From control to trust: hybrid working reveals new rules

It’s the topic of the moment, the source of our anxieties and a great opportunity for change. We’re talking about the move from remote to hybrid working. It’s a chance to bring together the best of both worlds as we move into the next phase of our working lives.

The initial change was relatively straightforward: we went from “everyone in the office” to “nearly everyone at home”. It was a change that took place from one day to another, something which we would never have imagined to be possible. It was a true “evolution” that nobody expected, triggered by external factors.

But now the ball is in our court: after we’ve seen plan A and plan B, we can now choose the path we want to take going forward. We have all the tools we need to change the things that didn’t work previously. We can also learn from the things that didn’t work after the start of the pandemic. The things that paralyzed us, such as organizations and traditional systems that resist change. We can resist going back to the errors of our ways.

Lots of researchers are talking about this as a “fragile” time. We’re halfway between an old mindset and a new one. We’re still looking for our own ways forward, running the risk of losing resources and energy along the way. It’s a risk that companies just can’t afford to take.

Professor Tsedal Neeley has been studying remote, virtual and global work for over 20 year. In March, she published the book “Remote work revolution”, commenting in a recent article:

All or nothing is easy, when everyone is in the office or working remotely. But we’re talking about a mix with hybrid work, entering into a grey zone where people ask themselves “what will the final version be?”. It’s comfortable to think about temporary ways of working, but it becomes difficult if we think about what our long term working patterns will look like, and how to move them in the right direction.

The professor talks about how to tolerate this new level of responsibility and move forward into a new era of evolution.

1) how many colleagues have talked about the pandemic being like spending 40 days at sea, but working more and better than ever? We’ve always known that flexibility boosts productivity, but this unexpected strike of independence has really allowed people to find their own ways of working. It’s allowed them to express creativity in the everyday, trying things that they would usually have been too scared of making mistakes from, to talk openly about their mistakes. The sea view (to continue the analogy) helps them to work better. But many companies have asked people not to work on holiday, some even going so far as to make remote working difficult on Fridays to discourage people from moving around. But what happens to the 70% of people that found themselves more productive through the pandemic?

2) this morning a banking friend told me about how being able to work from a different region allowed him to stay closer to his mother during a difficult time when she’d broken her leg. It’s just one of the thousand cases where remote working has allowed us to rediscover our family and caring dimensions, allowing us to be present while staying productive, and to feel proud of ourselves for the ability to be many things at the same time. We can see more layers of humanity, tolerating and welcoming areas that were traditionally off limits, such as working hours and physical spaces for meetings. We’re moving closer to our working roles, and our companies too.

Research has shown that openly encouraging people to move in this direction helps to build trust amongst colleagues. It also helps employees to feel more engaged at work, as they feel seen and valued. Does this increase loyalty towards the company? Of course it does.

3) “I’m not sleeping well, I’m feeling anxious because I feel like I’ve lost control”: there are so many managers that are feeling like this at the moment. Bringing people back to the office might help to calm their anxieties about losing control, if we think about the presenteeism paradigm. So many companies are reducing remote working to two or three days per week, perhaps even limited to half days (which makes no sense if we think about productivity), with top down guidance from companies to workers. Negotiation has taken on a form of control, but there’s something much more important lying beneath. It’s the battle for trust.

All of the data that we can see show that people feel it when they are forced to go back to the office. They say: you trusted me during the pandemic, why don’t you trust me any more?

In the complexity between the before and the after, we’ve found ourselves in a technological abyss where we can choose when and how we want to work. The only key that we have to finding the answers is trust. We need to keep trusting our colleagues, workers and even ourselves. We need to trust in our ability to be independent and responsible, knowing how to do our jobs and finding new ways to improve, to be okay with not being governed and controlled. We don’t even treat our children like that any more.

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here