicate and collaborate transparently. He adds that management must be sensitive to individual needs for flexibility, while providing meaningful opportunities for people to engage with each other beyond their immediate work context.
“All of these things can be achieved when the structural design of the business and the expectations set allow people to feel confident, motivated and satisfied in their work,” he said. By understanding what truly motivates us at work, a workforce can be fully united, productive and innovative no matter where they do their work.
- Mastery (the opportunity to improve and develop new skills)
- Autonomy (the freedom to make decisions and challenge others constructively with full psychological safety and support from management)
- Purpose (being crystal clear about the company's goals, and how these translate into team and individual goals that align with personal values)
“Work is not a place — it has always been an action,” he added.
Effective Communications Are Key
At the heart a workplace that embraces all kinds of teams is effective communication, said Dean Guida, founder of Slingshot and CEO of Cranbury, NJ-based Infragistics. Every employee — no matter where they’re working on — needs to know the following three things:
- What is expected of them
- When things are due
- How what they’re working on fits into what the rest of the team is working on.
While these sounds obvious, a lot of managers don’t give deadlines or insight into the bigger picture, he said.
Digital workplace technology can aid in this for remote, hybrid and onsite teams by providing a built-in framework and process that gets managers and teams working toward this philosophy. The right digital workplace tool should help managers assign deadlines to tasks and projects, assign an owner, give the full team visibility into everyone’s contributions and allow communication directly in the platform about individual tasks or overall, as a group. That way, teams can see the status of every project and individual team member’s contributions in moving these projects forward, all in one place.
“Over communication is key to managing remote, hybrid and onsite teams as one workforce,” said Guida. “When teams aren’t physically together, it’s easy for individual team members to make their own story when there is a void of information”. He added that when employees have visibility into company priorities and what is happening with the business, they can align everything they’re working on to the company’s goals and have a greater sense of ownership in their work.
The Cost of Communicating Poorly
Carlos Castelán is managing director of the Minneapolis-based Navio Group. He points what we all likely know by now, that managing teams has been challenging during the pandemic and will continue to be as many organizations now must oversee a remote, hybrid and/or an onsite workforce. The key to successfully managing workers at different locations is communication and engagement. And the solutions to this lies not with the employee but management. Communications from leadership is a key factor in easing the problems created by employees continuing to work at different locations. So, it's crucial that executives and managers keep the lines of communications open, especially when your employees are working remotely or in a traditional office setting.
Poor communications impacts employee engagement by making team members feel removed from decisions and devoid of any sense of ownership. In many ways, poor communication — or a lack of communication — signals to someone that they’re not valued enough to be included. It can also lead to role ambiguity as well as heightened stress or anxiety because of a lack of feedback which ultimately leads to, stress, burnout, talent drain or other symptoms of low employee engagement.
To remedy these issues, setting a clear vision for your team, providing an understanding of why their work is key. “Communicating a clear vision and goals to employees at home or in office allows them to understand how their work fits into a bigger picture and that they’re making tangible progress along the way. This keeps them engaged, alleviates stress, and lessens the chance of burnout by making their work and participation more meaningful,” he said.
Don't Manage Workers as a Single, Unified Workforce
Phil Kelley Jr. is the author of a recent book on the role of communication in the hyperconnected world as well as CEO of Salem One, a marketing company in Salem, NC. He disagrees and disputes the claim that it is possible to manage these three different groups as a “single unified workforce”.
“I don’t mean to say this is not happening and is not a reality in some organizations, due to leaders just trying to get what they can out of everyone who is still dealing with sizable restrictions and alternative working situations allowed within company COVID related policies,” he said.
The point is that organizationally, communication and work environment cultural differences are simply going to be a reality within each of these groups. If the organization, manager or HR department views these workers as one homogenous group, there is no chance at all that this will lead to an efficient, productive, motivated reality unless you already established a complete, efficient and relational online communication network prior to this situation. Most have not, and therefore cannot make it happen now. What’s more, you are going to lose some of your best people if you try to treat everyone from a single reality. He added that we are at the point, almost two years into the challenges of the day, where folks are going to get tired of poor corporate culture realities or a lack of understanding of what they are being asked to accomplish within negative or poorly connected work groups and cultures.
“For good and bad, diversity means each individual is unique,” Kelley said. “We each have different needs and wants, strengths and weaknesses. Add in different work hours, different perceptions of work efficiencies, and not being able to interact personally every day, and the HR manager is in for some long days and a bunch of 'I’m leaving' notices."