Why behaviour change is needed for a positive hybrid working culture
Why behaviour change is needed for a positive hybrid working culture
Table of contents
Why is a positive hybrid working culture important?
The abrupt switch to hybrid working a couple of years ago has been a learning curve for both employees and organisations. Depending on where you look, you would be forgiven for thinking that there is a widespread agenda to get employees back at their desks, often without legitimate reason. Social media has been littered with articles on the importance of returning to the workplace, with many believing that it is a result of large organisations’ concerns about expensive office space lying idle. While this is probably a legitimate concern for some businesses, are there any other reasons to get people back into the office, or is working from home a new feature of our working lives that should remain long after the memories of the pandemic and lockdown? What do we need to consider when creating a positive hybrid working culture?
From the employee perspective, there are three main camps when it comes to preferences around the working environment; those that want to work entirely remotely, those that want to work entirely from the office, and those that want the mixture of both that comes from a positive hybrid working culture. As with anything in life, it is almost impossible to keep everyone happy. It’s essential that, whatever approach organisations decide to take, they’ve carefully considered how this may impact their employees, and take steps to minimise any unwanted consequences.
The necessity to move to remote working as a result of the pandemic has been a truly unprecedented disruption to how we work, and this impact has been felt across the globe and across industries and pay grades. Going forward, it is unclear to many what the future of work and working environment will look like, with arguments both for and against a return to the office.
Using a behavioural science lens, we’ll walk through some factors worth considering to help understand the challenges and opportunities faced by organisations and employees alike, and what a positive hybrid working culture might look like for the future.
A fundamental requirement for employees is a workspace that meets their needs and offers an environment that is conducive to working and productivity. Many employees have become accustomed to the home comforts and oftentimes peaceful surroundings of working remotely. This can make returning to life in a bustling and crowded office difficult and jarring. While being in the office is great for communication (see below), sometimes the level of communication that employees are subjected to can lead to disruption and distraction. A consistently distracting work environment can be detrimental to performance, job satisfaction, focus, and health.
Working from home can also come with its own workspace challenges. Not every employee has the luxury of a dedicated workspace or home office, and this can be exacerbated depending on how many others are sharing the home during working hours. There may be competition for any available workspace, not to mention demands for attention if there are children, pets or other family members in the home. So, while returning to a noisy office may be a cause of concern for some, equally, trying to be productive in a home office set-up can also be fraught with issues around distraction and concentration. It’s also worth remembering, many larger offices are designed with human behaviour in mind, a factor unlikely to have been considered within the design of our homes.
Aspects of the environment that are often overlooked and taken for granted in the workplace including heat level, appropriate lighting, ergonomic desk set-up, and seating arrangements, are in fact hugely important in terms of keeping us comfortable, appropriately distanced, and contribute overall to maintaining a healthy working environment. Our homes, however, are not designed in such a way, and seemingly minor issues such as poor lighting can impact on mental health and productivity. I must caveat this by stating that for those with sensitivity issues, having control over the immediate environment (light, heat, etc) has a notable positive impact, so we need to bear that in mind when people ask for more work-from-home days, as large open-plan offices rarely facilitate variations in their comfort settings.
In the age of the great resignation, obtaining and maintaining a quality workforce is an important task for organisations. It’s therefore essential that once an employer has attracted valuable talent, that the onboarding process is enough to keep them. Face-to-face onboarding offers a unique insight into the culture of the workplace, and really helps to facilitate bonding with the new organisation. Social identity theory tells us that we like to feel part of various groups, and this includes identifying with our workplace and colleagues. To strengthen our sense of group membership, we try to behave in ways that align with the group. However, if we really want to understand the cultural norms within the workplace, it is difficult to do this in a virtual environment.
This is not to say that effective onboarding is impossible in a remote working environment. The key to successful onboarding is promoting a strong organisational culture. Organisations must be cognisant of the vast amount of unofficial onboarding that takes place over lunch, at the water cooler, through informal conversations, and simply by having the ability to physically see how things are done by our colleagues. With that in mind, it’s important to ensure that as little as possible is left to the employee to figure out. Research has shown that having easy access to the right information, and obtaining feedback efficiently, are paramount for a smooth onboarding experience. Organisational membership provides unspoken support for employees, as this demonstrates a sense of belonging. The importance of socialisation and how this is facilitated should not be understated, with a structured and long-term approach, that builds and strengthens relationships over time, a preferred and effective method.
Almost three years after our first experience of lockdown, many of us that switched to home working will now be highly proficient in one or more of the widely available communication platforms, such as Teams or Slack, for example. Yet while these tools have been nothing short of a godsend in getting us through remote working, do they offer the same level of communication as being in the office, seeing someone face to face? Human communication and interaction goes far beyond the written and spoken word, and relies heavily on non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, or facial expression, for example. Often, what we take from an interaction requires availability of context. Remote working often requires us to be able to read between the lines, and for that reason there is a frequent risk of misinterpretation.
An important facet of a workplace is the availability of our colleagues, and the ease with which we can turn to our neighbour for a quick question or clarification. There is a legitimate concern that remote working removes this ability and greatly reduces these impromptu information sharing interactions. Somewhat surprisingly, research we recently conducted at BAD tells us that remote working actually strengthened the quality of these interactions, as no longer were employees limited to asking advice from the handful of people that sit in their vicinity in the office, but could now target their questions to a wider range of individuals using their Teams App , resulting in better responses on their queries.
Isolation has been identified as one of the key challenges to managing a remote workforce. The use of technology has been found to go some way to alleviate feelings of isolation through regular interaction with colleagues and teams. Research has shown that social isolation contributes to psychological distress in employees, as workers are greatly limited in their access to social resources. Feelings of isolation can also result in reduced engagement, demonstrating a potential for a negative knock-on effect. It is therefore important to take every opportunity to circumvent this. To reduce perceived isolation, it is recommended that face-to-face communication is encouraged, and it’s the responsibility of leaders to create opportunities for employees to connect with each other.
Recent years have, rightly, seen an increase in the acknowledgement of the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Psychological safety – the ability to be oneself in the workplace without fear of discrimination or other negative consequences as a result of image, status, identity – is crucial for workplace wellbeing. Psychologically safe work environments strengthen group dynamics, resulting in more positive outcomes for both the workforce and the organisation. Monitoring and facilitating psychological safety in an office environment can pose a certain degree of challenge for leaders, but this is made easier when team members and their interactions are visible within the workplace.
Remote working means that it is difficult to ensure that the working environment offers psychological safety for all employees, as it is difficult to monitor all interactions and their impacts. Managers have reported the challenges associated with noticing and interpreting subtle signals from employees during online meetings. It is also difficult to identify possible unconscious bias, particularly as some employees will be naturally more noticeable and outspoken than others, meaning that is it likely that there could be an unequal allocation of attention. This can be alleviated through setting expectations for equal interaction time, as well as calling out any incidences where others are prevented from expressing themselves. This approach sets a precedent and creates norms around equality and fairness. Facilitating self-expression where disclosure is encouraged is an important task that leaders and organisations can undertake to bolster psychological safety, and the first step is setting the example by being open as a leader, as this will encourage employees to follow suit and not feel inhibited by the working from home environment.
The dramatic shift to remote work has meant that managers and supervisors have had to trust in their team members’ ability and inclination to carry out their roles in the absence of their physical presence to oversee tasks. This change has had varying impacts across roles and individuals. For example, in some cases, managers have felt somewhat redundant away from the office environment. During the first year of the pandemic, it was reported that about 40% of supervisors and managers experienced low self-confidence in their ability to manage their teams working from home. In some cases, this has led to attempts to micro-manage, and constant requirements of proof of availability of the employee. Overall, managers have a more negative view of remote work than other employees. However, over time as managers have settled into the new regime, some of the benefits have become more apparent. It has resulted in development of new skills, and opportunities to collaborate and exchange knowledge beyond previously perceived boundaries due to availability and normalisation of online communication.
The last couple of years have taught us that employees want to be able to choose where to work. This is a sensible approach to follow, as giving employees this autonomy demonstrates trust, which increases employee satisfaction and in turn leads to greater commitment and productivity. It’s important to recognise that not every employee wants to work from home, due to some of the reasons outlined above, and may prefer the structure of the office, either all or some of the time. While some of us excel at working remotely, there are also many of us that struggle with being left to our own devices at home. Research has cited many reasons for why employees prefer to remain in the office, such as routine, interaction, and the visibility of seniors for support purposes. Employees that have been given the greatest autonomy, i.e. full choice over where to work, have reported the greatest levels of mental well-being, work-life balance, motivation, and trust.
A Hybrid Future?
While by and large working life has mostly returned to ‘normal’ for those that wish to be back in the office, we also need to be mindful of the still looming, albeit less severe, existence of the pandemic. Although restrictions are lifted and for many the pandemic is a distant memory, a substantial number of people still wish to engage in protective behaviours for a variety of reasons. As with any behaviour-related strategy, rarely does a ‘one size fits all’ approach work.
With that in mind, employers and organisations should think flexibly, consider what format of working environment works best for each employee, and whether it is possible to facilitate this without any detriment to the quality of work being produced or to other employees. After all, employees’ willingness to be instantaneously adaptable is the key reason that many organisations not only survived, but thrived, during the pandemic.
It is no secret that it is very much an employee’s market at the minute, and organisations may have to go the extra mile to keep their staff happy. It’s abundantly clear that providing the option of a positive hybrid working culture is a win-win for all. This way, employees can be asked to attend the office where necessary, such as during onboarding or training periods or for client meetings, for example, but will ultimately leave the choice in the hands of the employee as to where they carry out their day-to-day activities. This reflects back to the importance of autonomy, which is one of the biggest contributors to employee satisfaction and productivity, and shows individuals that they are trusted and valued members of staff.
At BestAtDigital, we can help you overcome the barriers to effective hybrid working and create a positive hybrid working culture. If you want to find out more about our unique approach of combining effective digital design with behavioural science, get in touch.
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