To Make Hybrid Work, Solicit Employees’ Input

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As employers establish their hybrid-work plans, they need to get serious about adapting to employees’ needs by soliciting their input along the way. With workers having so many options in terms of workplaces, they’re unlikely to stay employed long at an organization that doesn’t value their opinions. The author offers specific questions to ask to get the input you need from your employees.

The hybrid workforce will introduce flexibility that millions of people never had before the pandemic. Already, we’re seeing new experiments in how people work with the increasingly popular three-days-in-the-office, two-days-remote workweek. This hybrid work model covers place, but companies need to start paying more attention to process and, most important, people. No matter the hybrid work configurations they end up favoring, employers must get serious about adapting to employees’ needs by soliciting their input along the way.

The business case is clear: At a time when competition for talent is great, creating an organizational structure that doesn’t include the employees’ preferences can result in turnover, as employees leave for greater opportunity and engagement, and difficulty attracting ideal candidates. More and more, employee relationships and feedback are critical to organizations’ success. Companies that lend support to workers’ entire employee life experience — offering flexibility, building deeper employer-employee connections, and creating a shared purpose — see better employee well-being and produce 21% more high performers, according to Gartner research. Despite the benefits, some organizations will struggle with engaging all employees in such essential feedback and decision-making.

Yet it can be done. It starts with the company expecting its leaders to 1) know their work teams and the work performed, 2) understand how the team impacts other areas of the organization, and 3) run their piece of the operation as a small company that can flex to meet customers’ needs. Involvement in all major decisions (which can simply mean input and feedback) creates the feeling of value that causes people to remain with an organization. It’s not a nice-to-do; it’s a must-do.

It’s also essential for U.S. employers to embrace a variety of hybrid work options; more than ever, it is becoming widely recognized that one size doesn’t fit all. With the hybrid workforce among us, we’ll start to see businesses testing out their own systems that work best for their cultures. Time will tell which businesses will succeed with their hybrid structures and which won’t, and because we as a society tend to look toward successful companies to emulate their processes, market and business trends will force continued attention to the success of a given approach.

Why Managers Should Start Input-Soliciting Conversations

With workers having so many options in terms of workplaces, they’re unlikely to stay employed long at an organization that doesn’t value their opinions. Although it’s idealistic for managers to try to meet each person’s individual needs, leaders who have more flexibility to work with their teams (versus merely executing a corporate edict) are better equipped to increase retention. Of course, top leadership needs to understand the value of employee feedback for managers to be so empowered.

Recently, I spoke with the president of a large company who had established a 50/50 policy — half remote and half in-office work — with the positive intention of blending organizational requirements with the workforce’s desire for flexibility. The approach had encountered a few hiccups. For example, one staff member was needed in the office but declined to come in because it was a scheduled remote workday. This, of course, is unacceptable — tantamount to saying, “it’s not my job.” So expectations needed to be clarified. Another issue was that newer employees hired during the pandemic weren’t advancing as fast in performance as employees who were onboarded in person.

Fortunately, this leader values employee input and is open to using it to improve the policy. When talking, we thought about a practice of having new people work full-time on-site for the first month or two — whatever worked best. In the end, the company leader decided that the 50/50 policy was a great start and should be viewed as an evolving situation using clear expectations combined with feedback and suggestions from the workforce.

Those stipulations of recurring feedback and clear expectations are key to a policy’s success. If you’re a manager who needs to facilitate closer employee-employer collaboration around hybrid work policies, start with these steps for establishing schedules and making ongoing adjustments:

1. Learn your team members’ circumstances for flourishing.

The adage to “keep a professional distance from your employees” is anathema to creating a great culture. Research has established that relationships with bosses and supervisors are essential to employees’ job satisfaction and, as a result, well-being. Supervisors can’t afford to fall short in cultivating this relationship when steering a team through the transition toward flexibility; they must plug in to ensure that employees are engaged.

A connected manager knows team members on a personal basis and understands the individual circumstances under which they work best and thrive as a person and a worker.

To uncover employees’ motivations, managers might ask:

  • What are your goals for the near term and long term of your career? What could stand in your way?
  • What makes you feel valued at work?
  • What do you wish you could spend less time doing?
  • What businesses processes could we update to create efficiency?
  • What tools or processes help you feel included and engaged?

To uncover employees’ needs, managers might ask:

  • Where do you feel you are the most productive: at the office headquarters, in a “third place” like a coffee shop with your co-workers, working from home, or when working across a combination of locations?
  • What work schedules best support your overall well-being?
  • What tools do you need to perform your job well?

Asking these questions and listening carefully to the answers can reveal hints about employees’ current levels of engagement and policy changes that could support or detract from that.

2. Ensure clarity on business needs, then make a schedule accordingly.

Before making any changes, ensure that the entire team is clear on the business needs for meeting customer expectations. Once those overarching business parameters are set, the team can then establish flexibility within them. Note that while creating clarity, employees adjust their performance positively or negatively to match leaders’ expectations of them — a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect. With this, it’s important to approach all conversations with an eye toward building a climate of success.

To uncover needs for productivity and collaboration, you might ask:

  • Are the team’s benchmarks, goals, and deadlines clear?
  • Do you understand what’s expected of you and what constitutes successful performance?
  • How often do you communicate across teams or with customers? During what hours do you most often overlap?

To get to the heart of individual preferences, you might ask:

  • Do you have any questions about your role in realizing the company’s vision?
  • What helps you focus? What distracts you?
  • What methods of communication work best for you when working within the team? Across teams? With customers or external stakeholders?

With a broad understanding of the team’s purpose and how it fits with the rest of the organization, a manager should be able to engage the team in finding a workable schedule that supports the company’s objectives for collaboration and productivity in combination with individual preferences.

3. Seek insights into how well the schedule is working.

With a hybrid schedule and policy in place, managers should facilitate periodic team discussions on what aspects of the schedule are working and not working. Research has found that some managers actively disregard employees’ ideas because they identify heavily with the status quo, but it’s important that leaders encourage recurring feedback and embrace policies as adjustable to meet the organization’s needs.

For example, supervisors could assemble the team once a month and ask questions such as:

  • What benefits have you seen from the hybrid policy?
  • What difficulties have you encountered?
  • Should we make any adjustments over the next quarter in how we collaborate?

It’s important to view the current state as an experiment that can be changed over time as circumstances change. If you receive rave reviews about your policy during the first quarter, don’t just set it and forget it. Continue to set follow-ups to ensure that your places, people, and policies are all aligned around the business’s goals and individuals’ needs as much as possible.

The days of top-down control and one-size-fits-all management have not only become dated, but also pose a threat to an organization’s survival in a future that rewards speed and flexibility. Ensure you maintain that flexibility by starting the conversation now and nurturing it to maintain employee engagement through every business change.

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