The role of communication in a hybrid workplace

Building a culture based on strong communication skills allows an organization to thrive, regardless of where employees are located.

As the world transitions to a new reality, leaders have wrestled with a similar question: When and how should employees come back to work? If it were just a question of health and safety — vaccination rates, new COVID cases, etc. — the decision might be more straightforward.

But after a year and a half of working from home, many workers have spoken. And their demand makes the return-to-work equation a lot more complicated.

According to a recent report by Envoy, nearly half of employees surveyed said they’d likely leave their jobs after the pandemic if their employers don’t offer a hybrid model that combines work-from-home and in-person work. An additional 41 percent said they’d be willing to take a job with a slightly lower salary if it offered a hybrid work model.

This overwhelming desire for flexibility has led to what many experts believe could be COVID’s most lasting legacy: a new, hybrid workplace.

Leading a successful transition

There’s no single ideal hybrid workplace model. What works for one organization may not work for another. That’s because, unlike most organizational change, the transition to a hybrid workforce has not been driven from the top. Rather, it’s a bottom-up movement initiated by workers.

Senior executives and HR leaders can outline new policies and procedures they believe will be a good fit for their organizations, but at the end of the day, the success of the hybrid workplace depends on employee engagement.

You can smooth the transition in your organization by helping leaders facilitate individual coaching conversations. The goal of these conversations is to ensure people feel valued; trust that their organization has their best interest; and have a schedule that allows them to be productive and engaged.

Read on for a few coaching and communication guidelines to consider as you navigate this new, hybrid workplace.

  • Listen for facts, feelings and values.

We know results in the workplace move at the speed of relationships. For work to get done better and faster, leaders must practice the most basic, essential and often overlooked skill: active listening.

When supervisors talk to their employees, they should try to understand what their employees hope to achieve from a hybrid work environment. What is really important to them and how do they want to balance their lives? Ask about their fears and concerns.

As employees answer these questions, their supervisors should remember to stay present and listen with an open mind. Throughout the discussion, the supervisor should repeat back the facts, feelings and values they’ve heard. Most listeners think it’s easiest to listen for facts, yet speakers report feeling truly heard when you restate their feelings and values. Listening for all three helps both people feel connected much quicker.

  • Encourage people to set boundaries — and set them for yourself, too.

Sometimes when people are working remotely, they feel like they live at work, not that they work from home. This was especially true during the pandemic, as organizations reorganized or reduced their workforces and the employees who remained had to keep the ships afloat.

While survivable in short bursts, this type of energy expenditure is not sustainable. In order to be resilient, employees must be able to manage their own boundaries and recognize the boundaries of others.

During coaching conversations, supervisors should ask employees to identify and communicate their boundaries. Supervisors should recognize that boundaries depend on the person and will be different depending on where people are in their lives and their careers. Most importantly, supervisors should demonstrate trust by respecting their employees’ downtime.

  • Prioritize equity.

Most employees understand not all positions can be remote, or even hybrid. Still, they expect equal access to resources and opportunities, regardless of whether they’re working at home or in the office.

In coaching conversations, supervisors should be transparent about the criteria your organization is using to determine which jobs require people to be in the office. They should also share information about career advancement opportunities and investments in leadership development.

  • Be flexible.

For most organizations, the hybrid workplace is uncharted territory that warrants thoughtful consideration and planning. What works in the new environment may be different from what worked when you were remote last year. Rather than approaching it as an extension of working remotely during the pandemic, think of it as a shift into a new workplace. Leaders who are learning agile — in other words, those who learn from experience and apply those learnings in new ways — will be most successful in navigating the transition.

Building a culture based on strong communication skills will allow your organization to thrive, regardless of where your employees are located. Encourage your leaders to listen to their people and adapt as boundaries and values shift over time.